Tag Archives: leadership

Three More Ways to Make Work More Like Sports

Euro 2012 concluded yesterday. For those not into soccer that’s the European championship. It happens every four years, kind of like the Olympics or the World Cup.

Spain won as predicted and although Italy lost, they showed up in the finals as a complete surprise to most folks. They made a fantastic run and came up just short when all the luck, ans skill of the Spaniards, seemed to turn against them.

During their run to the finals I was captivated by Gigi Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper and captain. This guy has been around for quite awhile and is still considered one of the top keepers in the game but what impressed me most was the man beyond the play.

  • Camera’s couldn’t stay off him during the Italian national anthem and commentators kept coming back to the passion with which he sang his countries song.
  • During their semi-0final penalty shoot-out against England he could be seen slapping hands with Joe Hart, England’s keeper, between penalties.
  • After the loss in the finals the cameras followed him as he comforted his teammates and even his coach.

Back in January I posted “What’s the Difference Between Life and Sports?” where I explored some of the ways in which our work environments often conspire to make life a whole lot less exciting than following sports. As this summer wends its way though Euro 2012 and the Olympics more and more Gigi Buffon’s are going to come across our radar screen.

So what can we learn from Buffon’s example?

1. We like to play for something bigger.
That’s why Buffon belting out his national anthem is impressive. He gets that, he connects to it, he’s proud of his country. How often in our work places to we as managers try to instill in our people a sense of something bigger than just a paycheck?

The opposite is true in sports as well…we don’t care for the selfish player who is just in it for the money. How much heat, pun intended, has Lebron gotten for that?

2. We like a class act.
Even in the tension packed moment of a penalty shoot out Buffon makes the effort to connect with the opposing keeper, a guy who he openly respects as an up and comer. That’s class.

How do we create an atmosphere of class even in the midst of competitive tensions in the work place? How do we reward “class”? Typically I find we don’t. We like it, we applaud it, but we hope it doesn’t get in the way.

3. We like team guys who lead.
I watched this world class athlete who had just loss put aside his own grief long enough to comfort guys who may well get a second and even third chance at this tournament. This was a captain leading his men even after the battle was finished.

How many leaders in business have you seen take that approach? We more often see them focused on responsibility and blame for the loss. How do we instill not only this level of teamwork, but leadership in our people?

I wonder who we’ll see emerge from the Olympic games in a few weeks time. I wonder what lessons we’ll be able to take away from these games about how to create more passion, more life, in our work environments.

How much of this connection to class, leadership, and a connection to something bigger is cultural? Do you think it is the same for people outside the US?

Leadership: Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

We have family in town this week for Nate’s graduation. We’ve all been involved in sports for years as players from the time we were young, as coaches when we got older, and in the case of my father-in-law, even as administrator in athletics at the university level.

We’re were stunned this week to hear yet another story of a university that has failed a long time coach. By allowing a small group of disgruntled players who didn’t get the playing time they “thought they deserved”, backed by a group of helicopter parents who have collected their children’s participation trophies for years, encouraged by a athletic department that just wants smooth sailing, to run off a coach with 25 years tenure the university has failed.

To be clear this is NOT a Penn State situation. This is just a group of people who have gotten used to having their way at the youth level and now think they can run the show in college. Apparently they can.

We’ve heard this story a few too many time in the last couple years. When a coach consistently delivers wins and graduation rates, when a coach has developed a group of alumni fully willing and capable of funding the program, when a coach has multiple decades of investment, this is not a failure by the coach. It is a failure by the university athletic administration.

It is a failure of leadership.

How can we, as leaders, avoid looking just as ludicrous? By remembering a couple simple rules for keeping the main thing THE main thing:

1. Define it
What does success look like?
For a college coach it is wins, graduations, and fund raising. For a corporate executive is might be about top line growth, bottom line efficiencies, or people development. For a Pastor it might be nickles, noses, and congregational maturity.

In any case it is important to define success. THAT is where you should be headed. If you don’t know where you’re going you’ll never get there.

2. Defend it
Once you’ve defined success you need to be willing to stick to that course when the road gets rough. That isn’t to say we can’t change to a different target for success mid-stream, but that course change needs to be deeply considered before being made. Too often leaders change course quarterly or yearly in response to some temporary set of circumstances.

If you want to keep the main thing THE main thing you have to be more concerned with where you’re going than you are with how things are going.

3. Deliver it
Once you’ve put a stick in the ground to define direction and success, go after it with gusto! Performance reviews can almost become fully objective, did we deliver or not? The better you’ve defined success, the better you’ve stayed the course and defended that direction the easier it is to measure progress…or the reason progress has been inhibited. Deliver the main thing validates that it ought to BE the main thing.

In the case of these coaching stories the schools in question forgot all of that in favor of smoothing out the waves. The funny thing is, as any sailor knows, if you perfectly smooth out the wind and waves, you wind up becalmed and you never get anywhere.

Where have you seen leaders either fail or succeed at keeping the main thing the main thing in the midst of stormy circumstances?

Personal Note: All the best to Coach Gary Podesta. The lives you’ve changed cannot be measured solely by the number of individual players in the program. It is multiplied a hundred or a thousand fold by the lives we’ve each gone on to touch. Thanks Coach. You kept the main thing the main thing.

Leadership 101: Pronoun Guidelines

It’s funny how powerful mere words can be in shaping reality. From the Little Engine that Could, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”, to God’s opening line in the Bible, “Let there be light!”, words shape not only our understanding of the world around us but in just as many cases the world around us as well.

It’s become a bit of a nitpick of mine lately to catch myself on pronoun use and as a result I find myself checking other folks around me as well. Pronoun use can be a HUGE indicator of insecurity or confidence, risk or reward, credit or blame. Don’t get me wrong. I’m definitely NOT the pronoun police whistle blowing and yellow carding my way through meetings. I just listen and make mental notes…copious mental notes.

Allow me then to suggest some simple guidelines for leaders who find themselves choosing which pronoun to use when communicating publicly.

Credit or Blame: Credit should always be “we”. Even if your team did nothing bringing them in on the credit speaks of confidence and, IF they did nothing, puts pressure on them perform next time.In the case where all you did was supervise and the team did all the work turning that “we” into a “they” also speaks volumes.

Blame should always be “I”. One of my greatest leadership memories of all time was being at a CU Miami football game that literally came down CU being a foot short on the last play. A bench clearing NASTY brawl ensued with players and coaches from both sides attacking viciously across 30 yars of mindless melee.

In the post game interview, before the first question was asked, coach Bill McCartney stepped to the mic and addressed the press by saying that he took full responsibility for the actions of his team, players and coaches alike, that it was HIS fault that they behaved that way and that while their would be internal discipline for some specific actions the bulk of the blame should be laid at his feet.


Risk or Reward: This one is easy to remember: When the risk is high use “I”. You can see you’ve talked it over with the team but that the decision, the risk, the iffy proposition, is your call.

Reward I tend to go straight to “they” if I can…at least in my good moments.

I’ve told my teams for a long time that when we succeed they get the credit, when we fail I take the blame, at least publicly…we WILL have a private conversation.  From experience I can tell you that that one has come back to bite me a time or two. But in the end it still made me a better leader of people.

A few more examples:

  • Innovation: They, or you
  • Difficult change: I, or me
  • Challenging authority: I…do it probably too often.

I adopted a leadership mantra from my good buddy Kurt who always says, “Listen, if I make everyone of my people successful then I’ll be successful by accident.”

The words you choose to use, even down to the smallest pronoun, have profound effect on how successful those people can become. It is also a great barometer of a leaders level of confidence, security, or ego. Who was it that once said, “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”?  Listen to the leaders you’re around on a daily basis and see where they land in pronoun use. It’s an interesting pastime to be sure.

What other examples can you come up with where pronoun use can effect team performance?

4 Reasons to Recognize Milestones

Today we reached the end of an era in the Fletcher household…we’ve most likely seen our last minivan.

With the price of gas continuing to rocket upward we traded in ol’ blue for a used Honda Civic Hybrid.  The small car payment and a month’s gas will still cost us less than we were paying per month for gas in ol’ blue. I have to admit I’m kinda sad.

I’ve been thinking about random milestones all day.

Way back at the turn of the century, funny when you put it that way, I was working as the Director of eCommerce Marketing at Corporate Express. During my tenure in that position we saw a pretty cool milestone heading our direction. We knew, probably 4 weeks out, that we were going to hit our first million dollar sales day on our eCommerce site.

As the marketing director I wanted to recognize the efforts of everyone who had made the site a success as well as generate excitement and so we started a pool to see who could pick not only the right day, but closest to the right dollar amount.

Our final sales numbers from the previous day typically came in between 10 and noon and on the day we got the news that we’d hit the mark we went crazy. Most of us has seen the first day the site launched, bringing in I believe a total of five dollars, and here we were at a million dollars in a single day!

We sent announcements out to our field offices congratulating the sales folks and throughout headquarters lauding the team that had built and maintained the site. By 3:30 it was time to really celebrate so I invited the entire eCommerce team to happy hour. Several VP’s came over to join in the fun and the CEO even came by for a beer and some congratulatory words.

As a corporate leader I learned the importance of recognizing milestones that day.

1. It honors accomplishment
Our guys were beaming that day from the newest support person to the senior most developer. They knew and understood anew that their work had created significant value for the organization.

2. It measures success
Milestones are stakes in the ground that are tangible measure of success, a goal line crossed. It’s one thing to say, “good job”. It’s another thing to have a measure of just how good.

3. It shows engagement
For a leader to pause and recognize a significant milestone shows that they’re engaged in the business and the efforts of their people. Celebrating even in small ways says more than just “attaboy” it says, “we’re in this together.”

4. It inspires effort
We hadn’t finished even the first round of libations before people were asking when we’d hit a 2 million dollar day. We didn’t dwell there, but we had already started setting our sites on what it would take to get to the next level.

Whether you’re running an organization, leading a family, or building customer loyalty recognizing milestones along the way helps inspire your people to follow your lead and strive for the next level.

What milestones do you have on the horizon? How do you think they ought to be celebrated and, more importantly, with whom?

3 Ingredients that Help Leaders Innovate

I’ve been fortunate throughout the majority of my career in that I have been consistently asked to innovate.

Whether I’ve been in operational roles and redesigning process, technical roles and delivering new solutions, or serving as CTO and re-branding entire companies I’ve had the opportunity to bring innovation, change, and new goodies to the table.

Unfortunately for a lot of people when they think of the word “innovator” they see a picture of Steve Jobs in their minds eye and resign themselves to thinking they could never be THAT good. (Hint: Steve probably wouldn’t have thought that way.) But the truth is that EVERYONE in a leadership position has the opportunity to be an innovator.

That doesn’t mean everyone has the skill set developed, or the desire, or maybe the need but every leader does have the opportunity to innovate, it’s part of the nature of leadership. So if opportunity IS knocking at your door let me suggest three ingredients that every innovator has to have in order to bring out the mad scientist.

1. A desire to break things
When I was about 5 my dad and I built a model helicopter, one of those plastic model kits that requires that stringy, smelly, Testors model glue. As soon as it was dry I broke it into pieces. I think in part to see if I could get it back to its original state and in part because I’d had fun putting it together with my dad. Needless to say he wasn’t as excited by my actions as I was.

Throughout most all of my life I’ve been taking apart stuff that has been labeled “I dunno, it just doesn’t work”: An old electronic vibrating football game, a car cassette player, (remember those?), a camera. If they didn’t work then there was no harm in taking them apart but if I DIDN’T take them apart there was no chance they’d work.

An innovator is someone who is willing to break something that isn’t working in order to make it work. (AND sometimes they’re even willing to break stuff that isn’t working as well as it should)

2. A desire to indulge dreams
How often have you said to yourself, “If only we could…” or “I wish there was a way to…” ? Innovators are the people that see inspiration in those statements. Non-innovators sigh deeply, shrug those ideas off and get back to the pile on their desk.

Innovators find sustenance in those kind of questions, blow out the wildest answers they can find, tear them down and build them back up again. They allow their minds to race ahead of their inner critic as though it were death on their heels.

As my younger brother, who actually IS a rocket scientist by education, used to say, “hey, define the limits…and start there.”

An innovator is someone who chases after their dreams to see where they lead.

3. A desire to make time
Innovators often run the risk of appearing to be lazy. If you come by my office and I’m leaning back in may chair with my feet are up on the desk I’m not sleeping. I’m imagining. (I sleep with my chin tucked to my chest facing my computer screen, it looks like deep thought.)

Th trick is that you don’t innovate in your spare time, unless inspiration hits you out of the blue. Spare time is your down time. You innovate on work time which means you have to have time in your work schedule to dream. If you don’t have time in your work schedule to dream as a leader…IT’S NOT WORKING. Break it apart and fix it.

An innovator is someone who make sure they have time in the schedule to dream.

Creativity, ideation, strategy, they’re all nice, but without the desire to break things, the desire to indulge dreams and the desire to make time you run the risk of merely creating prettier sameness.

What are some of the places you need to take a look at how you do business today and break it apart?


What’s the Difference Between Life and Sports?

I’m bummed.

Last weekend the Broncos lost, which I thought might happen anyway, but tonight the 49ers lost. I really though they had a shot at winning it all.

I grew up rooting for the 49ers. I’ve personally known some of the players. I DJed a couple team parties back in the day. I’m bummed. And that has made me wonder…

How is it that we can get SO passionate about a team, or a single game, or a season and we rarely experience that kind of passion in the rest of life? Allow me to share a couple observations:

1. Sports span a wide emotional gamut.
There are studies that show that fans actually like games better when there is a chance their team could lose. Blows out are humdrum either way. If we blow out the opponent that’s nice, if we get blown out that’s too bad, but if the game is close our elation of depression are much more deeply felt.

We’re emotional beings so that range of emotions is intoxicating. Threat, risk, despair, hope, anticipation, elation…they’re all there. We like the emotional ride.

2. Faster team sports generate bigger emotions
I don’t have any science on this, I just think it is true. You don’t see fans of individual sports like golf or tennis go as crazy as soccer, hockey, or football fans. I would contend that baseball fans are less crazy too, except perhaps on a hot afternoon when there has been a lot of beer consumed.

We’re social beings made to be in relationship. Team sports are about relationship and interdependence and team work. We love it when all the parts click and wish we could be a cog in that well honed relational mechanism.

3. Sports require split second decision making.
This plays into why faster sports spawn bigger emotions. It is also why soccer fans pick on football fans and football fans pick on baseball fans…the amount of relative dead space in their games. This need for instant decision mixes physical, cognitive, and intuitive skills in an oft times artistic mix that amazes us when it all comes together.

We’re creative beings. When adrenaline courses through our veins our cognitive and physical functions work at max capacity and we are at our most creative. We not only love to feel it, we love to see it in others.

So if that’s how we’re wired why isn’t day to day life more like that?

Probably because we spend a large proportion of our time at work!

1. The workplace engages fewer emotions.
At work we’re asked to operate predominantly out of our brain, sitting on our butt. Emotions are against company policy to a large extent. It’s not: go big or go home, it’s: go big? and we’ll send you home. We’re asked to dial back the range and the volume on every emotion. We must be in control.

2. “Teamwork” takes on a different connotation.
We may be “team players” or “individual contributors” but we rarely, if ever, find ourselves in a place where teammates must connect one after another like a quarterback getting time in the pocket and completing a pass.. (I’ve never worked on an assembly line but I do wonder if it feels more like a team in that setting.)

3. Decisions are generally made over time
…and then second guessed, and then changed. Sports contests are confined to 90 minutes, or nine innings, or the couple hours it takes to play four quarters. Sales cycles are days, weeks, months or sometimes even years. Product life cycles are even longer.

What if we allowed emotional expression in the work place without fear of reprisal? What if we created teams that had to consistently connect the dots one after the other? What if we set up cycle times that put teams in a position to have to do that daily, or even before lunch time?

Would we find ourselves being as passionate about work as we are about sports? And if we were…what might we accomplish?

What can you do to bring the fan experience more realistically into your workplace?