Though I was trained to lead at West Point and led men in combat as a lieutenant in the Army, I was still a baby when it came to recognizing a problem on my team, coaching it and documenting it appropriately in the corporate world.

The Story

I hired Tory myself (name changed).  He had the talent to be a top salesperson.  He had the gift of gab and people were naturally drawn to him.  In fact, we were a lot alike, and I enjoyed spending time with him.

The first time I noticed it, I raised an eyebrow and forgot about it.  A month later, there it was again.  I was thinking it through when my cell phone rang and I moved to a more urgent issue.

When In Doubt: Document

By the third time, I questioned Tory and got a plausible explanation. These casual coaching discussions and promises to change continued until his career blew up in front of me – one year after I first noticed the issue.

I do things differently now.  I needed to get burned by an employee or two before I realized I needed to change my approach.  I began to document my coaching earlier and as a result avoided more stories like Tory’s.

7 Ways I’d Handle Tory Differently

1.    The first time can be a mistake.

Everyone makes mistakes.  In fact, I want my people to make mistakes as long as they learn from them.  All true learning comes through mistakes.

2.    The second time raises my concern.

Now this is something that needs deliberate coaching and at least a follow-up e-mail.  I want to understand that Tory understands the issue and say that in the e-mail:  “Thanks for your commitment to change this from now on.”

3.    The third time is a pattern.

This confirms Tory has a more deeply seated issue than I originally thought.  Since I confirmed understanding during previous coaching, there are three plausible explanations.

  1. Tory needs more focused coaching.
  2. Tory is unable to change.
  3. Tory is unwilling to change.

I document that this is a pattern of behavior observed and coached on previous occasions.  I always include the dates of those discussions and a mutually agreed upon plan for improvement.  Again I send a follow-up email to Tory saying:  “You agreed that you will implement this plan and that you believe it will result in the changes that are needed.”

4.    Competency can be coached.  Character rarely can.

Competency is coachable.  As long as I know the Tory is intellectually able to learn new skills, then I have a lot of hope.  However, I have rarely seen someone demonstrating flawed character, change their stripes in these situations.

Tory’s character issue was integrity.  Most character issues are obvious:  integrity, attitude and work ethic.  Some are less obvious.  Be aware that even though the issue may present itself as a skills issue.  It can morph into a character issue when someone is not coachable.

5.    Document every coaching discussion.

Every discussion with Tory, whether it is a formal review or a phone conversation, needs to be documented in some way.  Formal reviews or coaching sessions are usually face-to-face and seem logical to document.  However, I follow impromptu phone coaching with emails:  “It was good talking to you today.  I appreciate the update and your commitment to continue working the plan we implemented last month.”

6.    Document facts not opinions.

Nothing could derail a potentially good coaching situation or the efficient dismissal of Tory more than my use of opinion and conjecture in my documentation process.  Stick to the facts of the situation.


  • Document your feelings:  “I am upset with your performance.”
  • Document opinions:  “You are stubborn and lack the integrity I thought you had.”


  • Document observed behaviors:  “On March 31, you documented a call on clients in Denver even though you called me that same day from Dallas.”
  • Document facts, data, and coaching dates:  “The week ending March 31, you failed to meet the minimum number of sales calls per week that we established in the plan you agreed to on February 7, 2012.

7.    If you are documenting it, coach it until it is fixed.

While Tory may have other issues that need attention, I can not be distracted by them until this primary issue changes.  The only time I would change or add to my coaching documentation is if I observe a more serious or impactful issue.

The Bottom Line:

By adopting these practices, I became a better coach.  My people received timely and impactful coaching.  If it was a skill issue they were able and willing to change, they grew personally and results improved.

Conversely, if it was an integrity issue, that person left the team more efficiently.  My team did not suffer through a long drawn out process because of my poor coaching habits.  The process was not drawn out and my documentation protected both me and my company.


Leaders:  Have you made mistakes in the past like mine? What are your best tips for documenting performance?