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Effective management techniques in business: lessons from famous athletic coaches.

Effective Management Techniques in Business: Lessons from Famous Athletic Coaches

Vince Lombardi is considered by many people to be the greatest professional football coach of all time. Of all the qualities that contributed to his immense success, the most dominant was his ability to concentrate on the sole purpose of playing the game to win. This, too, is the dominant quality of all the athletic coaches that we studied in researching this article. People in business can learn from these individuals by focusing on the purpose of the business and then utilizing resources (in this case employees) toward that purpose.

For our research, we read extensively about the following coaches: Lombardi, coach of the Green Bay Packers; Woody Hayes, coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes; John Wooden, basketball coach of UCLA Bruins; John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants; Casey Stengel, manager for the New York Yankees; and Leo Durocher and Billy Martin, two well-traveled baseball managers. While no two of these coaches used the exact same approach to their respective games, they all realized that winning was the only goal they had. This article cannot and will not try to delineate a finite set of factors that will guarantee success in athletic coaching and thus in business. The research uncovered the fact that each coach was different, and what worked for one coach did not necessarily work for another. This article will identify several factors that have worked for the coaches under scrutiny and how these factors can be applied to business situations. However, to repeat the main theme, it must be remembered that the one characteristic that all these coaches shared is winning, as a goal and as reality. The most obvious trait that all the great coaches shared is that they played the game at one time. Some were better players than others; but because they played the game, they understood it better than somebody who had not played the game. In sports it is ludicrous to think of hiring a coach who had not played simply because he would be hard-pressed to gain an ounce of respect from his players. In business terms he would lack credibility. In In Search of Excellence, the authors stressed the fact that in most of the excellent companies the person at the top had an intimate knowledge of the product or service being delivered. That person had either worked on the product directly or had sold it which also required product knowledge. By the time this person reached the top, most of those in the company knew that they had a leader who understood the business and products and would allow them to do the things that needed to be done to improve the product. This included allowing people to fail and to be innovators.

The great coaches, like the excellent leaders, were innovators and were willing to take chances, to fail, and to get something positive out of the failure. John McGraw, who coached the New York Giants at the turn of the century, is a case in point. "McGraw was an innovator, a gambler in a game, a manager willing to defy tradition and standard practice," according to one observer. Many factors allowed John McGraw to gamble. One was his complete confidence in himself. He was anything but a second guesser in a sport that abounds with second guessers. Second, he had the confidence of his superiors, those in the front office. His decisions did not take into consideration what would happen to his job as the result of a decision. "He managed with extreme confidence, never fearing the wrath of his employers. They simply feared him. He studied every aspect of the game and every player in it. He picked up small things and used them freely," the observer noted. Last, McGraw had the respect and confidence of his players. In short, the risks of gambling were reduced for McGraw because everyone around him realized that the gambles were based on a thorough knowledge of the game and understanding that everything that was done for the good of the team. This is an excellent point for business people. The truly outstanding employee is the one who can and does take risks for the general good. This person can take the risks because of superior knowledge in the field and freedom from harsh punishment in the event of a failure. At 3M and Hewlett Packard people are encouraged to take risks. These companies know that success comes from a large number of tries. However, most of these companies also expect their employees to do the basic things correctly.

All athletic endeavors have a basis from which teams or individuals rise to varying degrees of success. The common terms for this basis are "basics" or "fundamentals." All of the great coaches expected their teams and players to be masters of fundamentals. There is probably no greater role model for fundamentalist athletic coaches than John Wooden. "Fundamentals, too, are synonymous with the Wooden Way. Rather than rely heavily on simulated, game-type conditions, he estimates he spends 65 to 75 percent of practice time on fundamentals --shooting, passing, cutting, dribbling-- mostly in three-on-three or two-on-two drills; they are drills his players will be executing in March, just as they did back in October," Chapin and Prugh said. Wooden believed, as many coaches did and do today, that fundamentals are the foundation which must be learned and mastered before any other learning can take place. Without this subsequent learning, success is not possible. So any success that takes place must ultimately begin with the basics. This point was made when we were talking about credibility. In business, before any success can occur, a mastery of the basics is mandatory. This means knowing the product, the customer, and the company. As a supervisor one must know the employees to know what can be expected of them. They must all be fundamentally sound in their job, responsibilities, and in the knowledge they need to get the job done. Only when these conditions are met can the supervisor look at each employee separately and help each reach his or her maximum potential. The company as a whole must be expert in the basics--product, customer, and employee. The great coaches insisted that their players perform the basics flawlessly every time. Doing things right the first time seems to present a natural paradox to those who stress innovation. However, there is no paradox because doing things right pertains to the basics while innovation applies to functions that are not basic. "A visiting sportswriter watching a Buckeye practice session from the sidelines shook his head. Woody Hayes had just run the same play for seemingly the sixth straight time and still wasn't satisfied with it. |He does have another play, doesn't he?' the visitor asked the local writer. |Sure,' was the response, |and when he's satisfied with this one he'll try another.'"

Business in the last 10 years has been obsessed with quality, with doing things right the first time. This has nothing to do with innovation. It has to do with doing the things that are expected to be done correctly. For Woody Hayes, this means not getting called for a penalty that has no bearing on the play, not missing a 20-yard field goal, and not dropping an easy pass. For business people, it means not treating customers rudely, not making employees feel worthless, and not denigrating product quality. A business must expect its employees to care about customers, about product quality, and ultimately about people. Without these beliefs, without this base set of values, a company will float in a sea of mediocrity.

Of course, living these beliefs day in and day out takes dedication and hard work; then again, for the excellent companies and the outstanding coaches, hard work is almost second nature.

Casey Stengel was the epitome of hard work; Stengel's energy was boundless. Through the spring training days of 1950, he would arrive at the park shortly after 7 o'clock, change quickly into his uniform, study the overnight medical reports gathered by trainer, Gus Mauch, meet with his coaches at 9, discuss the two-a-day schedule with them, and move on the field for the 10 o'clock workout. Like McGraw he was a tremendous organizer, determined that his players would be moving at all times, unlike other managers who allowed players to lounge at the batting cage for minutes on end until their hitting turn. His players would work hard on calisthenics, would work in the field, would take laps around the park, would be in constant motion until their hitting turn came. Although it seems like the most obvious thing of all-that people should work hard--the plain truth is that hard workers seem to be the exception rather than the rule, according to Allen.

In the excellent companies hard work is expected. People in these companies enjoy working hard for a firm that treats them as adults and as people whose contributions really matter. Each player is an integral and necessary part of the team and is made to feel that way. Billy Martin was also a task-master while he coached various teams. Allen: "Martin pushed his team hard in spring training. He was everywhere on the field checking them." Martin pushed them and checked them because he knew that he was responsible for the success of the team. Most good supervisors and managers gladly accept the responsibility for their work units because it allows them a degree of control and because they will get a proper amount of credit for all successes that ensue. Thus, hard work on the part of those that they supervise contributes to the betterment of the whole and everyone on the team realizes it. In this way the better supervisors and managers foster a greater team effort.

The New World Dictionary defines teamwork as "joint action by a group of people, in which individual interests are subordinated to group unity and efficiency." This would be an excellent sign to hang in a locker room or over a coffee machine. Whether in business or in sports, the only success that matters in the long run is the success of the organization. The great coaches have always been able to get the most out of a group effort. "To encourage teamwork," Wooden says, "he doesn't want his players to criticize each other. And he insists that the player who scores acknowledge the man who set him up with a perfect pass by nodding, waving, or saying |good pass' to him," Chapin and Prugh said.

The obvious and extremely critical point here is that none of the five players on the basketball court can do his job without the support of the other four. Wilt Chamberlain was considered by many to be the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. He once scored 100 points in a single game. However, the team he played on never won a championship because the team was not good enough. The point is that even with one excellent player, success is still determined by the overall strength of the team. This is clearly no less true in business. A great salesman may get your firm one or two big accounts, but that does not automatically mean your company is a success. That salesman was dependent on the engineering, R&D, and production departments to make a product that was saleable. He was dependent on service to maintain his reputation after the sale. Nobody can work in a vacuum. Managers must draw the big picture for everyone so that they can see where they fit in the overall scheme of things. Above all, managers must put the team ahead of any individual including themselves. This is the area where managers get paid to be great motivators.

Every great coach we studied was an outstanding motivator. He had to be able to get every ounce of ability out of every player. Of course, most athletic coaches have at their disposal more tools for motivation than do managers in business. Billy Martin "would force those players to play better than they ever had. He could motivate men... a lot of players were physically afraid of him. He was a tough little guy and he knew he could kick their ass in a fight," Allen said. Whether it be Billy Martin threatening physical violence or Knute Rockne telling his team to "win one for the Gipper," athletic coaches will do whatever it takes to inspire their teams to victory after victory. As we already mentioned, athletic coaches have more leeway in this area; but within the restraints imposed by business and society, managers should do anything it takes to get the most out of employees.

Whereas Billy Martin could praise, criticize, cajole, humiliate, punish, reward, threaten, and do almost anything else, business managers must, for the most part, stay on the positive side of motivation. Reprimands and punishers can, in the right circumstances, be right for short-term improvements in performance; but for long run success through motivation, reward, recognition, advancement, and other positive stimulators are better suited.

Herzberg's Two Factor Theory says that certain motivators work better than others. Those that do not work are "company policy and administration, relations with one's boss, peers and subordinates, pay, job security and physical conditions such as lighting, heating, and ventilation. Rather, the key conditions that motivate employees pertain to the job itself. These include opportunities for meaningful responsibility and accomplishment, recognition, and advancement." So while athletic coaches have more motivational tools, business managers and coaches have the same goal of finding out which motivators will work best with each person. One of Billy Martin's weaknesses was that he never learned that different people need different types of treatment. "He was a volatile manager. He wore that Yankee image on his sleeve. He drove players hard. We all respected him, but some players don't like to be pushed. If it was part of your personality to be coddled, Billy Martin wasn't your kind of manager," Allen said. The silver lining to that quote is that Martin was respected.

Indeed, all of the great coaches were respected as they had to be in order to achieve that greatness. Likewise, to be a successful manager or supervisor one must be respected. To elaborate on the respect Billy Martin had, Mike Hargrove says, "Without Billy Martin I wouldn't have been a major leaguer. I was a kid when I played for him, unsure of myself and nervous. He calmed me down. He talked to me. He made a major leaguer out of me." Billy Martin commanded respect because he allowed people to know that he was in charge but not better than everyone. Martin was a great leader, yet not above everyone else. "Unlike other baseball managers, Martin saw nothing wrong in drinking with his own players."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says of John Wooden, "He had to change at a time when things were changing very fast. And he did. He has adjusted with the times and, to me, that's the mark of a real thoroughbred."

While there are many things that can help a coach or a supervisor gain the respect of his subordinates, one of the best is if the supervisor respects the subordinates. John Wooden had respect for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Wooden tried to understand him and not judge him based on what John Wooden believed to be proper, correct, or valuable. So, too, must a supervisor attempt to understand the needs of each individual employee and not try to impose his own value judgments on that employee. Every person is different and a supervisor must respect that. When that happens the employee is likely to feel that that supervisor took the time to consider him as an individual, not merely as a means to an end. Respect begets respect which clears many of the barriers to effective teamwork and success. One of the barriers that fails is confidence.

Confidence in themselves and in the teams they were coaching distinguished the great coaches. "Lombardi was a man strongly moved by pride, by the sense that he alone was responsible and that he alone had made it possible," according to Dowling.

Vince Lombardi put a tremendous amount of pressure on himself but did not collapse because he was so sure about what he was doing. The great coaches all had confidence in themselves, and they had to have it before they could have confidence in anything else. Once that confidence manifested itself, the great coaches were able to convey it to their teams. "The Bruins under Wooden were uninhibited, blitzing, grinding-you-down. They were always in superb condition. They were always aggressive. And they always had the same sort of supreme confidence Wooden had," Chapin and Prugh said.

A manager that does not have self-confidence is in no position to instill it or expect it from his subordinates. Before the unit can experience success, the manager must be confident in his own abilities so that he can concentrate on the problems, issues, and strengths of the group and the individuals that make up the group. Also, subordinates are not likely to respect a manager in whom they have no confidence.

While these traits certainly are not the only important ones in effective coaching and supervising, they do form a base upon which quality leadership can begin. As was stated at the beginning of the article, there is one attribute that all leaders must share and that is a focus on why the organization is assembled in the first place.

For Leo Durocher the purpose was very simple. "When you're playing for money, winning is the only thing that matters. Show me a good loser in professional sports, and I'll show you an idiot."

Fortunately for business managers, they are not in a zero-sum game. They can come in second place and still be very happy with the outcome. But the point is to remember the purpose. For most, if not all businesses, the goal is to maximize profits and the value of the firm. For the units that make up those firms, it is to do what they can to help the firm realize its goals.

Greg Wookey is a financial advisor with Avco Financial in Irvine, California. Brian H. Kleiner, Ph.D., is professor of management in the Department of Management at California State University, Fullerton.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Wookey, Greg; Kleiner, Brian H.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Words:3075
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