What CEOs Can Learn from Sports Coaches

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Regardless of the size or industry of your business, the responsibility of creating success falls on the shoulders of the CEO. Although most CEOs have teams that work as a united front to achieve their company goals, everyone looks to the person in charge to lead the way.

While there are many strategies you can use to drive success for your team as a CEO, one of the most effective approaches might be to learn from sports coaches. Yes, you heard that right.

Sports coaches know a thing or two about team building, goal setting and strategic execution that can be applied in the corporate world.

So, take a page from the age-old book of sports and start implementing some of the following rules and lessons into your business strategy.

Related: 5 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Pro Sports Teams

1. Never start a game without a game plan

Whether you’re talking business or sports, effective execution must start with a clearly defined strategy. Key business decisions, both long and short-term, are based on a strategic plan that guides your organization forward. But regardless of how strong your strategic plan is, it can only serve its purpose if all involved parties know and understand the plan.

As a leader, your responsibility is to properly communicate the strategic plan from the top down to ensure all team members are on the same page. Everyone must understand what the end goal is and which steps they need to take to get closer to achieving it.

2. A good game plan is flexible

Like any nail-biting sports game, the market can change quickly and unexpectedly, as we’ve seen time and time again over the past few years. The businesses that survived the global pandemic of 2020 did not do so because of luck.

Rather, they were able to quickly adapt to the changing circumstances and pivot during a time of crisis, the same way that sports teams must be able to assess the changing circumstances of the game and adjust their strategy as necessary.

While it’s critical for all team members to know the primary plan, it’s equally important to be prepared to change it up. Plan B and C are just as important as Plan A.

3. A team is greater as a whole than as individual players

In every team, each member has a role that contributes to reaching the overall goal, but it’s the team’s ability to work together that drives real impact and creates value. A great team captain will give credit to the other team members when it comes to their success, as a cohesive team is better than a single great player on their own.

Good business leaders know how to play to the individual strengths of team members and work out the best ways to help them utilize their strong suits to complement each other and perform as an aligned whole.

4. Winners and losers are determined by score

In sports, the score is the ultimate measure of success or failure. Similarly, in business, subjective opinions just aren’t enough to accurately gauge performance.

Smart business decisions are driven by data, not emotions; therefore, it’s essential to collect and utilize data as much as you possibly can. Tracking progress on business goals with OKRs and KPIs (Objectives and Key Results and Key Performance Indicators) helps you know whether your team is on track or not. Regularly measuring progress toward your goals will help you make informed decisions and optimize your strategic execution.

5. Check the scoreboard frequently

Because the score determines the ultimate result of a game, the scoreboard is largely broadcasted and continuously relayed to players, coaches and fans so that everyone knows who is winning and by how much.

In business, it’s equally important to provide visibility of progress to all team members so they can see how they are performing, which targets are on track and which may be falling behind. Lagging indicators help provide insight into why a team member might be behind on a goal, and catching these flags early will give them time to work with their manager to reassess the goal and tasks at hand, and course-correct as needed.

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Several businesses use software tools to create this kind of visibility. Align, for example, provides KPI dashboards that display all your data in one view, including historical data for each target visible to any and all team members.

Related: 25 Ways to Lead, Inspire and Motivate Your Team to Greatness

6. All team members must know their role (and each other’s)

In sports, each player has a specific role and responsibility — the offense looks to score, the defense defends the goal and so on. Furthermore, all players understand how their specific role contributes to reaching the overall team goal.

Clearly defining roles and responsibilities in a business helps ensure that all team members do their part and are aware of what each other is working on. Every task or priority should be covered by a designated team member, even though other team members might jump in to help. This clear assignment of roles helps eliminate the need to micromanage and lessens the likelihood of miscommunication about who is responsible for what.

7. Trust your team, and teach them to trust each other

Whether you are talking about sports, business or life in general, trust is the foundation of strong relationships. In sports, coaches must be able to trust that their teams understand the game plan and will do their best to execute it properly, while players must be able to trust one another as well.

As a CEO, you must be confident that your managers are well-equipped to lead their teams, and that their teams are able to function as unified fronts. This involves providing your team members with the tools and resources they need to be effective and trusting that they are capable of functioning properly without micromanagement. Trust enables CEOs to foster a culture of collaboration, creativity and open communication, and it also helps build morale that drives strong performance.

8. Motivation matters

Imagine a sports game with no fans. No cheerleaders, no cheering, no noise. Seems awkward, doesn’t it?

Cheering fans show support and appreciation to players, encouraging them and making them feel valued. People are motivated by this kind of peer encouragement and are more likely to perform well when they have a supportive and acknowledging fan base.

The same goes for business — team members need moral support and recognition for the work they do. As a company leader, recognizing and rewarding your team members for their achievements is a great way to show appreciation and encourage strong performance. Celebrating wins as part of company culture motivates team members to reach higher goals and drives morale.

9. Communicate constantly

As mentioned in the first point, a strategic plan has no value unless it is properly communicated to all team members. But communication does not stop after the initial plan is relayed.

Coaches often coach from the sidelines, giving their players feedback and advice as the game goes on. Players must also be in constant communication with one another on the field. It’s their responsibility to call out for help when they need it and offer help when they are open.

Most errors in business are caused by miscommunication or a lack of communication altogether. An easy way to improve communication and make a habit out of doing it constantly is to hold frequent, well-structured check-in meetings. Whether it’s a team meeting or a 1:1, having a time on the calendar creates a recurring opportunity to provide feedback and engage in an open dialogue to help ensure team members are in sync and on track.

Encourage your team members to ask for help when they need it and to help one another when they have the time and capacity to do so.

Related: 15 Quotes on Success From America’s Top CEOs

10. Always be improving

Win or lose, sports coaches close every game with a debrief and a pep talk. They discuss what worked, what didn’t work and what needs improvement for next time.

Similarly, in business, regular debriefs and retrospectives can help you identify areas for improvement and set new goals for the team. This involves reviewing progress on goals at least once per quarter, addressing lagging performers and adjusting your strategic plan as needed to ensure you hit your targets.

Continuously striving for improvement and growth is essential for long-term success.

No team can win without a good coach. As a CEO, you are responsible for setting up your team for success by capitalizing on their strengths, improving their weaknesses and creating alignment and motivation around a common goal.

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Gravy Smith
Gravy Smith
Gravy Smith is a mechatronic engineer who pivoted her career towards content writing, online marketing, and entrepreneurship.