The employee lifecycle seems a fairly straightforward thing when considered in isolation: onboarding, development, retention and exit. While this trajectory could be broken down into smaller parts, it generally represents what we’ve come to expect from an employee’s tenure at an organization. But what becomes hugely helpful to employers is when they start taking into account how the coaching relationship contextualizes and even drives this lifecycle.
In a sales context, coaching relationships are comprised of three stages: the supervisory relationship (occurring during onboarding and early development), mentorship (mid-development) and partnership (later development and retention). These stages typically occur in succession but will also frequently oscillate until arriving at partnership. Ultimately, steady progress through them helps determine the health and direction of the employee lifecycle, for good or bad. For employers, that means paying close attention to this progress, and mitigating stagnation at any point serves to improve overall retention and organizational growth. What follows is a snapshot of what each stage should look like and what to do if you get stuck.
Stage One: The Supervisory Relationship
When operating in a supervisory capacity, the coach generally focuses on organizational policies and processes, administrative expectations, product and sales knowledge, and other day-to-day activities to help a new employee get up and running smoothly. In other words, during the onboarding and early development phases, the coach is building employee confidence and independence, and laying the foundation for higher-level work down the line.
Hypothetically, if an employee struggles to close deals in stage one, the coach has at least two options. Often, coaches might simply recommend a specific solution and offer action steps to help the employee close the deal. This directive approach would be particularly helpful for an inexperienced employee who doesn’t have the knowledge base yet to resolve the issue themselves. Alternatively, the coach might take the lead, successfully winning the account while modeling best practices for the employee. In this scenario, the employee gets to see how it’s done firsthand and then apply a similar approach to future opportunities.
There’s one major caveat, though: With the long-term goal in mind, encouraging employees’ critical thinking skills and relative autonomy is a vital component that nudges the employee toward each of the next phases. This means that at some point a transition must occur where the coach loosens her grip on the reigns and allows the employee to make mistakes and learn from them.
Stage Two: Mentorship
Once a coach has moved beyond stage one, they’re beginning to zero in on a deeper understanding of the sales process and refine the employee’s skills. At the heart of the developmental phase of the employee lifecycle, mentorship prepares employees to critically engage on a larger, more strategic scale. It tends to shy away from basic day-to-day tasks or rudimentary skills and emphasize competency development (like greater personal accountability or conceptual thinking).
In our hypothetical scenario, if an employee at this stage struggles with closing a particular deal, the coach’s response looks quite different from stage one. Rather than solving the problem for the employee, the coach might engage in a conversation, asking the employee to give their perspective and guiding them toward a workable solution. But, the employee usually makes the final decision and takes action. The coach steps back, allowing the employee to take more risks and learn from their failures and successes.
When done well, mentorship propels an employee toward more agency within their company — in other words, toward stage three.
Stage Three: Partnership
Once the coach-employee relationship merges into a partnership, we tend to see greater degrees of both autonomy and decision-making power. This stage aligns with the retention phase of the employee lifecycle, where problem solving is more cooperative and rarely, if ever, directive (the inverse of stage one. The coach focuses on advanced skill sets, preparing the career path within the company and helping employees move toward filling a mentor role themselves.
At this stage, the employee is largely successful in their work. But if they run into trouble with a particularly challenging prospect and they’re concerned about winning the customer, the problem-solving process looks vastly different from stage one. The coach is there for outside feedback, but the ultimate solution and decision lie with the employee. And the problem-solving conversations with their coach are more collaborative and almost never directive.
Successfully navigating your way through the coach-employee relationship is crucial for long-term success and sustainable growth. But the worst thing that can happen is getting stuck at either of the first two stages. It’s especially bad if you can’t seem to move past the supervisory stage. Getting stuck here transforms employers into babysitters as employees grow dependent on micromanagement (i.e., a kind of learned helplessness). This, in turn, can zap the coach’s energy and their own progress within the company, and it often leads to employee frustration, resentment, disillusionment and disengagement.
There are many factors that contribute to getting stuck in any given stage. For instance, sometimes employees simply don’t want to grow; they don’t have a mindset of development. Other times, the manager might lack the skills to coach effectively (which can be addressed with training or coaching), or the willingness to develop their own skill set. Occasionally, the organization itself might not fully support coaching and making it a priority. And sometimes, the workplace culture is rife with inequities. The reality is that a toxic work culture, even with great coaching, will disrupt the employee lifecycle.
The point here is that the contributing factors that lead to getting stuck are vast. Resources such as personal assessments and training can be valuable in identifying and resolving key problem areas in your organization. These tools help coaches at all stages uncover what’s standing in the way of that mentor or partner relationship, and they cultivate the coaching skill set needed to onboard, develop, and retain top-performing employees.
Ultimately, however you choose to improve your coaching relationships at your company, the first step is to begin seeing coaching as developmental and not just about getting the deal in the door. This growth mindset prepares you and your organization for more long-term, sustainable success and usually extends the retention phase of the employee lifecycle.