5 Tips for Coaching Employees to Improve Performance (Or How To Achieve Extreme Performance!)

“A great adventure racing team operates on four brains, eight legs, eight arms … and one heart.” — World Class Teams Motto

Great teams follow people, not orders. As a World Champion Adventure Racer, I competed in the most remote places on earth with mixed gender teams of 5 people in “expedition length” (8-10 day, non-stop) races like the Eco Challenge, Raid Gauloises, and Primal Quest. 

The most successful teams I competed on over my 17 years of racing were the ones that formed the closest personal connections.

That close connection wasn’t made by crossing the finish line first, but rather it was made in the worst of times, in the most difficult challenges, when one of us (sometimes me) was tired, exhausted, broken down, and ready to give up. That’s when a teammate would reach out with a kind word, hold my hand, carry my pack for a bit while I recovered, and make all the difference in our performance. 

When you show someone that they are a friend and member of your tribe versus merely a co-worker, they will always go the extra mile for you— figuratively and literally.

Why you need empathy for extreme performance

You need real empathy to achieve extreme performance. Empathy is achieved when you have “double vision”— you not only see the world through your own personal lens, you are able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and view the situation from their perspective. 

The moment you do that, you make a true connection with a human being and stop treating them as a position, department, or company. It’s this personal connection that makes the sale, changes someone’s mind, and inspires someone to go to great lengths to help you and your organization succeed because they know you care.

1. Handling Performance Issues – Coach versus Criticize

Things go wrong. At work, we lose direction, get lost, and sometimes fail. When you’re

depending on someone to finish their part of a project (sales report, spreadsheet, etc.) and they don’t follow through, it can be very frustrating. You get justifiably angry, but do you think yelling at your colleague will get them to help you? 

When your voice goes up, people shut down or get defensive. Neither reaction will help with getting the work done. To get the best from someone, you don’t point a finger… you extend a hand. Maybe you take a moment to consider why your colleague or client didn’t come through. What were their problems, life circumstances, and time pressures? Was there something you could do to be a great teammate and help their process along?

When you use empathy, you become a coach instead of a critic, and you gain a teammate

versus an opponent. Not to mention the fact that when you genuinely care about someone and do what you can to help them to reach a goal and succeed, especially in their toughest times, you have a friend and a fan for life! Who can ever have too many of those?!

2. Remember that We Work for People, not for Companies

We get hired by companies, but we work for people. You may be hired by a corporation, but the person you see every day is, for example, Samantha, your supervisor. The company may send you your paycheck, but Samantha knows if you’re sick, when your kid has a birthday, when you landed a sale, or when you’re dealing with low productivity and need help.

I was reminded of this when I was battling a fire in October 2007 with my crew at the San Diego Fire Department. Sometimes, battling fires can seem like an anonymous process. One burning house looks like another.

But at this particular fire, as I was pulling my hose across the front lawn of a home that had just caught fire in the eaves of the roof, I came across some framed photos that a family had

dropped while running for their lives. These family photos made an instant connection with me. 

This was no longer an anonymous house. I was suddenly working for the Smiths, the photogenic people laughing in a photo on their honeymoon cruise, and their children, Suzie and Billy, who were smiling in their school photos. I was immediately compelled to save THIS house! So I got on the radio and called my crew over – and we saved it. 

To this day, they probably don’t know why their house was one of the only homes on their block to survive. But because of their chance scattering of family photos on their race to evacuate, we were no longer working for the San Diego Fire Department, we were working for a family that needed our help.

Never underestimate the power of the human connection. When you’re the type of leader who catches someone’s heart and mind by genuinely and deeply caring for them and those that they love, they will always go the extra mile and climb the highest mountain to help you and your organization succeed.

3. The Importance of the Aluminum Can Theory

The Aluminum Can Theory is an entertaining concept created by Alan Brunacini, one of the

most inspiring and engaging Fire Chiefs in history (and one of my personal heroes). 

He said, “When you have a disagreement with someone on your crew and you’re compelled to go right to the one terrible comment that you know will take them to their knees. Remember that comment is an aluminum can – it’s going to stay in the environment forever.”

World Class Teams never let those aluminum cans come between teammates. They consistently avoid gossip, criticism, and backstabbing, as those behaviors will destroy a hard-won trust.

Conversely, there are Positive Aluminum Cans (i.e., giving a teammate feedback about how impactful, amazing, or talented they are and why), and great teammates will share them in abundance.

4. Mentor unselfishly

When I worked in pharmaceutical sales, the top sales person was always sharing his sales tips. Month after month, he would email us his secrets and insights and still remained on top. I wondered how he could stay on top by helping everyone else? 

So one day I asked him. He said every time he sent out his tips, he would get a dozen or more tips in reply from other sales people that would help him improve and achieve better results.

World Class teammates understand the power of sharing knowledge. They are consistently bringing one another up to speed on best practices, skills, the latest techniques, and new discoveries. Everyone gets better…together. 

Always be wary of “teammates” who derive their power by knowing things that others don’t know.

5. The Goal is to Seek synergy everywhere

Finally, if you want to be a world class leader, always look to create synergy in every interaction – even outside the immediate team.

In our six-to-ten-day adventure races, the key to winning was to create distance from the rest of the pack as soon as possible. Then, once there was a small group of top teams at the front of the pack, about 12-24 hours into the race, we’d all start collaborating.  The best and brightest teams knew that the way to get a gap on the rest of the field and close that door on the bulk of the competition was to start sharing navigation and making the best collective decisions. The rising tide we created raised all ships. Once we knew the race was down to the few top teams, and some kind of natural break was made between us, i.e. one team would stop to sleep, we’d all start racing again. It happened every race! 

We see this in business every day. For example, in the NFL, teams compete on the field but share the profits from TV deals and merchandising equally. The tech industry agrees to standards like USB so everyone can easily develop devices that will work with all computers and phones. Through my keynote speaking, I’ve seen the speaker’s bureau industry collaborate by marketing and sharing exclusive speakers so both bureaus and the speaker make money.

Remember these five rules when you are managing people and working with your teams. Success is not about the individual; it’s about everyone looking out for each other and accepting responsibility for success and “challenges” as a team. If there’s one thing we learned out there in our 20 years of Adventure Racing, it’s that the African Proverb really is true… “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go FAR, go together!