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Vince Lombardi

Sports metaphors are so tempting. They are almost unavoidable when trying to explain how a particular something in business is much like something in sports. Who among us hasn’t heard, “Home court advantage,” “Slam dunk,” or “Break your duck”?

And, why is it that college and professional coaches are so often used as examples for business leaders to follow; and what explains the popularity of consultants calling themselves “coaches”? I think the reason is partly explained by the very nature of knowledge work.

You see, knowledge workers, e.g., scientists, software programmers, marketers, engineers, et al. are experts. They are unresponsive, or at least respond adversely, to being controlled, directed, and disciplined. The nature of their work requires three things for them to perform at a high level and to be effective: Meaningful work, feedback, and continuous learning. Of these, feedback, which needs to be timely, relevant, and actionable is the fastest way to help a knowledge worker improve her performance. When management provides knowledge workers with information, perspective, actual vs. projected performance, etc. it is acting much more like a coach than a hard-nosed task master trying to direct the action using rewards and punishments.

In sports, it is easy to see the way coaches give feedback to their players—experts in their own right—and the impact that feedback has on the individual or team. The coaching is often televised right there on the sidelines and the results are just as immediate. So, next time you’re thinking about how to elevate the performance of your team remember why coaching is a better perspective for you. Give your people the information they need, tell them how they’re doing compared to others and other groups, and give them the chance to develop new knowledge to do their work.

After all, it’s not like you have the time, or ability, to run out on the field, hike yourself the ball, fall back, make a difficult throw—and then go catch your own pass. You need players for that—and they need a coach.


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