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Part 2: Lessons Learned From a Lifetime of Coaching

Thank you for your interest in our series Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Coaching — In Basketball and in Business. If you would like to start from the beginning, links to the other sections are as follows:

Keys to Success, Part II: Surround Yourself with the Right People

  1. Find the Right Leader

“Details of your incompetence do not interest me.”

The Devil Wears Prada is a 2006 film set in a fashion magazine. Uber boss Miranda Priestly is world famous for being impossible to please. She greets a subordinate in one scene with “Details of your incompetence do not interest me.” She’s a life-draining force from which there is no escape.

My first job was with an airline. I was young, excited to be on my own for the first time, doing the type of work I loved, and had free air travel anywhere I wanted to go. It was the perfect setup… and I was miserable. Why? Because I had a suffocating, terminally negative, micromanager for a boss.

My second job was with a manufacturing company that was built in the Jurassic Period- and a lot of the original people, processes, and equipment were still there. Nothing about that scenario screamed “great place to work,” but I loved it. Why? Because I had an inspiring boss that coached me, had my back, and made me feel invested in company success because he was invested in mine.

The same thing is true in sports. I played college football, and there were two assistant coaches I worked with every day. Both would scream and push and harass on the field, but off the field they were completely different. One was just as much an unapproachable ass off the field as he was on it. He was a one-trick pony, using only intimidation to drive us. The other cared about us- he would spend off-field time with players talking about their grades and their families in addition to football. When he yelled at me, I knew he was just trying to make me better — and I felt bad for letting him down. That’s leadership- his style made me want to go the extra mile for him.

In my opinion the single greatest factor influencing your satisfaction and performance will be your leader. That’s the person who has the most influence on your work environment, and if you are unhappy at work it will manifest in other areas of your life as well. If you are evaluating whether to take/leave a job, I believe the boss relationship should weigh heavily in the decision-making process. Personally, whenever I meet a new client I think about whether I could be happy working for their leader. If I imagine it would be a nightmare, it’s very instructive regarding the type of problems they are likely to have and how much change will be possible.

A final comment on the one-trick-pony approach — it never works, no matter what the trick is. Some employees/players are self-starters. They don’t need to be told to do extra work on their own. Others need gentle prodding/reminders. Still others need to be pushed hard and constantly to drive them to reach their potential. A great leader knows how to tailor their approach to get the most out of each individual, which in turn optimizes the performance of the team. That is the kind of leader to look for — and to be yourself when you are in that position.

  1. Individual Talent is Only One Part of a Winning Team

“We’re not looking for the best players.  We’re looking for the right ones.”

Miracle is a 2004 movie based on the true story of the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team. Coach Herb Brooks had been preparing for the job forever, thinking about what it would take to topple a seemingly unbeatable Soviet team. During the initial tryout he handed his assistant coach a proposed roster. The assistant looked at the list and said, “You’ve left out some of the best players.”  Brooks’ response was, “We’re not looking for the best players, Craig. We’re looking for the right ones.” When his choices were challenged by his boss, he said he was adapting a new style that was predicated on mental toughness and team chemistry, and he knew best who could fill that need. Spoiler alert – it worked, producing arguably the biggest upset in sports history.

Teams obviously need talent to win, but that’s only part of the story. Brooks himself commented that the reason the Soviets were able to beat professional all-star teams was that the all-stars relied on talent alone, while the Soviets had a system to optimize the talent for the benefit of the team. I coached a team once that accomplished way less than it should have based on the talent level, because one player shot every time she touched the ball. If she wasn’t the leading scorer then no one in her family was happy, even if the team won. Our offense looked like a car on bad gas – sputtering around with no cohesion, no flow, and a lot of people standing around sub-optimized. Fortunately, I also coached teams that accomplished way more than they should have based on their talent level. That happens when players put their egos aside and do whatever it takes to help the team win.

The same thing happens in business. I worked in a hospital that asked me to train a group of facilitators to guide their process improvement teams. Post-training, they asked me to pick a half dozen folks with the highest potential to run their first round of projects. Five teams were successful, but the sixth was an unmitigated disaster. The facilitator was extremely distraught that he couldn’t get them anywhere near the finish line, particularly since the group consisted of several rising stars. I was asked to sit in on one of their meetings to see what the problem was. After about five minutes it was obvious – these people absolutely hated each other. (And to be frank, it was justified; after about ten minutes I hated all of them too.) Every minor disagreement got blown out of proportion, every good idea turned into an ugly power grab to see who could get the most credit, and so on. They had talent, they had drive, but they had a terrible mix of personalities and valued individual over team… and they failed.

Let’s close with a crossover example: many years ago, our team won a tournament we had no business winning. We got a lead in the finals and the other team started screaming at each other and fell apart. I asked the girls afterwards why they thought we won that game. They said, “Because we trust each other,” which was a sophisticated answer from 13-year-olds. Later that night I flew to New York to meet with a client executive team. Their company was having problems and they needed to sort them out. I listened to each executive present the state of the business from his/her functional perspective, and they all sounded brilliant. After a few hours I stopped the conversation and said, “We have a lot of talent in this room. Why is the business struggling?” The immediate response: “Because we don’t trust each other.”

The moral of the story: Don’t make the mistake of basing your personnel decisions solely on subject matter expertise, job titles, or political considerations. Those things are certainly important, but if you don’t consider the mix of skills and the team chemistry, then you could wind up with a whole that accomplishes way less than the sum of its parts.

  1. Unite Around a Common Goal

“Are you with me?”                        “To the death.”

The Chronicles of Narnia movie series kicked off in 2005 with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the mystical land of Narnia, a series of events rapidly culminated with ordinary teen Peter (on left) becoming the leader of an army (the “good guys” in the morality tale). His troops were staked out on a mountain and they could see the evil army approaching across the fields. They were outnumbered at least ten to one. It was time to lead the charge down the hill and defend their land. Peter looked at second in command Oreius (on right) and said, “Are you with me?”

Let’s get inside Oreius’ head for a minute. He knew the kid didn’t have any battle experience. He could see they were clearly outnumbered. He knew the tactics of the evil army’s leader, who had said “I have no interest in prisoners. Kill them all.” It had to be obvious to Oreius that if he went charging down that hill it was likely the end of the story for him. But what Oreius had in common with Peter was a belief. A belief that what they were doing was the right thing. It was important. It was something that was worth great personal risk for the common good. So when he heard Peter say, “Are you with me?” he immediately responded “To the death.” Then Peter raised his sword and yelled “For Narnia!” and they all raced into battle.

I get chills every time I watch that movie and just got them again when I typed about it. The first time I saw the battle scene I jumped out of my chair and exclaimed “I want that guy on my basketball team!” (Which is a great way to get yourself noticed in a theater, by the way.)

The power of this type of attitude in business cannot be overstated. Are your employees punching a clock / just going through the motions, or do they really believe in the company direction and have pride in being a part of it? It is important to look for this attitude when hiring, selecting people for a project, or whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish.

In Part I of this series, we talked about the need to have a #1 objective and be committed to achieving it. Now we’re extending that concept to the network of people you associate with – your friends, teammates, co-workers, etc. Does your inner circle share your hopes and dreams and “are they with you” in pursuit of them? If you surround yourself with people that are mutually committed to achieving a common goal, then there’s no limit to what you can accomplish. If you surround yourself with people that have other objectives, then you are setting yourself up for an energy drain / constant source of distraction that you don’t need.

I’ll close with a sports application. At the beginning of my last year of coaching I was struggling with the fact that the players had so many things going on – they were talented multi-sport athletes and some were involved in 2-3 teams simultaneously. I told them early in the season that I was concerned our team was just one stop on the way to another game with another group of players. Most of our girls had been together for several years, and their response was “Nope. Our other teams are just sports. This is family.”

That kind of attitude keeps you together when the going gets tough.

Links to the other sections of our Lessons Learned series are:

Also, check out other blogs from Ralph.

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