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What do a CEO and a coach have in common?

June 2012

What does a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a high flying company or corporation and a coach for a national soccer, cricket or rugby team have in common?

Like a soccer coach, a CEO’s tenure is unpredictable. Globalisation, fast-changing markets and difficult economic conditions are just some of the reasons behind the higher turnover of CEOs.

Like an under fire CEO, the South African Football Association (SAFA) recently fired Bafana Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane after a string of poor results.

Mosimane started well, guiding Bafana Bafana to six victories and only one defeat in his first nine matches in charge.

However, the wheels soon came off and the team failed to win any of their last seven games, even drawing with the 138th ranked Ethiopia.

Bafana Bafana failed to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations after team management misinterpreted the rules, assuming they needed to draw their last match, a must-win encounter, to reach the continental showpiece.

Also, Soweto glamour boys, Kaizer Chiefs recently fired head coach Vladimir Vermezovic (VV), with seven league games left in the season. They finished fifth on the log, their worst season ever. VV has been replaced by former Bafana Bafana coach, Stuart Baxter.
A few weeks before winning the league, Orlando Pirates fired coach, Julio Leal and replaced him with development coach, Augusto Palacios.

Palacios has led the Soweto giants to two other trophies and rewarded with a permanent contract, helping Pirates to win a historic treble for a successive year.

On the rugby front, Jake White and Peter de Villiers’s contracts were not renewed when rugby bosses felt their leadership influence and inspiration had become rusty. Now Heyneke Meyer must be the paragon of influence and inspiration to take the Springboks to the new level.

Famous former American track and field and cross country coach Art Harrington once observed that most successful athletes have one thing in common. They are both dreamers and doers. Dreamers have a goal. Doers do what it takes to accomplish that goal.

Over his 35 years of coaching, Harrington studied athletes and found the basis for their success. The common denominator was having an aim and then working for it. "A lot of kids will say that they would like to win a championship, but they won't work hard enough to do that," he said. "The kids that were successful backed up their goals with work."

Like dissatisfied rugby and soccer associations such as SAFA, disgruntled shareholders make top management, particularly CEOs to fall on their swords for failing to inspire and lead employees to economic success.

For boards, firing the CEO may be one of the most difficult and uncomfortable tasks, yet it is done every day.

Like firing a coach, a board dismisses CEOs for fact-based reasons such as poor performance, failure to inspire, misconduct or purely the need for new leadership in a company which is not producing desired profits.

Some boards have a high tolerance level for negative noise about the CEO. Sometimes a committed board can protect the CEO from short-term-focused shareholders rather than bowing to demands for on-going profitability. Ultimately, directors are the ones who decide how long they will wait for a CEO to produce results.

Like a new coach, a new CEO changes the facet of an organisation, from the relationship between management and directors to employee or players’ morale. He or she explores new strategies and approaches, builds a culture of excellence and accountability, leads turnarounds and transformations in times of crisis, inspires top performers to buy into new ways of doing things, takes on fierce competitors and produces winning results amidst adversity and change.
Indeed, leadership, accountability, efficiency, morale, and a sense of order all depend upon chain of command. And the chain of command starts with the CEO, and therefore the coach.
While it may have started with the military, most organisations have an established chain of command that is essential for effective management, accountability, and a strong means of operation.

After all, like CEOs, coaches play a vital role in making or breaking the cohesion of a sport team, in this case, employees.

It has been clearly demonstrated over time that a team's ability to succeed on the field is rarely determined solely by the physical attributes and the technical skills of its players alone, but the leadership of those who are in command, particularly the coach or CEO.

One variable that may be important for coaches and CEOs is team unity or cohesion, which often comes under accounts for team chemistry and is believed to go a long way toward helping a group of athletes achieve a common goal. Team cohesion is a dynamic process involving issues of team unity, both on task and in social situations.

Here are guidelines for CEOs or coaches to build team cohesion in companies, let alone national teams:

  • Avoid excessive turnover and social cliques on teams or employees.
  • Deal decisively with conflict;
  • See things as they really are;
  • Be flexible;
  • Get to know players/ employees, well;
  • Encourage group identity by allowing players or employees to identify what makes them unique and distinctive.
  • Make sure that all team members/employees understand how they can contribute to team/company success.
  • Arrange group meetings at which players/employees discuss common issues, such as team strategies, stress, or preparing for competition.
  • Clarify the role differentiation of each player/manager.
  • Establish specific, challenging, long-term goals.
  • Create an environment in which all team members are comfortable enough to express their thoughts and feelings and communicate in the most effective manner possible

In other words, like coaches, CEOs should be paragons of leadership, inspiration and strength, confident, decisive leaders who are not afraid to embrace risk. For successful CEOs and coaches, there is no space for insecurities such as fear and self-doubt.

In the end, leadership comes down to consistency and strong, confident action upon which the team can rely--and this doesn't mean imposing a bunch of rules.

A coach and CEO remember that too many rules get in the way of leadership. After all, people set rules to keep from making decisions. Instead, a team or employees must to be able to trust its coach/CEO to always act with players/employees' shared interest at heart. If the players or employees understand and accept that their leader is steering their direction through thoughtful, careful measures, then they will pull together to give the best effort every time.

A CEO and a coach who lead recognise that employees are the company's most valuable asset and treat everyone, regardless of position, with equal value. He or she drives a culture that just can't be manufactured. It comes from his heart and that is clear to everyone.

Mary Parker Follett in 1918 articulated a concept of leadership by coaches and CEOs that I find useful today: "The leader guides the group and is at the same time himself guided by the group. Authority, genuine authority, is the outcome of our common life. It does not come from separating people, from dividing them into two classes: those who command and those who obey. It comes from the intermingling of all, of my work fitting in yours and yours into mine."

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