I enjoyed playing sports when I was young. Unfortunately, my skill didn’t always match my enthusiasm. While sports came naturally for some of my friends, I had to work hard to develop my skills and knowledge in order to earn playing time. From that vantage point, it was easy for me to tell the difference between the coaches who were adept at developing talent and those who just relied on good athletes to win games. I vowed that if I ever became a coach, I would work hard to polish every diamond in the rough and get the most out of every player on my roster, regardless of their natural ability.
These days, I’m trying to live up to that vow as a youth soccer coach. I have enjoyed a few personal rewards such as creating a bond with my kids and the families of the other players. What I didn’t expect was that coaching would give me a fresh perspective on business consulting. Here are three coaching principles I apply as a manager:
Invest time in team building. When things don’t go right on the field, it’s natural for players to take it personally. They might feel like their teammates don’t like them or want to hog all the glory. To combat this, I started having the kids share their personal life with the team. We discussed their favorite vacations, how many pets they had, or what they appreciated about their teammates. As a result, they started trusting each other more, and when a pass didn’t come their way, they didn’t assume their teammate was ignoring them. I have also noticed that business colleagues that invest time building relationships—with their peers, within their team, or between groups of stakeholders—are better equipped to overcome adversity. They won’t assume the worst intentions when things go off track. Instead, they’ll work together, realizing that there is enough credit to go around when the group achieves success.
Communicate your approach. In soccer and other youth sports, one of the most important (and, at times, challenging) groups of stakeholders are the parents. Over the years, I’ve learned to proactively communicate what they should expect throughout the season, which might translate to “managing up.” What is my philosophy on balancing coaching-to-win vs having fun? How will I structure our practices? On what basis will I allocate playing time? How should we judge whether a season was successful or not? Letting the parents know in advance what will guide my decisions can reduce their anxiety levels when they don’t agree with what happens on the field. In the business world, communicating your approach for tackling a project (or how you want someone else to approach a project) is just as critical as the goal itself. The scope, timeline, or desired outcome might change, but if everyone is aligned on the approach, the process should result in a successful learning experience.
Sweat the details. I start every season focusing on the fundamentals of passing, shooting, and dribbling. I watch footwork to ensure each player knows the basic skills they will need to advance. I explain why these fundamentals are important in the context of a real game. I also spend time explaining the role of each position on the field, so that each player knows what is expected of them. We create a culture where the details are important, and players start to gain satisfaction from doing each individual task the right way. They might not realize it, but I am preparing them to scale and handle multiple, complex in-game scenarios that unfold in rapid succession. This translates to business in many ways. When onboarding a new coworker, what fundamental skills are non-negotiable? What do they need to learn before they are thrown into a complex project? How do you define return on investment for your organization? What level of stakeholder alignment is required to launch an initiative? If you are asking them to “manage a program,” can you break that down into a clear scope of components so that you and your coworker are on the same page? Your team should know what questions need to be answered, and what level of detail is expected. These are the fundamentals that strong teams emphasize from the start. Whether you are a coach or a manager, no detail is too small.
No matter what your profession is, it’s critical to have an outlet that helps you maintain perspective and work/life balance. For me, that outlet has been soccer. I’m fortunate that coaching has also provided learning opportunities that have made me a better consultant and manager.