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What sports can teach managers

Jul. 8, 2014 - 03:32PM   |  
By TYLER ROBINSON   |   Comments
Tyler Robinson is the Chairman of the Executive Board for Young Government Leaders, and Portfolio Risk Officer at the Export-Import Bank of the United States.


As we saw during the last few weeks with the World Cup, there are few things that can transfix people so quickly as sports. Some may see sports as purely entertainment, but for those who have played or regularly watch sports, there are many lessons you can learn. I want to focus on those lessons that a leader can take from sports. I grew up playing many sports: In high school I played football, basketball, and golf. As a captain in each of those sports, I learned many leadership lessons that I try to use to this day. Each sport is different and a manager who can identify what type of team they have can use lessons from that sport.

A football team is large with many different roles. If you are a leader of a large team, you need to have trusted assistants who you can delegate important tasks. Most coaches donít call the plays, they delegate that critical task to the offensive coordinator and quarterback. Also, if your team resembles a football team, take the time to look at the team chemistry as you arenít going to be around for every moment of the day.

If you, or your direct reports, notice infighting or other damaging traits, donít sit around for the problem to go away, act quickly.

Finally, as the leader of a large team, donít focus most of your energy on the ďhalf-time speech.Ē Many sports movies involve a team that is struggling until a coach comes in and gives a passionate speech. The inspiration then turns the team around. I have heard and given many of these speeches, but if your team hasnít been prepared to handle tough situations beforehand, the speech isnít going to work. Focus on foundational things and the big things will follow suit.

Basketball is a very different sport from a leadership perspective. You have only 5 players from each team on the court, and each player has a unique role to play. If you manage a smaller team that has unique roles, basketball might be a good sport to watch. Each player knowing and executing his role is extremely important for the team to prevail.

I am not 7 feet tall, and if I tried to play like I was, I would be useless to my team. As a manager of a smaller team, figure out what roles you need to have in order to be successful, then find existing and new talent to fit those roles.

A good coach will also know how to use their time-outs wisely. Many coaches call a time-out when things are not going well. They bring in their team to regroup and refocus on the task at hand. Other coaches donít call the time-out in such cases, letting the team work through the adversity. You need to know your team well and teach them in quiet times how to handle adversity.

Professional golf it is an individual sport, but in high school and college I was able to play on teams. This team is not like the charity events that you might have taken part in; instead, each individual plays their own game and the scores of each are added up for the team score. You may be managing a team where each person does their own thing and there isnít much overlap. However, that doesnít mean you can just focus on the individual and ignore the team. There are many moments of one-on-one coaching, but having a good team dynamic where members of your team teach and encourage each other can raise the whole teamís performance. Finally, as the leader, you must know the course. What I mean by that is you were probably chosen for this position because you once were the expert on the team and have seen and solved many different problems. Coach your team from your experience, talk with them on what they might encounter in the future, and discuss how you might handle those situations.

Knowing what type of team you are leading is important. Delegating and fostering trust is critical for large teams. For smaller cross-functional teams focus your time on identifying and cultivating team roles while using your time-outs wisely. If you lead a small team filled with individual experts, sharing your knowledge of the pitfalls they may encounter.

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