Coaching for Performance

State governments aren’t particularly known for their success rates in using resources efficiently to produce good results. That said, at least one notable exception exists when we all learn how to drive a car. In that area, most states have the system down cold for helping new drivers get around safely and effectively.

When we attend a typical class and try to learn something, it usually goes something like this: Someone with some level of expertise facilities the course. That person decides what knowledge is important and spends lots of time lecturing about the key things we need to know. Often, we are tested on our knowledge through homework, papers, exams, and class participation. At the end of the class we get a grade that, in theory at least, measures the success of what we’ve learned.

Coaching for Performance 1The problem with this traditional model is that it doesn’t encourage or measure behavior change. That’s not a big deal if we’re learning to appreciate 18th century literature, but it becomes a huge issue if we’re driving a motor vehicle and haven’t learned to put our new knowledge into practice. Of course, most state governments already know this, and they’ve developed a fine system to address this challenge.

Here’s how they ensure that new knowledge translates into behavior change during the driver’s education process, and how we can learn from it to coach and develop others:


Unlike most of the school classes I attended when I was a teenager, I could barely wait to start the first day of driver’s education class. Many of my friends were already driving, and I had a very clear picture of how learning to drive would be of great benefit to my independence and social activities. Nothing was going to keep me from graduating from the class as quickly and successfully as possible.

Activation is probably the most important step in the learning process. When an individual has activated their readiness to learn, very little will stop them. This usually isn’t an issue when teenagers are learning to drive. However, it’s a big issue in professional development. As leaders and coaches, we don’t often take time to activate an individual’s excitement and passion for learning a new skill.

It’s essential that as leaders and coaches, we communicate up front with individuals to learn about their current skill set, discuss the benefit to them of enhancing that skill set, and a link those skills to the areas that are significant to their long-term goals. Failure to do this can mean that you get the same level of commitment to the learning process as I had with high school physics. I learned it because I had to in order to satisfy a requirement, but I only make the minimum investment needed in order to get a decent grade in the class.


I remember the first day of driver’s education class. Furthermore, I was super excited to get there and start driving. I didn’t realize until I arrived that they don’t even let you near a car until you are a week or two into the classroom portion of the course.

Once we had a firm understanding of the rules of the road, they tested us several times on different skills to ensure that we remembered exactly what we had been taught. Only then did we graduate to the vehicle portion of the class.

When developing someone, we have to provide that individual with a framework and understanding of the skill first before we ask them to take action. Without that foundation, they have no context for the actions they will take as part of the learning process. In addition, we want them to learn from those that have already developed past knowledge, rather than have them spend valuable time and resources reinventing knowledge that already exists.

We can use various methods to verify that understanding is present, including conversation, observation, or even testing. Verifying understanding is critical, so it saves both them and us from undue frustration later in the process.


As soon as I passed that last exam in the driver’s education classroom, they handed me the keys to the car and said, “Have at it – good luck!”

We all know that didn’t happen. In fact, I distinctly remember never leaving the parking lot for the first “driving session.” Probably the first thirty minutes or so was a lecture from the instructor in the car reminding my friend Andrea and me all about the rules of the road and then gradually having us practice some very basic skills like backing up, turning, and parking in a parking space (multiple times, I might add).

Here’s the thing: I had been a passenger in a car all my life. It looked easy. I mean, how hard can it be to park a car in a parking spot, right? Turns out the first time you do, it’s not so easy. In fact, I remember being a bit surprised at my lack of ability to maneuver the vehicle perfectly the first time around. The whole time, the instructor was coaching us by giving both positive reinforcement and interrupting at the right times to correct poor behavior before it became a habit.

I knew what to do, but the actual behavior took several tries to get right. Same situation when you are developing somebody else. Just because the knowledge is correct in their minds doesn’t mean that the resulting actions are appropriate. If you’re not there to provide positive reinforcement and correction during those times, they develop bad habits that could stay with them their entire careers or lives. Active coaching is key at this stage of the learning process.


After a full series of driving sessions, I eventually graduated from driving school and received my license. Later that day, I took out my mom’s Chrysler Concorde for the first time by myself.

However, even though I was as fully licensed to drive as any other person, I still was spending lots of mental energy to remember everything I had learned. That entire first solo drive, I was carefully remembering each rule and procedure, mostly out of fear that I would do anything leading to an accident or damage to my mom’s car.  In the coming months, I would learn valuable lessons from the occasional near-miss and varied weather conditions on the road. Plus, I’d still get some occasional coaching from my parents when they were in the car.

Gradually, the coaching and driving experience built the confidence that I didn’t have when I first received my license. I consciously thought about the rules of the road less and less, as good habits laid a strong foundation for my lifelong driving skills.

When we are developing others, this stage can one of the longest and most frustrating for the leader or coach. That’s because nothing takes the place of experience and allowing people to make some of their own mistakes and learn from working independently. We can still jump in a provided limited coaching when appropriate, but we also need to step back and allow the individual to take primary ownership for their own skill development at this point.

Coaching for Performance 2Master

We’re at the point in life where our insurance company actually provides a discount for the number of years we have been driving. Certainly, it doesn’t mean that we still don’t occasionally make a mistake now and then on the road. However, for the most part, we get into the car in the morning and don’t give a second thought to the rules of the road. We don’t have to…we’ve been so proficient for so many years that it now is a matter of just an occasional refinement and adjustment when we make a mistake. The skill is almost fully mastered. In fact, with some resources and structures, we could probably teach others.

This is exactly the point that you want others to eventually reach. The timelines vary substantially with the skill being learned. Learning a new ordering system might take days or weeks to master. Learning to master more complex skill sets like customer service or sales could take years.

The key for all of us is to recognize the importance of all five stages in the skill development process. Failure to spend adequate time activating, understanding, or coaching for new skills might shorten the development timeline, but ultimately leads to reduced performance and bad habits.

When it matters that people learn things correctly for the long-term (like is does when we’re learning a complex skill like driving) let’s take the example from the DMV and embrace each of these steps for the best possible outcomes.

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