From Good to Great: Principles and Practices of Effective Coaching

I wanted to summarize and share some key insights from several books on coaching and leadership that have influenced my thinking and improved my effectiveness as an engineering team coach and IT department leader. The running narrative examines how coach Phil Jackson was able to turn the Chicago Bulls from a good team with arguably the greatest player ever, Michael Jordan, into a great team that won 6 NBA championships with a pair of 3-peats.

The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner is a classic volume published in 1987; now in its 6th edition, the book has sold over 2 million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages. Based on years of research, the book is replete with real life stories of leaders engaging others in their organizations and communities to achieve enduring change for a better world. Here are the best practices that they recommend.

  • Model the Way. Whether you are the head of a basketball team, multinational company or a family, leaders must clarify values and set the right example for others. Before people buy into a message, they have to believe in its messenger. Not only was Jackson a former NBA player who had paid his coaching dues in the CBA, he had also studied Eastern philosophy and was nicknamed the “Zen Master”. He was supremely calm, passionately intense, thoroughly understood the games of basketball and Life, and could find common ground with supremely talented, highly compensated professional athletes.
  • Inspire a Shared Vision. Understand the present and ongoing trends; then express the needs and desires of others onto the extrapolated future. One has to imagine various possibilities: some may be obvious but out of reach, while others may be complex, subtle, and require deeper investigation and persuasion. Enlist a small core group that share your common purpose and values. Basketball is a team sport, and Jackson could only be successful if all the players including Jordan bought into that essential value as their North Star and focused on team success versus individual contributions.
  • Challenge the Status Quo. One has to be willing to experiment, take risks, stick their neck out from their turtle shell... you get the idea. It is not easy. If it was, then someone would have done it already. Get some small wins, build momentum, and learn from experience. Coach Jackson had spent several years as an assistant coach with the Bulls before he took over in 1989 and he experienced some tough moments at first. The team lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals for three straight seasons (1988–1990) as the Pistons repeatedly applied the Jordan Rules which focused on shutting down Michael Jordan through physical defensive play, frequent fouls, different defenders, double teams, and outright ball denial. Something had to change if the Bulls were going to become champs.
  • Enable Others To Act. Foster collaboration. Build trust. Strengthen others. Develop competence and confidence in others. Defer and delegate. Give space and responsibility. The heart of Jackson’s basketball strategy was the Triangle Offense from Tex Winters. It creates optimum space on the court, allows each offensive player to pass to their team mates, and stretches the opponent defense. As Jordan learned to increasingly trust his team mates in crucial moments at the end of games, the team gelled, and started winning and distancing itself from others; the Bulls finished the 1990–1991 NBA season with a then franchise best 61–21 record, swept the Pistons 4–0 in the 1991 finals, and then defeated the LA Lakers 4–1 in the finals. Jordan won his second MVP award and more importantly, his first championship.
Triangle Offense with Center (5), Point Guard (1), and Shooting Guard (2)
  • Encourage the Heart. Recognize others’ contributions. Celebrate victories (both big small) as well as values. I often thank people at work. I do it right after something good happens. I am specific, sincere, and often smile. Saying those 2 magic words “thank you” in the right way, the right time, and to the right person is some of the best advice I can offer whether you are supervising someone directly or collaborating with people on other teams in a large matrix organization. Part and parcel of Jackson’s genius was motivating the five people on the court and the bench to become better players and more importantly, better people.

The Coach, Creating Partnerships for Competitive Edge by Steven Sowell and Matt Starcevich is also rich with useful, psychological insight into how to genuinely improve relationships between team leaders (coaches) and employees (players) in service of organizational advantage and excellence, I highly recommend reading this evidence-based book and putting it into daily practice.

UCLA Bruins Coach John Wooden during NCAA Playoffs 1970

8 Step Coaching Model

  1. Be Supportive … assist, empathize, help, understand, listen, encourage, be flexible, recognize, and be responsible for your actions and words.
  2. Define the Topic and Needs … focus on present, 1–2 items/session, do not start with accusations or threats, give employee time to react/vent, state your concerns in specific, non-hostile manner, avoid innuendo, put-downs, or biased hints, use wide questions to funnel in that avoid Y/N answers, probe for employee suggestions, summarize and check for accurate understanding, gather data from employee, restate your information/interpretation/expectation, and deal with one thing at a time.
  3. Establish Impact … talk costs and benefits, mirror as role model and start by asking questions.
  4. Initiate a Plan … who, what, when, where; set SMART goals
  5. Get a Commitment … get a clear answer and verbal/written agreement
  6. Confront Excuses and Resistance … focus on what can be done, be positive, make contingency plans, and anticipate obstacles.
  7. Clarify Consequences, do not Punish … focus on positive (+), explain negative (-)
  8. Do not Give Up … persist with courage and patience, schedule follow up time/place
5 Levels of Coaching

Management Models

  • Adversarial / Hierarchy — traditional, Tayloristic view, control, closed ineffective
  • Patriarchy / Matriarchy — ineffective
  • Silence — ineffective
  • Entrepreneurial — building effective partnerships, open. Whether your team consists of talented athletes, musicians, or knowledge workers, high quality output means people have to be creative, in their flow, and empowered to act according to shared values and principles. If you have to micro-manage ever individual involved, your efforts cannot scale beyond your immediate circle.

Definition of Coach/Player Partnership

  • Teamwork
  • Common interests and goals
  • Equal status
  • Mutual consent
  • Respect
  • Honesty

Process of Guided Change

  1. Preliminary Events … detect, pinch + pressure, decide
  2. Support-Initiate using 8 Step Model
  3. Follow Up Coaching … refine + reinforce, feedback + support

Supporting Skills

  • Be forward-looking … focus on improving future, not obsessing about past
  • Give employees credit for recognizing the problem and designing a solution.
  • Start light, indirect in communication style (ask questions, listen, probe, restate, encourage); then and only then get directions if needed.
  • Focus on the concern or problem … not the person.
  • Set clear expectations (RRE = Role, Responsibilities, and Expectations).
  • Shift to silence when done speaking to put ball in employee court.

How to Better Coach

  • Be assertive.
  • Be realistic.
  • Trust the process.
  • Be a catalyst and conductor… not a commander.
  • Trust employees more.
  • Give them more responsibility and variety.
  • Defer to them more.
  • Surrender more control to them as mutual business partners.
  • Allow them space and creativity.

My role models for great coaches naturally come from sports. I especially admire Phil Jackson and John Wooden; both were legendary basketball coaches in the professional and collegiate ranks, respectively. On a personal level, I developed into a better person and athlete thanks to Barbara Bramblett, my tennis coach, and sensei Shadi Barazi who taught Shotokan Karate. Who are your favorite coaches? Why? Share your thoughts.

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