August 27, 2015
I was the head coach of my two older kids’ little league team this past spring. The whole thing was a little bit of an accident – I vaguely volunteered for something and ended up in charge. The commitment was a little daunting, but I was ok with it since the season was only a couple months long, it was both Casey and Wilson, and both kids, especially Wilson, are really into baseball. Other than helping out a bit here and there, I’d never coached a sports team before.
What started off as an unclear assignment ended up as one of the most fun and fulfilling things I’ve done in years. I loved every minute of it, looked forward to our practices and games, was hugely bummed out when we got rained out, and never had a moment where I couldn’t make the time for it (though clearly the hours had to come from somewhere!). Given some of the overlap between leading a sports team and leading a company, I thought I’d reflect on the experience a bit here. There are some common themes between this post and something I wrote years ago, Parenting and Corporate Leadership, with the same caveat that no, I don’t think employees are children or children are employees. But here are some things I take away from the experience and apply or compare to work.
We established a clear philosophy and stuck to it. That’s a step that lots of coaches – and managers in the workplace – miss. The other coaches and I discussed this before the first practice, agreed on it, and shared it directly with the kids. For this age group in particular, we felt that we were there first and foremost to have fun; second to learn the game; and third, to play hard and fair. Note there was nothing in this about winning, and that we were really specific about the order of the three objectives. Even 7 and 8 year olds know the difference between “win at all costs” and “have fun and play ball.” We reinforced this at every practice and at every game. Being intentional about a philosophy and communicating it (and of course sticking to it) are key for any leadership situation.
We got lucky. As I repeatedly said to the parents on the team, we had a group of awesome kids – happy and generally paying attention, and not one troublemaker in the bunch; and we had a group of awesome parents – responsive, supportive, and not a single complaint about what position a kid was playing or where someone was in the batting order. I’d heard horror stories about both kids and parents from other coaches ahead of time. It’s possible that the other coaches and I did such a good job that both kids and parents were great all the time…but I think you have to chalk most of that up to the luck of the draw. Work isn’t all that different. Having stakeholders who are consistently positive forces is something that sometimes you can shape (you can fire problematic employees) but often you can’t, in the case of customers or even Board members. Luck matters.
Stakeholder alignment was a critical success factor. Having said that, I do think the coaches and I did a good job of keeping our stakeholders aligned and focusing on their needs, not ours. We put extra effort into a regular cadence of communication with the parents in the form of weekly emails and a current web site. We used those emails to highlight kids’ performance and also let parents know what we’d be working on in practice that week. We made sure that we rotated kids in the batting order so that everyone got to bad leadoff once and cleanup once. We rotated kids so that almost every kid played half of each game in the infield and half in the outfield. We took any and all requests from kids who wanted to play a specific position for a few innings. Many of these basic principles – communicating well, a clear operating system, listening to stakeholders, a People First approach – are lessons learned from work as a CEO.
Proper expectations and a large dose of patience helped. After the first couple games, we were 0-2, and I was very frustrated. But I reminded myself that 7 and 8 year olds are just kids, and my frustration wasn’t going to help us achieve our objectives of having fun and learning the game. So I recalibrated my expectations and took much more of a laid-back attitude. For example, any time I saw one kid goofing off a little bit in practice, I gently got him or her back in line. But when I saw multiple kids’ attention fading, I took it as a sign that whatever I was doing as a coach wasn’t working, called a break, and did something else. This kind of “look in the mirror” approach is always helpful at work, too.
Reward and recognition were key. We definitely adopted a Whale Done! approach with the kids. We got the kids in the dugout fired up to cheer on batters. First base coaches did big high fives, smiles, and literal pats on the back for every hit. Post-game huddles and emails to parents focused on highlights and what went right for the kids. One of my favorite moments of the season was when one player, who only had one hit all year and struck out almost every time at bat, had two hits, an RBI, and a run scored in our final game. Not just the coaches, but the other kids and all the parents went absolutely BANANAS cheering for this player, and it brought huge smiles to all our faces. I am 100% certain that the focus on the positive encouraged the kids to try their hardest all season, much as I believe that same philosophy encourages people to take risks and work hard at the office.
The biggest thing I take back to the workplace with me from the experience. I was reminded about how powerful achieving a state of “flow,” or “relaxed concentration” is. I recounted these principles in this blog post from a couple different books I’ve read over the years – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Tim Gallway’s Inner Game books – Golf, Tennis, and Work. The gist of achieving a state of flow is to set clear goals that are stretch but achievable, become immersed in the activity, pay attention to what’s happening, and learn to enjoy immediate experience. All leaders – in sports, business, or any walk of life – can benefit from this way of living and leading.
I loved every minute of coaching. It helped that we ended up with a really strong record. But more than that, building relationships with a bunch of great kids and great parents was fun and fulfilling and incredibly thankful and rewarding. The “thank you ball” that all the kids autographed for me is now a cherished possession. Working and getting extra time with my own two kids was the icing on the cake. All I want to know is…is it time for next season yet? I am ready!
This post is really for Coaches Mike, Paul, and Oliver; and players Emily, Casey, Lauryn, Mike, Josh, Holden, Hudson, Wilson, Drew, Kevin, Matthew, and Christian.