I now have over 30 years of experience in the business world, and I have experienced many distinct types of leaders and team situations. Along the way, I coached my children's soccer, lacrosse, and baseball teams. Most of the teams were competitive in their league. Some teams won every game, while others lost every game, so I’ve seen it all. Certain teams only existed for a year or two, while others I coached from the time the kids were five or six until they graduated from high school. It was an incredibly rewarding experience that had relevance to business, particularly with respect to leadership.
What follows are my 10 lessons learned on leadership from coaching kids sports.
1. Coach the team you have, not the team you want
In the sports world, we all want to be Barcelona FC and have Neymar, Suarez and Messi on our front line. However, that is not real life. In real life, our teams have strengths and weaknesses. Our job as a coach is to understand those strengths and weaknesses as well as make decisions that maximize the impact of the strengths and minimize the risks associated with the weaknesses. It might mean moving people around in roles, providing backup for the new or weaker members, or changing strategies that allow your top contributors to excel.
In the business world, this is the number one rule. Projects tend to have an ideal team and a real team. On an ideal team, each role is filled specifically based on the needs of a project. These team members all have the right experience, cooperate well together, and need little direction from leaders. Real teams typically don’t look like this. They tend to be messy and require more work. In these instances, leaders need to dedicate themselves to solving problems, reorganizing players when appropriate, and be willing to adjust the plan as they go. If you realize a player would be more successful in a different role, don’t be afraid to move them. Mentorships can also provide the guidance necessary if players need more support. No matter what, keep the big picture in mind and adjust the details as your team progresses.
2. Know your competition and know yourself
In the sports world, this lesson is imperative. In many games I coached, I could predict the outcome of a game before it was played due the frequent mismatches in talent that existed across teams in the leagues. But in games where the outcomes were in doubt, it often came down to doing my homework on the opponent, understanding my team’s strengths and weaknesses, and putting my players in positions that could exploit an opponent’s weaknesses. That is where good coaching really mattered.
In the business world, this means understanding the landscape within which you are operating, objectively assessing your team's structure and capabilities, setting the vision, aligning the team, and executing flawlessly. If you get assigned a project from someone you report to, they might not be the end stakeholder. Often, the path to a successful outcome isn’t just making your boss happy. It might mean getting a broader organization aligned on a common solution. When analyzing the landscape, keep in mind that this may include the peers or other direct reports of the main stakeholder. To do this most effectively, build a team that has the impact and influence at the appropriate levels to drive the outcomes necessary to succeed.
This means more than simply creating deliverables. It also means understanding the influence and thinking of the stakeholders in the review process. Often, you need to bring influencers on the team directly so have a reason to care and focus. If the ultimate deciders are far away from where work is being done, determine who you need to enlist as influencers to help convince deciders of the right answer. Once you understand who the influencers are, and how to engage with them, you need to understand the decision points required in the approval process. For example, if the ultimate decider is three levels above where you are operating, at minimum you need to go to each level for approval, but likely you need to go to the peers of each level to get buy-in and approval.
3. Surround yourself with people that fill in your gaps
In the sports world, no leader is perfect. No leader has infinite skills across all areas. We all have gaps. Good leaders bring on others that fill their gaps. I hadn’t ever played most of the sports I coached, so my gaps were immense. I had a strong grasp on understanding player strengths and weaknesses, learning about the other team’s strengths, devising strategies to win and motivating the kids to get on the same page. I was fortunate that I had many other parents knew the sports and could teach the fundamentals. I am also not good at the management aspect of running a team, so I always recruited someone who could handle the details.
In the business world, it is no different. No team is led by a single all-knowing leader. All leaders have gaps. As a leader, it is fundamental to recognize where your weaknesses are, and actively find people to fill those gaps for an effective team. This model is best illustrated when you look at highly successful companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google. These companies were all driven by top teams with vastly different skill sets that worked together in brilliant ways.
At Spur Reply, someone may be strong analytically, but have difficulty in their visual acuity. Very few people are strong in both fields, so work with people in their department to save time and effort. It is often hard for leaders to admit they have gaps, but it is necessary to do so and find people to fill those gaps.
4. Winning is important, but the journey makes the team
In the sports world, success is often measured by the team’s record. However, as John Wooden once said, “How you run the race — your planning, preparation, practice, and performance counts for everything. Winning or losing is a by-product, and aftereffect, of that effort”. Winning can be a hollow victory. A team can win a game by playing poorly just based on talent alone. Games such as these were frustrating to watch as a coach because my team wasn’t trying as hard as they should be, but still received the recognition of winning the game, so it was difficult to get the team to grow. Losing, but playing above your abilities, on the other hand, can be a hidden victory. Teams are often built, not in the middle of a game, but during practice. As they learn to work together, they build skills and develop strategies that work. A leader’s job is to build the team and prepare so that games are successful. As mentioned in Lesson 2, the outcomes of many games I coached were predictable at the outset due to talent imbalances. I knew how the game was going to end, but they served as a checkpoint for how the team is performing. Preparation and commitment made the difference in the rest of the games.
In the business world, this is hard to swallow, but here’s why it matters. It’s not where you start or where you finish, but how far you travel along the way. The journey builds your team through preparation, commitment, and a drive to succeed. Winning is important in the game you are playing today. The journey is about the game you will play tomorrow. If you are effectively creating a team, you are building the ability for the team to adapt and change as the environment around them changes.
I’ve always had a term in business for evaluating someone I may or may not like to have on my team — what are they like in chaos? Building the team gets people to work together in challenging situations. When you go through the pain and rigor of conditions such as these, you are getting more for long term value. This prepares you for your next game, as you are already high performing and have also performed in an extremely rigorous situation. The process of building a team is more important than winning the game. Build a good team, and wins will follow.
5. Focus on the fundamentals
In the sports world, every coach understands that inexperienced players must first learn the basics. To gain these skills, a person must practice repeatedly until they’re second nature. What’s not so obvious is that everyone, even the most talented players, require constant repetition of the fundamentals. Sure, they may not have to put in as many hours, but if they don’t stay sharp, it won’t be long until they will soon fall into bad habits. And bad habits are hard to break. Once I learned this lesson, I became a better coach. And no matter what the skill level of the players on my team — we stayed focused on the fundamentals.
In the business world, we are incredibly rigorous about who we hire. Many companies shy away from hiring people right out of college, but it’s an integral part of who we are. Most of the time we hire people who are not set in their careers. The bulk of our people come in very new, so it is up to us to teach and mold them. These individuals learn a broad set of skills in the beginning. Make the easy stuff easy, so the hard stuff becomes possible. Building up fundamentals keeps the foundation of our business sturdy. For the most part, we discourage specializing in any one skill at a junior level because this becomes limiting. At Spur, cross-training our new hires prepares them across all disciplines so they can be put in any business situation and be successful. Often, we must staff projects based solely on availability due to the fast-paced nature of our business, which makes the fundamentals even more important. This process gives you agility when chaos happens, because people can step into roles across disciplines. To us, there is a difference between simply being available, and having the skill set new hires need to work here.
6. Challenge your A’s, nurture your B’s, triage your C’s
In the sports world, teams naturally have different performance levels across the participants. “A” players are the high performers. They score the most goals, can play any position well, run the fastest, are the biggest, strongest and most athletic, and are often the highest recruited on a team. “B” players are competent and generally skilled in one area, but they do not have a strong breadth of talent across all positions. They are also called “Role Players”. “C” players tend to be your weakest members. They don’t tend to contribute much and sometimes can be disruptive to the team. So, what do you do?
In the business world, it works similarly.
A Players. It is too easy to make the A players the chosen one and put them on a pedestal at the expense of the rest of the team. As the chosen one, they will win many games for you, but if this is done too frequently, it damages the team culture. I saw countless examples of teams led by a single super athlete, where the rest of the team stood around and watched them perform. They won many games, but it wasn’t an effective team. In business, it is no different. Your A players are easy to promote and celebrate their accomplishments, but can also be damaging to the team culture because of perceived favoritism. Unfortunately, A players are also most likely to be mobile and change teams (or jobs) frequently due to their market value. When you lose an A player, the damage can be severe. My approach to A players is to challenge them. Challenge them to be better than they are today. Challenge them to become a leader. Challenge them to help build a better team. Challenge them to think beyond their own personal accomplishments.
B Players. B players represent a different challenge. They aren’t the home run hitters, so they often get overlooked in reviews. However, no organization exists without well-functioning B’s. These players are essential to your teams’ success. A poor leader would write them off immediately or ignore them completely, so don’t be too quick to do this. They can’t be placed effectively into all situations, but they are very skilled in specific roles. These players are also dedicated team members because they tend to stay over an extended period if they feel they are respected and valued. My goal is to nurture their strengths and push them to expand their capabilities, but keep them focused on one discipline at a time until they are talented at that discipline. This turns B’s into A’s over time, and can be a game changer for your team.
C Players. C players are the most difficult to assess. What is the cause of their poor performance? A leader must go through a triage process to determine how to respond. In general, C players fall into three buckets. First, is a lack of skill or ability for the task at hand. In this case, the person will need to commit to significant training or extra work to catch up, and the leader will need to commit to training or coaching to help them. Learn to look for potential. It’s important to find the right role for these players. In another role, someone might be an A but in their current role they’re a C. Be willing to help them find the right role and move forward appropriately. If this is not possible, it is best for them to move on and find situations that are better suited to their skills. The second driver of C performance is a lack of priority setting with respect to your team. People tend to get spread out too thin and can’t do everything. So, they may have the skill, just not the time. In this case, reprioritizing is key, either for you or the player. The last driver of C performance is lack of commitment for your team. These players present the most potential for damage because they can influence others and hurt the team chemistry. Teams need to be on the same page, so the triage here is to work with them to find out why they are not committed and what will drive commitment. If that can’t be achieved, then most likely, they need to move on.
7. Manage your emotions
In the sports world, leaders set the tone. Players emulate leader behavior. It is essential for leaders to manage their emotions, even if things don’t go as planned, or surprises happen. Stay focused on problem solving and not who to blame. Leaders who fail to manage their emotions tend to bring the team down with them. Keep your cool, particularly when the situation gets challenging. Tantrums generally don’t solve anything. Finally, be the first to take the blame, and the last to take the credit. This helps your team view you as a leader versus someone who is advancing their own self-interest.
In the business world, leaders don’t focus on who to blame. Your team must understand that work isn’t personal. Park your emotions on the side, and focus on solving the problem and propping up your team to get through it. Break the problem into small pieces and manage it. Make sure to keep things in perspective, and understand your audience. People want to be treated well, even in challenging situations.
8. Tailor your style to the situation
In the sports world, good leaders find the right leadership style based on their environment. This concept comes from Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership theory. In simple terms, there are three basic leadership styles — directing, coaching, and delegating. A good leader knows how to tailor their style to the needs of the team. Be more directing when your team is new or unclear on the task, or does not yet have the skills needed to perform. Use coaching when your team has a good understanding of the basics, but may need help on managing strategic issues, refining specific skills, or building commitment. Delegation is best when your team knows the objective, is committed, and has the requisite skills to perform. In my coaching experience, I found myself being less directing over time and using more coaching techniques as my teams became stronger.
In the business world, we are very directive with new hires. We will check in multiple times a day, and provide detailed reviews of work and specific feedback about what needs to improve to set the foundation. As they get stronger or have completed multiple projects on a topic, we back off and focus on the big picture, ensuring they understand the process and their role, but letting them operate as they see fit. Our best teams tend to operate with little or no senior manager support because they know what to do, how to do it, and the quality bar to reach. This is the essence of coaching. If the fundamentals work, they will execute the way you want them to. If not, you’ll need to provide additional guidance.
9. Drive your team’s growth
In the sports world, all teams learn and grow over time. On some of my teams, I watched the kids from the time they were barely able to kick a ball until they received their college offers. My job as a leader was to create an environment within which people could learn. Give them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed, but allow them to do it on their own. Sometimes it is hard to let go of things when the players grow because you remember when the player was too junior to accomplish the task. A good measure of a leader is how many of their players grow and develop their own skills overtime.
In the business world, the process is the same. Each employee has a manager who covers promotions, compensation and review processes, and a mentor who acts as a peer advisor. On each job, there are managers who guide work and provide training. In addition, we have structured training at all levels to build consistent skills. We also have a twice annual review process for promotions to move people along as rapidly as we can. For me, our promotion process is simple. If an employee raises their skills enough for me to get them billable at the next level up, I want them promoted. The growth in our company comes from within. Most of our managers, senior managers and principals have come up through the ranks. Using these tactics to drive your players’ growth can transform new hires into leaders within your business.
10. Set the vision and drive execution
In the sports world, it’s the leader’s job to set the vision and make sure people are on the same page, and create an environment within which people can execute.
In the business world, there are various tactics to use for reaching your goals. At Spur Reply, we have an annual strategic planning process that culminates in an all-day meeting, where we discuss strategies and plans for the next year. In addition, we have monthly all-hands meetings where we update staff on the progress, and formal quarterly business reviews with leaders to check on progress and adjust strategies. We set ourselves apart through our commitment to creating the right vision, and successfully detailing the steps we need to take to get there.
Here are some of the key questions to ask yourself:
Size of aspiration. Most teams aren’t interested in working hard for minor changes, they want big achievements. Before beginning, analyze the reality of your goals. Is the mountain big enough? What does success look like? Is winning the championship your end goal, or can your teams’ success be measured in other relevant ways? In 2014, we developed a long-term plan for where we want to be in 2020, that directed all of our long-term strategic planning while revisions have been made along the way.
Clarity of thought. Is your strategy clear, coherent, understandable, compelling, and rational? Will it be easily understood and implemented by your players? The process is just as important as the outcome.
Simplicity of message. Can everyone understand it, regardless of role or level? How well have you translated your strategy into messages that anyone in your organization can understand, internalize, and remember? Given all the ways we talk, we must be consistent with how we communicate.
Effectiveness of communication. How well do your teams communicate? Have you ever heard a quiet professional sports team? Teams shouldn’t be quiet. And if they are, they aren’t performing well. Effective communication is necessary to align on key goals and ensure the plan is executed effectively.
Strength of commitment. How committed are you and how are you demonstrating commitment? How are you driving commitment and accountability from your team? Are you leading from the front or from the back? People like leaders from the front. Take charge and present a sense of confidence and trust within your team.