CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- As football playoff fever continues this weekend, most eyes will be on the players. But it's those headset-wearing guys on the sidelines who are just as much the key to a win. A good coach brings together a group of disparate athletes and molds them into a cohesive, focused team.
It's no surprise, then, that sports-loving business leaders often look at pro coaches as role models. But the "winning in sports is just like winning in life" storyline doesn't always hold up. NFL players have some pretty enticing reasons to give their all on the field. The "teams" who work in suburban office parks and small manufacturing firms don't get the multimillion-dollar salaries, public adulation or chance at a Super Bowl ring. So how can you expect them to turn in superstar performances?
The "teams" in suburban office parks and small manufacturing firms don't get multimillion-dollar salaries, public adulation or chances at a Super Bowl ring -- but are still expected to turn in superstar performances.
The simple answer is, you can't. But certain qualities of good coaching apply to good leadership in any industry. The key is to not to get caught up solely in numbers, whether it's game wins or sales targets. It's about giving your team the right attitude to achieve those wins themselves.
"The best coaches are the best communicators," says Maine-based consultant and speaker John Brubaker, who often applies the lessons he learned coaching a Top 10 college lacrosse team to his business clients. "They realize there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. They figure out what motivates each player: some might want to be pushed hard, others need a more gentle approach."
Too often, business owners and managers wait for employees to complain before asking what they need. Instead, they should be reaching out. "Great coaches have the ability to check in at the beginning of practice and find out what's going on with each player," Brubaker says. He recommends that small businesses start each workday with the office version of a huddle, a time when the boss can assess each employee's mood and goals. Those who need some extra TLC can get one-on-one follow-up sessions.
An end-of-the-day huddle, much like a post-game session in the locker room, also builds a sense of team cohesion. Numerous studies have shown that employee engagement drops when workers feel like they have no control over their jobs. Just as a good coach pushes players to improve, a good boss encourages employees to solve problems, learn skills or bring in new clients. Taking time each day to celebrate small milestones sends the message that the company is making progress, however small.
Brubaker encourages clients to wrap up each workday with a strategy he calls "three by five:" celebrate three successes by 5 o'clock, whether in an informal hallway meeting or via email. "Even if it's been a rough day," Brubaker says, "if you can end on a positive note, employees don't take the baggage of work home with them."
One important but underappreciated aspect of coaching is the ability to put on a game face no matter what. "The best coaches are great actors," Brubaker says. "Even if they wake up on game day feeling like they're at 70%, they're going to act like they're at 100%. Every person who arrives at an office is in a different place emotionally, but if a leader can arrive with great energy and set the right tone, that can change everyone's mood."
Social-science research has consistently shown that positive feedback can strengthen any relationship, from a marriage to a sports team. Brubaker says the single most important factor that brought his lacrosse team to a winning season was when he began complimenting his players before giving constructive criticism. (Studies have cited a "magic ratio" of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction.) Empty flattery alone doesn't work, but a worker is more likely to listen to your advice if you show that you value them first.
Not every successful coach has a warm-and-fuzzy side; the notoriously polarizing Bill Belichick, for example, is not most people's idea of a dream boss. But rather than think of the "best" coaches as those who have won the most titles or pull in the biggest paychecks, think of the coaches who work wonders on a much smaller scale. The high school coach who teaches what it means to be a role model. The kids' soccer coach who gives everyone a chance to score. The coaches who get their players excited about coming to practice.
Wouldn't it be great if you could get employees to be just as excited about coming to work?
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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.