Who are you practising at being?

by | Jan 22, 2020

I heard an interview with legendary NFL coach Bill Belichick, winner of six Super Bowls, that went something like:

“With all you have accomplished in your coaching career, what is left that you still want to accomplish?” he is asked.

“I’d like to go out and have a good practice today,” Belichick replied.

“That would be at the top of the list right now.”

As a leader, Belichick understands that it’s not enough to be all he can be, it is about coaching and supporting others to be all they can be. The next practice session represents this opportunity. There is nothing more important, no higher priority.

What does “good practice today” look like for you?

You will have expectations in relation to work rate, yours and the team. The attitude people bring each day, consistent and genuine effort, facing into challenging situations and circumstances, bouncing back from setbacks, testing personal limits and each other, finding something, individually and collectively.

Effort helps power culture, establishing which members of the team are ‘up for it’, building trust when the group is tested.

But in high-performance organisations, consistent effort is the expectation, merely a ticket to the game, nothing more. Organisations, teams and individuals are unlikely to find their competitive advantage with only a “work-harder” mindset in their kitbag. It needs to go deeper. Much deeper.

We’ve all experienced what I describe as a ‘try harder’ leader. They stand in front of the room exhorting greater effort as the means of achieving better outcomes. Yes, there will be occasions when this is required, teams need straightening-up from time-to-time. We’ve all been moved by a full-hearted speech from a respected leader, complete with a few home-truths when standards have slipped. Used with humility, discernment and insight, it has power. When it becomes the ‘go-to’ approach, it says more about the leader’s ego and judgement than the people in the room.

A group that relies on this kind of stimulus has not established the ethos required for continued improvement, and therefore improvements will not be sustained. They need more from their leaders.

The work-harder to get-better mindset is too narrow, a trap, lacking dimension and perspicacity. In most workplaces working harder really means working longer. We’ve been conditioned to think making progress in this world means working longer hours, and in doing so, ingraining habits and routines, rarely questioned and often celebrated, despite growing evidence of its negative impact on health, relationships, and by extension, reduced work performance.

Standards are much more than effort. In elite sport, for all but a few, the competition sets the standard. For Belichick, and the likes of Damien Hardwick and Alastair Clarkson in the AFL, the leaders in their field, seek to create new standards knowing that today’s elite will be tomorrow’s normal.

Given the structure of competition in team sport, standard setting is relatively obvious. Not so for non-sporting organisations. It is the responsibility of leaders to set the standard, performance expectations now and into the future, achieved by aligning goals and aspirations with two key levers, talent and systems.

But we do not rise to the level of our ambition, we fall to the level of our capability, and leadership insight is critical. We will not achieve this understanding by “working harder”, it is achieved by “thinking harder”.

Setting standards is also an opportunity for leaders to model behaviours and expectations. It starts by never setting a standard you cannot live every day, match words and actions, and walk your talk.

For Bill Belichick, “good practice today” does not mean keeping the team out on the practice field longer, a likely indicator of a poorly planned or executed session, or perhaps an angry and out-of-control coach. It will require a carefully crafted session, tailored to the needs of the team, their current situation and capability. Belichick achieves this by ‘thinking harder’, finding time and space in his overwhelming, unforgiving and distracted role to think deeply, designing the next session, at all times building on the collective acumen and input of his coaching team, and likely, the athletes themselves.

He has learnt to “think-harder”, face into the ambiguity and uncertainty of his role.

In the ebb and flow of life, it is more about the ebb than the flow, where learning and insight happens.

The test for all of us, as the year ramps up, is to form new work habits and routines that cut though the busy and push against the ingrained “work-harder” psyche, to embed a “think-harder” mindset.

In response, I offer a simple and powerful system for leaders.

Diarise one-hour every week for a “think-harder” meeting with yourself, preferably at the same day and time.  If you’re absolutely required to do something else, and it will happen, do not delete the meeting from your calendar, shift it to the next clear space, be it later in the day, or the next day.

Think like Belichick. He would never lead a practice session without the planning, despite the thousands of sessions he has taken, the planning being more important than the session.

Your “think-harder” meeting will soon become the most important hour of your week.

In the “think-harder” meeting, ask yourself two questions. The context can be as micro (eg activities) or macro (eg strategy) as your current challenge requires:

  1. Is it important?
  2. Is it working?

I recommend this simple 2x2 matrix, from which you will draw an action list. The most obvious conclusion will be the need to reduce the amount of effort and resource allocated to work that is not important, and redeploy to work that is important, clarifying what needs to changed or leveraged.

Back to Bill Belichick’s expectation of ambition, I’d ask:

“Who are you practising at being?”

You will not find the answer in your inbox.

You will not find it by refusing to leave the office.

You will not find it on social media.

You will find it is by forming a new and powerful habit, the “think-harder” meeting with yourself, building a practice of reflection, ensuring that you become the leader you seek to be, and what your team needs.

Go out and make your next practice a good one.

I always enjoy the opportunity to talk all things culture and high-performance, and the development of leaders to achieve it.

Here are three ways to start the ball rolling:

  • I teach and coach an integrated leadership performance system utilising sophisticated learning models and systems garnered from elite team sport, ideal for leaders who are committed learners, who understand the responsibility of leadership. To learn more, please arrange your FOC 30-minute leadership telephone consult to discuss your personal, team or organisational challenges or aspirations, please use this link.
  • Participate in our next one-day Leadership Masterclass which I personally facilitate. It is a sophisticated, intimate and practical leadership intensive for aspirational leaders, both current and emerging. To learn more, and to register, please use this link.
  • Sign up for the “More to the Game” weekly email, and receive a copy of my “What business can learn from football” White Paper. The emails are short leadership reflections, no more than a couple of minutes to read and we will always treat our communication with respect. Please use this link.

You can also contact me at cameron@designCEO.com.au and let me know how you think we can work together.

Cameron Schwab
CEO & Founder


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