Lessons Business Coaches Can Learn From Successful Sports Coaches

Is there a unique product or “value added” by the team that goes beyond a sum of its parts? A colleague has helped more than one team by asking its members to define the unique product of the team, why they are members of the team, and what they would guess their direct reports would be willing to pay for the outputs they produce as a team. He also asked: What level of leverage does this group have by working together as a group?

Determine what type of team is needed

In working with the Division Manager of a major research and development organization, it became apparent that the Unit Managers’ responsibilities were so diverse that this group collectively was a team in name only. The major function was to exchange information and handle the transfer of knowledge and people across the units to best achieve the overall objectives of the division.

Rather than agonize over why this team wasn’t functioning, it became more relevant to recognize that they didn’t really need to be a team. They only needed to define those tasks or areas that required some form of communication, share that information, and leave it at that. Their team meetings became more productive once this issue was settled.

If this team could produce a unique product, defining the type of team, and resulting interactions needed, would be extremely productive. To borrow an analogy from the world of sports, are baseball, football, or basketball teams appropriate for their given tasks?

The baseball team has skillful players at separate positions with no more than three interacting on a given play. The key to success is that communications between players are clear and consistent. The football team also relies on players skillful in only one or two positions; an offensive tackles could not be a defensive back. This team requires integration and coordination of movements; they move as one force down the field, following a set game plan.

The basketball team is illustrative of an interdependent team; players are totally interchangeable, constantly dependent on one another.  Decisions and changes are made at any given moment with very few “plays” sent in from the sidelines.

The interdependence and integration of effort are as important as individual athletic ability. The type of team format that is appropriate for a given situation will impact how the players should interact.

Make Coaching a High Priority

As a leader, coaching isn’t 100 percent of your job. But what percentage is it? A major financial institution has a performance expectation that requires managers to spend 20 percent of their time coaching others.

The majority of people we talk to feel they don’t have an adequate amount of time to devote to coaching others. Sports coaches would suggest that you delegate some time to each team member so you can coach more and develop assistants and trainers who can relieve you of some of your tasks.

How many leaders in your organization think of themselves as the “head coach” of a high-performance team? What areas are you going to specialize in, and in what areas will you develop “assistant coaches” to help you get the most out of your team? You can’t pretend to be a coach. If you are a coach, you must put in the time.

Where should the “head” coach spend his or her time? The sports coach would say:

  • recruiting and evaluating talent
  • developing a game plan
  • helping motivate players toward achieving the team’s mission and vision
  • demonstrating their commitment to their players
  • dealing with the public

Would your approach to coaching differ if after every big project or new initiative you had to meet the press? Probably not, if you were confident that you had either the right people in the right job, or a training and development plan in place to teach each team member how to exceed the minimum expectations of the job.

In addition, if you knew that all your employees understood, valued, and were committed to the vision, expectations, and objectives of your team, and if a trusting relationship existed between you and every member of your team, talking about it would be easy. Evaluating how you stack up as the “head coach” would also be valuable.

Tommy Lasorda, head coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers for 20 years, said, “My responsibility is to get 25 guys playing for the name on the front of their shirts and not the one on the back.”

Model the Applicable Sports Coaching Behaviors

Take time-outs as appropriate to assess individual and team effectiveness. Practice, or trial run, new approaches to coaching your team and try new ideas whenever possible. Keep everyone informed, and coach in a way that is respectful; never demean a team player. Create a decision-making process in which people feel they can participate, and don’t hand off the tough decisions to assistant coaches.

Build a Coaching Climate

On every sports team, there are informal leaders who coach others on the team.  Do the members of your team feel an obligation and responsibility to coach you, their teammates, and peers?  The concept of 360° feedback is gaining in popularity. As a system, this formalizes the process of obtaining and utilizing multiple sources of information for evaluation and improvement.

Only the coach/leader/manager can instill the philosophy which makes this a valuable exercise. It goes beyond the formal once-a-year assessment to a day-to-day way of work life. Do you and your teammates expect and accept feedback, coaching, and help from one another? Or do they expect coaching to be only your role? Watch a basketball game at any level.

The coach mostly encourages team members to support other players on the court or field. The players are constantly interacting, adapting, and changing their approach to meet the demands of the game. They are truly interdependent, coaching one another and communicating at all times. They don’t look to the head coach to make all the decisions.

In our sports-dominated society, the athletic team metaphor has value for business coaches as well. There are many great athletic coaches. Learn from their approach, recognizing that their work situations and players are also very unique.  Those who are living a committed partnership model have the most to teach.

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About the Author
CMOE Design Team
CMOE’s Design Team is comprised of individuals with diverse and complementary strengths, talents, education, and experience who have come together to bring a unique service to CMOE’s clients. Our team has a rich depth of knowledge, holding advanced degrees in areas such as business management, psychology, communication, human resource management, organizational development, and sociology.

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