Viewpoint: Applying ‘be the best second best’ to managing people

Karl Fischer
Guest Columnist

Felisha Legette-Jack — the women’s basketball coach at the University at Buffalo (my alma mater) and a tremendous developer of people — recently said “Be the best second best.” When I shared this quote with my adult son, he took it as saying it’s OK to lose. Quite the contrary, if we are to win as a team, department or division, everyone must be perform at their highest or “best” potential.

Coaching is about maximizing the performance of people. Most of us have gone through the year-end or mid-year review process at some point. Many organizations ultimately rank our teams based on actual performance.

We identify our best, second best and so on, and our one-to-one discussions often focus on areas of opportunity. To be the best second best you can be, and raise the effectiveness of our teams, a culture of coaching is needed.

Coaching vs. managing

As leaders, we manage the efforts of others every day. This process is critical but the approaches to managing and coaching are different.

  • Managing is focused on the task; coaching is focused on the person.

  • Management involves directing the task while coaching involves leading
    the person.

Coaching and management are not mutually exclusive. We manage day to day, and we coach to optimize our day to day for the long haul. Over time, I have found there are several key attributes
to a successful coaching program:

  • Coaching is an interaction, not a transaction. You need to create a dialogue and coach using open-ended questions and help them become more self-aware. Coaching should be done in a neutral setting.

  • Coaching places accountability on the individual to create his or her own development plan. A development plan designed to address opportunities, with coaching guidance, becomes part of regular coaching sessions. These plans create accountability and engagement.

  • Coaching becomes part of the culture and is supported top down. A coaching culture is a journey and requires investments in time, talent and team.

Skill and will applies to managers too

Instilling a coaching-centric culture must start with adoption and engagement by the management team. Key barriers to this deal with manager skill, manager will and manager time. 

  • Skill: Leaders have often moved through the ranks to management based on their individual skills. Now, as leaders, we expect these new managers to evaluate, provide constructive feedback and to hold someone else other than themselves accountable.

  • Will: It can be a challenge to address the “what’s in it for me?” mindset. Improvements from coaching can take time to see. The immediacy of impact may bias some managers. A recent study by Bersin & Associates revealed that organizations that coach effectively performed 21% higher than organizations that don’t “coach” and employee retention was better.

  • Time: A manager’s day is often overloaded and now we ask them to commit one hour per person per month to coaching. Who do we target for coaching? Focusing most effort on top and mid-level performers can deliver the greatest impact. Top performers are often overlooked. However, they have the greatest potential and drive to improve. Mid-level performers with potential offer another area to raise the bar.

The time is now

Mid-year reviews are done and delivered and now, if you are like most other companies on a fiscal year end, you will be coming right back and stack ranking your people or your organization. This is a great time to engage in a coaching discipline starting with the year-end discussions. Ask your people to implement a development plan as part of the year-end discussion and work it into your monthly management routines. Perhaps Toni Curl summed it up best in his book “Seriously Simple Stuff to Get You Unstuck” when he states “Start maximizing what you have, instead of worrying what you don’t have.”


Karl Fischer is a Delaware-based consultant with experience at MBNA, Bank of America, Aetna, and MetLife. He focuses on business transformation by focusing on people, partnerships, process, platform and production. 

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