Coaches Don’t Win Games

CEOs, like coaches, have to be motivators, responsible for transforming individual self-interest to shared interest.

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When things go well, they get too much credit—and when things go badly, they get too much blame. When they lose, they get fired; when they win, they are the most brilliant strategists ever.

“They” are coaches and CEOs. Leading a sports team and leading a business have uncanny similarities. For one thing, there is always a highly visible scoreboard. People only care about the final results:

Did the team win or lose? Nobody is going to give a coach more than a few losses to turn things around.

Similarly, the median tenure of a CEO in the S&P 500 is about eight years or 32 quarters. Without a solid winning record quarter to quarter, a CEO isn’t going to last. Whether someone agrees with such short-term thinking is beside the point—it’s the reality of the game.

Face it, nobody likes to lose, neither coaches nor players (and, in youth sports, nor the parents, either). You can downplay winning all you want, but the outcome of the game sets the tone for how everyone feels. Korn Ferry has studied workforce motivation for decades. We’ve found that being part of a winning team—one that has an inspiring purpose, and in which individuals grow, learn and feel loved—is an unbeatable motivation.

While it’s true that the team with the best talent generally wins, having a winning team is not about amassing the most star players. CEOs and coaches alike must start with a systematic approach grounded in a mission and a philosophy
—a purpose—executed with a playbook of proven offensive, defensive and disruptive strategies. Bill Belichick, who coached the New England Patriots to seven Super Bowl appearances (including five victories), takes a systematic approach. It isn’t about any single player but about how the whole comes together. No wonder Belichick is known for his mantra: “Do your job.”

In the corporate world, as in sports, strategy (or the “game plan”) must be harmonious with talent (and vice versa)—and the leader is the coach.

Great coaches and leaders inspire others to believe, and enable that belief to become reality. They also take the ultimate responsibility. I will never forget the stunning words of America’s winningest football coach, John McKissick of South Carolina’s Summerville High School, who over the course of 63 years led his football team to 621 victories. He told me: “Coaches don’t win games, players do. Players don’t lose games, coaches do.” All coaches and leaders should use McKissick’s words as a personal mantra.

CEOs, like coaches, have to be motivators, responsible for transforming individual self-interest to shared interest—the journey from “I” to “we.”

I’ve found that a CEO, much like a coach, must be obsessed with only two constituencies—their people (employees or “players”) and their customers—while at the same time keeping a watchful eye on the competition. It takes knowledge of one’s opponents to anticipate their next move. While there is a playbook (or strategy) to follow, the best coaches make adjustments in real time, during the game. Great CEOs do the same thing: They don’t wait for the arcane annual “off-site.” Rather, failing fast and learning faster, they continually reshape their strategy.

In sports or in business, strategy without talent is pointless, and talent without strategy is helpless. It’s up to the coach and the leader to optimize both.

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