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How to Turn Employee Setbacks into Comebacks

by Mike Esposito, President and CEO, Auto/Mate Dealership Systems

12-13-16When employees make mistakes, lose a deal or seem to be harboring a bad attitude, what’s a leader to do? Yell at them, write them off or fire them? Or, do you try to turn their setback into a comeback?

When I was General Manager of a large dealership, we had a rule that a salesperson must always take the test drive with a customer. One day, somehow, a customer talked one of our salespeople into letting them take the test drive alone. Somehow that customer’s license was never copied. And, you guessed it: we never saw that car or customer again.

It was a major process breakdown. The salesperson felt awful. He expected to be fired. Many dealers would have fired him to set an example.

But here’s the thing: if I fired him it would have sent a message to every other employee that if they make a mistake, they get fired. This is not a message that motivates employees to perform their best. And you have to figure this salesperson–and every other salesperson on the team–learned an important lesson. Process matters and rules exist for a reason.

When bad things happen, it’s critical that leaders step up and turn it into something positive. As Don Shula, the coach who led the Miami Dolphins to the only perfect season in NFL history once said: “The minute I get negative, that is going to have an influence on my team.”

Sometimes leaders have to be coaches. If you’re not sure how, just look to the best coaches in sports for inspiration. Here are some tips on how great coaches have turned setbacks into comebacks.

Don’t Humiliate Your Employees

The best coaches don’t yell at their players in public. In 1993 Marv Levy coached the Buffalo Bills through the greatest NFL comeback of all time. “I didn’t go around castigating them publicly,” said Levy of his players. “They knew I wouldn’t embarrass them, but if something had to be said in private, I’d say it.”

When employees make a mistake, yelling at them in public does nothing to help them and makes their humiliation worse. If you need to get a point across, do it in private, stay calm and incorporate constructive criticism.

Identify What Went Wrong and Make a Plan to Fix It

The best coaches don’t throw their players under the bus. So when an employee makes a mistake, don’t automatically place all the blame on them. Acknowledge it could be your leadership that has contributed to the problem.

“Coaches have to watch for what they don’t want to see and listen to what they don’t want to hear,” said John Madden, an NFL coach who led the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl win in 1977.

When a mistake is made, sit down with the employee and ask what happened, prompting them through the incident. Approach this as a team-building exercise, where the goal is to identify what went wrong and come up with ideas on how to avoid making the same mistake again.

Remind Employees Why Processes Are in Place

In business, process paves the way for success. In sports, this equates to “practice makes perfect.”

John Wooden was one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time.  During his last 12 years at UCLA, the Bruins won 10 national championship titles. Coach Wooden famously began his first practice every season by showing the players how to put on their socks and shoes. His reasoning was that if you don’t put your socks on properly, there could be wrinkles, which could give you blisters, which could result in lost playing time. If your shoes became untied during practice, that results in lost playing time.

It seems a little extreme, but sometimes the most basic processes have to be explained. The rules must be followed for a reason. They don’t exist to make the employee’s life difficult, but to help them succeed.

Remind Employees They Are Part of a Team

One of the major jobs of a coach is to get players thinking “Team First.” All great teams have players who know and willingly try to fulfill their rolls on the team. Do your employees know their roles in your team? Do they realize how important their job is to the overall success of your team?

Bo Schembechler, former coach of the Michigan Wolverines football team, gave a famous locker-room speech that promoted the importance of the team. “No man is more important than the team,” he said. “No coach is more important than the team. Everything that you do, you take into consideration, what effect does this have on my team?”

And one of Coach Wooden’s best-know quotes is:  “Make sure that team members know they are working with you, not for you.”

One of a leader’s most important jobs is to build a strong team. Every employee should know how important it is to be a team player.

Keep Employees Focused on Goals

All great coaches know how to keep their players focused on the goals.

Phil Jackson, former head coach for the Los Angeles Lakers said: “I think the most important thing about coaching is that you have to have a sense of confidence about what you’re doing. You have to be a salesman and you have to get your players, particularly your leaders, to believe in what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Herm Edwards, a former NFL coach for the New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs, has said: “Stay focused. Your start does not determine how you’re going to finish.”

When an employee makes a mistake, it’s important to re-focus their attention on the big picture. What are their goals? How can they get back on track? What do they need in order to succeed?

As a leader, you know it’s inevitable that employees will make mistakes. But look on the bright side. Coach John Wooden said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

The key is to make sure your employees learn from their mistakes and are inspired to do better. As a leader, it’s your job to coach them to a comeback.


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