As a leadership consultant, I spend a lot of time studying and analyzing business teams. I spend much of my free time reading about them and ways to improve their performance.
Recently, I had the opportunity to devour “Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle. One of my key takeaways was around patterns of interaction on highly successful business teams. He found that these teams meet in close physical proximity, often in circles. His research showed that highly effective teams use profuse amounts of eye contact and physical touch through handshakes, fist bumps and even hugs; they have high levels of mixing where everyone interacts and they enjoy humor and laughter.
As I was reading the book, I was also watching my son’s high school rec basketball team make a run at the playoffs in their league. I had been studying this team from the beginning of the season and really paying attention to their young coach who was going above and beyond to invest in these boys on a personal and athletic level. One of my first observations of Coach Sam was that from game one he did his huddles differently. He had the boys pulled in as closely as possible, arms around each other and focused on him. If you are familiar with high school teens, you know that close physical proximity with people they do not know and eye contact are both rare. And in the beginning, the boys looked slightly uncomfortable in the huddle. This did not seem to deter Coach Sam and so the boys huddled in this way pre-game, during time outs and post game. Fascinated, I paid close attention and I saw the boys relax into their huddles a bit more, but unfortunately their record did not reflect it.
This team lost most of their games...7 to be exact...and they pulled out only 3 wins. Many of these games were lost by close scores where you walked away as a fan thinking...they are better than their record shows. Always a smile on his face in the post game huddle, Coach Sam would break down what went well and what they needed to work on...and he would plan the next practice to work on it. He kept plugging away at the game and the chemistry and the team started winning, just as the season was drawing to a close. As the playoffs approached, he kept telling the boys...we are peaking at the right time...and I believed him.
The chase scene is that the boys did peak at the right time. The 3-7 team came out of the gate and absolutely demolished the best team in the league. They were launching threes from every place on the court; they were driving and stealing and they were winning. The next two games were more balanced in terms of score, but they all shared the same outcome...this team won.
As a parent and a fan, this was an amazing feeling. I am still smiling about it writing to you 10 days later. But the real reason I am recording these thoughts is that there are some solid lessons in here for you and me. The first one is that I believe this research about the proximity, physical closeness, eye contact and high levels of mixing among team members. I work in companies every day that are significantly geographically dispersed. I find that even when teams sit on different floors or different wings of a building they are most likely to email or text one another. It is the easiest and most efficient path, right? It saves us time, doesn’t it? By contrast, when I work with effective leaders, I often find them telling me about how they walk to someone’s office when they have a question. I find them flying to meet with a team member face to face for a few hours. I find them getting into close proximity and looking at their team member eye to eye to deliver effective messages, find answers to questions, and do their best work together.
The second lesson is to not give up on something that doesn’t seem to be “taking off.” Maybe Coach Sam didn’t notice, but I noticed that the boys were slightly uncomfortable with one another, at first. Placing them in close physical proximity to one another, forcing eye contact among them was making some of them uncomfortable. In the beginning of the season, I noticed how many of them stared at the floor during his pre-game and post-game huddles. Do you know what I noticed at the end of the season? The level of engagement as they looked him and each other eye to eye. As that level of engagement increased, they began to speak in the huddle and share with each other what they were seeing on the floor and how they could adjust their game to respond. In complete candor, if I was Coach Sam, I would have abandoned the huddles half way through the season. I would have concluded they weren’t working based on the results the team was delivering and I would have tried something else. And I would have been wrong. Too often, as a leader, I try something. I am often excited about trying it and I expect it to impact performance immediately. When it doesn’t produce the “magic” I am looking for, I am likely to abandon it and try the next bright idea vs. waiting it out.
I am very thankful that my son had the opportunity to play for Coach Sam this season. He is everything that you would want in a youth coach and he made my son better, on and off the court. Personally, I am also thankful that I had a chance to observe him as he created chemistry among a group of young men and made them a team. I plan to steal a few pages from his playbook and when I try some of them out...I will remind myself to have patience and give something long enough to “take off” and “pay off.” Who knows...when I do, I might just find that my team is peaking at the right time and winning all of the important games. After all, regular season records don’t matter when March rolls around. It only matters what you do on the court today. Folks, make it good and have some fun!