Coaching: Beyond the Sports Icon
Knute Kenneth Rockne, of Notre Dame, is widely regarded as college football's greatest head coach. Ever. No head coach has been able to match his successes. From 1918 to 1930, Rockne attained a winning percentage of .881, the greatest of all time.
Sometimes leaders take their cues from Rockne and attempt to emulate his tough, no-nonsense coaching style. But Rockne’s coaching style has its pitfalls when applied to an organizational setting. Sure, a CEO can echo Rockne with a motivational speech once or twice a year, but will such talk result in long-term gains?
If your responsibility is to lead, manage, and supervise people on a daily basis, the sports model of coaching isn’t necessarily going to get you there. It’s crucial that leaders coach, but not necessarily along the lines of a hard-nosed athletic director.
Leaders must realize that there are vast differences between sports coaching and organizational coaching.
The authoritarian athletic coach does not hesitate to use assertive or autocratic action to get the team moving. There is a clear leader-subordinate relationship, where the coach knows the game better than the players.
While this can work in some organizations, it also snuffs out innovation, creativity, and fresh ideas. It can work for a while, but over time rigid work processes can wear down organizational team players.
Focused on driving the other person
In sports, there is a notion that protégés have to be driven to success by their coaches, and that coaches are motivators who mold their protégés and drive them to succeed. Coaches function, foremost and center stage, as motivators.
Workplace coaching is different. Rather than push their protégés along, leaders need to hold their hands and go through each process beside them. Workplace coaching is less about the drill and more about long-term education.
Focused on improvement in one or two areas
While the coach may care about the inner wellbeing of his players, the coach’s primary focus is on getting the team to develop the skills needed for winning. For sports coaches, it all comes down to skills and developing them as rapidly as possible. Other things, such as motivation, preparation, and instruction may be important, but the bottom line is that the players need to develop the skills necessary for success.
Coaching for organizational success is more than just teaching a particular skill set; it's a multifaceted approach with a much broader focus. It is based on the belief that skills are a basic component of victory, but not the only area contributing to it. You want your protégés to possess the necessary skills to accomplish their goals, but you also want them to be cognizant of the dynamics of the organization.
The coaching relationship in sports is predicated on the assumption that it is restricted-;either to the short-term career of the athlete or to a single season. In general, while coaches may speak about long-term relationships with their players, or may be concerned with the long-term development of an individual's capacities, a coach’s relationships with players is constrained by the need to achieve success within a given season-;a considerably restricted time frame.
In an organization, the coaching process and coaching relationship should have a more fluid time frame. The coaching process is meant to be self-reflective; it is a methodology through which individuals may personally discover and enhance their proactive capacity to attain their goals. In this setting, the partnerships between coaches and their protégés should have an elastic time limit.
Single-minded in the pursuit of winning
Of course success is important in the workplace and in educational settings. But in sports, it’s paramount.
In the organizational context, a coach must discourage an obsession with winning. If protégés are too narrowly focused on accomplishing their goals, they might fail to appreciate the value of losing or of making mistakes throughout the process. Although you want protégés to be successful, you also want them to situate their successes within the arc of a learning process.
Coaching cannot be separated from leadership. Great leaders are coaches. Proactive leaders understand that in order to enhance the proactive capacity of others, they must go beyond the traditional skills of supervision, and take on the responsibility of coaching: partnering with all those who work for them as well as those they lead. Proactive leaders understand that coaching creates a learning environment where individual and collective challenges are the first priorities. They must not and cannot be trapped by the sports coaching pitfalls. They are guiding an organization, not a group of athletes in a locker room.
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.