Leadership can be a tricky thing to work with. The conventional model is that that one person possesses it and everybody else wants it. It’s my belief that this is flawed model at best. When possible, you should try to do everything to move decision making abilities to those who have the relevant information. Essentially empowering and emancipating your employees, staff members, and people you work with to make decisions based on the information; not necessary waiting on you as a leader to make the ultimate say.
How can you take a struggling organization and completely turn it around? Are there strategies from taking under performing companies and individuals to world-class? Absolutely!
Empower Others to Make Decisions
You have to empower those your responsible for to make their own self-guiding decisions. One of the clearest ways to accomplish this type of remarkable turn-around is by asking employees to “not” ask for permission but rather having them state their intents. Attempt to re-frame your employees requests into intents that allow for them to have control over their decisions and still the while keeping you as a supervising manager in the loop to offer coaching, feedback, or negotiate different paths.
Empowerment attempts are nothing new. There are easily hundreds of books on leadership that can be applied to coaching. Especially when it comes to strength and conditioning, where there is more frequent change over in assistant and head coaching positions. It is easy to chalk up a downswing in performance or leadership after a coach leaves to simply the absence. A lot of people might chalk that up to the coach leaving and the absence creates an environment of disarray or chaos where the performance plummets. My belief is if the leader did a job well done – the performance shouldn’t plummet after he or she leaves the weight room. A powerful leader builds the culture and the culture should become a part of the company identity long after they leave.
You absolutely have to develop trust in order to be an effective leader. The problem with most trust building exercises or attempts most often emphasize the system, not necessarily the people. Most incentive programs favor short-term successes over long-term development. Quality coaching is no different. When a new coach is hired they are immediately evaluated. The wins need to start piling up – even on year one. There is very little reward for developing talent, culture, environment, and excellence outside the win/loss column. However, so much of what influences that very same win/loss column comes down to those attributes that absolutely need critical development.
Flaunt Strengths and Hide Weaknesses?
Most systems operate like the following; champion and broadcast your successes and hide your mistakes. As a result of this systemic leadership problem, most people are shy and averse to making decisions that could lead to a mistake. The most common thing I hear from new athletes and coaches I work with is that the easiest way to ensure that they don’t make a mistake is not to make any decisions at all. Most often, when they don’t make a decision, they don’t make a mistake, and they ultimate don’t receive any negative consequences because of so. This is a system that is wrong and broken. It doesn’t empower anybody to make a decision for the better of any organization.
You absolutely must shift the control to those who don’t have it. They need to feel as if they are in power of their own decisions and actions. Many organizations don’t have any power structure that resonates to those critical people who make up the deepest and most vital parts of the company. Furthermore, most companies need to develop and build empowerment in the people at the bottom. If the root of the company has low morale, the company is infected from within its most central and deepest unit. Fake empowerment programs will not help the issue as it also looks like an artificial attempt to “share power” from those who “have it” to those “who don’t”. The paradox is that even when you try to give power away, it still comes across as if you’re controlling people.
The Leader Must Take the First Step
As a leader, you need to take the first steps to changing the culture. In a lot of the places I advise, what I’ve found is that morale is low and pride is abysmal. It’s my first recommendation to focus your efforts on increasing both.
When it comes to the coaches in my weight room, I ask my staff to constantly brief me by stating their intent with what they plan on doing rather than asking for permission. They simply relay to me what their intents are and it allows me an opportunity to help their direction or allow them a clear path to implement the actions.
I’ve found that when my coaches ask for permission, I’ve put them into a box. In some way, it’s dis-empowering that they need to ask me. I pride myself on the ability to coach and train my staff members to be highly functional coaches. I want my coaches to understand that they are indeed great coaches and that I trust their judgments. I do everything in my power to resist offering them any immediate solutions. They need to be able to react and figure out solutions on their own term. I only provide immediately feedback and solutions when the decision is urgent. I must make it to keep pace and then I allow for my team to evaluate the decision during the debriefing.
The way we operate within our high performance staff is different than a lot of organizations I've been a part of. When you have a tremendous amount of talented and smart individuals, all who which want to give their best work and talents to the team, you have to operate a bit different. When I speak to others about our department, I often quote the following.
“We’re pirates not the Navy” - Steve Jobs
I try to keep a horizontal hierarchical design in our high performance department. All ideas are valid and discussed. When there is a top-down hierarchy, discussion is often frowned upon. In the system we have currently, our coaches ask questions and submit novel and new ideas to complex questions. If everyone thinks the same way, like me, than I have no need for anybody. I seek out those who have interesting backgrounds and vantage points.
The coaches I have on our high performance staff are some of the best in the country, but like all good things, this development takes time. Competence does not happen overnight. It’s built brick-by-brick and needs to be a consistent action in the organization. It’s always been my belief that the more a coach knows, that learning increases their competence and their confidence. I’ve always prided our department on the ability to provide world-class education to the coaches we mentor. We learn by doing and we want to give our coaches as many opportunities to coach and do as physically possible.
Another strategy I ask our staff to do is to “put your name on it”. What I mean by this is metaphorically have our staff put their name on their work done. If a coach undertakes a small project in our training facility, I’ll ask if they would put their name on it. Usually, they will respond with an emphatic “absolutely!” but every so often a coach or intern may acknowledge their sub-par efforts and go repeat the task again up to their personal level of competency. Simply by asking if they would be willing to sign-off on a task with their name rights usually shifts the person into the right mindset to acknowledge whether the work they completed was of quality.
Put Your Name on It
We’ve built this “put your name on it” philosophy into our program so much that it’s become a thing of repetition. As humans, we learn best my high repetitions and I’ve found it incredibly powerful to be consistent in this message. From top-to-bottom and back up to the top, our coaches and interns always as to sign-off on tasks and projects. It creates a unity and consistent message and code to our team and allows everyone to do their best work.
As a mentor to many young coaches, I try to be as specific to the end-result as possible. I don’t want to micromanage them nor do I want to provide them a three step process to accomplishing the end result. I want the coaches to know the end goal and provide their own methods and means to accomplishing it. When I specify how they must accomplish something, I diminish their control over their project. I essentially sap any trust I have in them to complete the project by their own will. I try to take care of our coaches and I don’t want to protect them from mistakes – as mistakes provide learning opportunities they can build and grow from. I try to educate and support them through ongoing education; which helps build their trust in me as a mentor and themselves as a competent strength and conditioning coach.
When I clarify a project, I do need to start with some standardized principles. We also are transparent about the progress and regression we have on a project. I’ve always found openness incredibly powerful and liberating. The people I work with need to be able to speak one’s mind and exercise reflective listening and contribution to the team. Everyone on the staff needs to challenge our own thinking and the thinking of others.
Shorten the Feedback Loop
When our coaches do an exceptional job, they need to hear about it immediately. Likewise with our athletes, the best feedback comes immediately after the rep was performed. I strive to give immediately recognition to reinforce the intended behavior. When feedback is hesitated, it creates a lapse in the sequence from the action to the information. Within our weight room walls, feedback is consistent and constant. Our athletes and coaches come to expect feedback regarding their efforts and performance. Many times, we’ll compare feedback from athletes and teams and allow for them to “compete” for that positive feedback. We essentially create a culture of gamification and allow the athletes to compete in the game of positive feedback.
Work Backwards from the End
Try to look at your organization with the end in mind. Try to create a mental map or image of what you want your company or department to look like in five years. Look out years in advance and start measuring yourself up against that image. Is it incredibly far off? What is the next actionable step to get a little bit closer to the mental image? Ask your employees to write down their own goals and images five years out and challenge them to come up with a system to deliver upon those goals.
Questioning Orders May Save You from Disaster
The last thing I want on my coaching staff is a bunch of yes-men or yes-women. Obedience is great in dogs, not so much in high-functioning cognitive-based systems. I will never be 100% correct. I love my odds and think I’ve stacked the deck in my favor but I also know I’m human and will make plenty of mistakes. Devoted obedience in spite of information can lead to catastrophic results. Plenty of good and smart leaders have made poor mistakes that cost many people dearly. You need to arrange your staff and people around you to sometimes protect you from the curse of knowledge.
Take a look at your own company culture and ask yourself if the way and style you lead invites permission for others below you to challenge your decisions? If it doesn’t, in some fashion, allow for your employees to openly challenge a decision, then you may be setting yourself up for a future failure. Staff and employee openness is critical in highly functioning companies and the best organizations and start-ups I know have a clear transparency.