Coaching / Teams / Performance
How to Help Other People Get Better
When my two sons were about 5–6, they began playing organized baseball. They continued for several years and moved up from tee-ball to coach-pitch to player-pitch.
I was a frustrated ballplayer from back in the day. I really struggled when batting. I just never seemed to get the knack of connecting the bat to the ball. Looking back on it, I was probably just a slow learner and needed lots of extra practice. Unfortunately, my father who had been quite the baseball phenom in his day, had neither the time, patience, nor inclination to help me.
My Little League baseball coach who was in it to make sure his son started and had the most at-bats for the team didn’t really help a whole lot either. For him, it wasn’t about winning or growing ballplayers, it was about his son.
As we transitioned to coach-pitch, my boys weren’t hitting the ball out of the park. I said, wait a second, I’ve seen this movie before. It’s time to re-write the script!
Whoosh! We were off to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy a bucket of baseballs. This was at a time when money was a little tight and I was struggling to build my business. BUT, a man has to have priorities, right?
I started taking my boys to the field after school, on weekend, whenever the weather cooperated and we had time. I’d throw a bucket of baseballs to one son while the other fetched and gathered, then throw to the other. I coached them on their stance, their swing, their timing. I explained to them to watch the ball as it left the pitcher’s hand. And they improved.
Somewhere along the way, their enthusiasm waned. They were doing okay hitting and they were okay with that. Dad wasn’t. “Come on, boys, let’s go hit a few,” I’d say and they’d decline.
Then we’d transition to basketball season. I LOVE basketball. March Madness is my favorite season of the year. I coached basketball and worked hard to develop practice plans, agonized over starting lineups and substitutions during games.
It took me a couple of years to figure things out. I love helping people grow and get better. I’ve built my business around it.
I spent 22 years on active-duty as an Army officer. I led teams from 3–4 soldiers up to a couple of hundred. I had some amazing individuals work for me and I had some real duds. Of course most of them were somewhere in between the two extremes.
Before the Army, I attended and graduated the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point. Most people simply call it West Point or the Academy. Sadly, a few people also refer to the United States Naval Academy (USNA) at Annapolis or the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) (which is somewhere west of the Mississippi) as the Academy as well. This is kind of like calling a high school football team the Pittsburgh Steelers. You can do it, but everyone knows it’s hyperbole.
At West Point, I was fortunate to lead other teams of cadets from two to about forty. Most of them were pretty outstanding and a small percentage of them were not.
That’s 26 years of phenomenal leadership opportunities and I learned a great deal along the way. In the eight years since I retired from the Army, I’ve worked with employees from quite a few companies. Somewhere in there, the lines of learning started to cross.
For me, helping people get better has always been about performance feedback, communication, patience, all while setting clear goals and expectations. Those things work. They really do and I know that because I’ve seen them work time and time again.
But they aren’t the magic bullets to make everyone great. It’s like the old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a lightbulb. Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. In spite of going to a top-notch leadership school and leading soldiers on three different continents, it took my kids to teach me how to really help people get better.
You can’t. They have to want to get better. I could have dragged my sons to the ballfield day after day for hitting practice. I could have bullied, bribed, or coerced them into batting practice. I wasn’t willing to pay the price. The cost was too high. I didn’t want to damage my relationship with them. My sons and I aren’t “buddies.” I never worried about being friends with them or being the “cool” dad.
But I have learned in coaching basketball and baseball that I can’t want it more than they do. No matter how much I want to win, or see them achieve greatness, I cannot make them want it as well.
In looking back over my life in the Army, I saw the same thing happen. When my unit fell short, I owned it. It was my fault as a leader. I failed. I’d reflect on it and agonize over coming up short. There were always mistakes and there were always things I could have done better or differently.
When I succeeded, and I did well many, many times, it was because I had soldiers that wanted to succeed. I take credit for my part of it. I learned early as a lieutenant that when you have great people, at least fifty percent of success is just getting out of the way. It’s those other times that make being a leader so hard.
In the business world, things are a little different. Leadership skills matter, absolutely. But even more important than your individual skills is your ability to build a team. The ability to get the right people on the team is paramount to achieving excellence.
I used to laugh when I read business articles about only hiring “A” players. I’d laugh because it’s easy to be awesome when you draft the all-star team. The problem is the world isn’t full of A-players.
In the Army, you have limited influence on who’s on your team. In business, you have more leeway, but hiring and firing are enormously painful. If you are a great leader, you can elevate your team’s performance. You can make them better. But if you want to achieve true greatness, you’re going to have to do lots of firing and hiring until you get the right people in the right places. The rest is easy after that.