Leading Through Uncertainty Part 2 – What We Can Learn from the Best Sports Coaches

Trying to figure out the best play to call

The current situation with COVID-19 pandemic has been unlike anything we have experienced previously.  With sports seasons suspended, I began to think about some comparisons between the best sports coaches and the best leaders in the current environment of uncertainty.

Here are 8 things you can learn from the best sports coaches:

  1. Be willing to call an audible.  The best coaches call audibles when their game plan is no longer working.  Even though you may have prepared what you thought was a strong strategic plan, when circumstances change, recognize that it’s time to call an audible and change the plan.  When external factors are changing this rapidly, you will likely need to implement changes quickly.  Be willing to change the course and adapt.
  2. Know your players and the depth of your bench.  Good coaches know the strengths of every player, even those who spend much of their time on the bench.  Great players are hard to replace when they must come out of the game.  The best coaches know the hidden strengths of all the players and can find the magic combination of players to overcome the loss of that one great player.  A real-life example of this is if your production supervisor must stay home since schools are closed, who else can help identify and implement changes in efficiency and processes?  If you know the hidden strengths of your team, you may recognize that your shipping clerk has created efficient processes in their department that indicate an innate strength that could be applied to other areas of the business.
  3. Recognize that losing one game does not mean the season is over.  The best coaches help their teams get over the loss as soon as possible in order to focus on the next game and the long-term vision for the season.  They inspire confidence in their players and motivate them to think positively.  As painful as it may be in the short term, recognize that the current challenges we are facing may just be a blip in the long season of your business.  Do your best to get through it, understanding that there may be some short-term, painful losses along the way.  If you can keep your team focused on your long-term vision, you are likely to succeed in the long term.
  4. Believe in yourself.  The best coaches believe in themselves and have the confidence that they can overcome adversity.  That type of confidence is contagious – the players can feel it.  Even when the players start to doubt their own abilities, the best coaches overcome that doubt by inspiring confidence and showing that they believe in their team.  And we learn the most about ourselves and our teams when we face adversity.
  5. Remain calm.  In my opinion, the best coaches remain calm in tough times.  Even when games become emotional, if the coach keeps his or her own emotions in check, he or she is often able to get the team to refocus on what they need to do.  Think about it – if you are in a critical situation, who do you want to follow?  A leader who is frantic and crazed, upset and out of control?  Or one who is calm and using the highest functioning portion of their brain because they are not in “fight or flight” mode?  If you tend to become emotional under stress, then self-care is important.  Getting enough exercise and sleep, eating healthy, and using mindfulness practices can help, even in small doses.
  6. Seek input from your best players.  The best coaches trust their team leaders to provide input on what could be done differently.  As leaders, we don’t have to have all the answers.  Our job is to hire the best and allow them to help us lead more effectively.  They will likely see things differently in the middle of the game than we see from the sidelines, and that perspective can be invaluable when making decisions.
  7. Focus on opportunities.  The best coaches watch for mismatches between the teams, then take advantage of the opportunities that appear in the moment.  For example, if you have been struggling to hire workers for the second shift, perhaps now is the time to seek out those who worked at the bars that are now closed.  If you have unused trucks, could they be leased to companies who are struggling to keep grocery stores stocked?  Is now an opportunity to partner with a competitor, or to make that acquisition that would enable you to provide a more comprehensive service to your customers? 
  8. Think about next season.  When things are not going as well as planned for the current season, the best coaches start to think ahead to the next season.  Internally, where are the gaps in talent on the team?  Which players are just not a good fit with the current game plan or culture?  Do some players just need a bit more development in order to reach their full potential?  Externally, will any rules of the game change next season?  How might your industry be different when the pandemic has ended?  Will your products and services still be relevant?  How can you be less reliant on one supply chain?  How can you handle more work virtually? 

What other attributes have you observed in the best sports coaches that could be applied during this time of uncertainty?

Leading Through Uncertainty

Uncertainty

One of the biggest challenges leaders face is leading through uncertainty.  The current COVID-19 situation is certainly one of those times. 

Uncertainty creates stress, so it is more important than ever for CEOs and business owners to step up and lead their teams with confidence.  Here are my 12 tips for effectively leading through uncertainty:

  1. Communicate – Especially in times of uncertainty, the grapevine can run rampant.  It is important for everyone to hear from you directly about the situation and what you are doing.  Communicate frequently and in small sound bites.
  2. Lead by Example – Understand that everyone is watching you – even when you think they are not.  Everything you do and say is under scrutiny.  Are you frantic or calm?  Are you withdrawing or making yourself available to your people?  Are you following company policy (e.g. staying home when you are sick), or are you breaking your own rules?  Your behavior sends a very strong message.
  3. Create Contingency Plans – What if your largest supplier shuts down temporarily?  What if your customers stop buying your products and services for a month?  What financial resources are available?  What happens if schools and childcare centers close and your employees need to stay home with their kids?  What will you do if someone at your company tests positive?  Create contingency plans for various scenarios in case you need to implement them quickly.
  4. Be Decisive – It’s ok not to have all the answers.  Ask your team for input and brainstorm with them on areas where you unsure of the best approach.  Seek outside input from your peers, such as your fellow Vistage members.  Once you’ve gathered input from others and evaluated the potential risks and rewards, then go ahead and make those decisions, no matter how challenging.  Procrastination only leads to more stress and uncertainty for everyone.
  5. Inspire Confidence and Teamwork – Let your team know that you believe in them.  It’s ok to admit to them that you do not know the potential impact of the situation on your business.  Just let them know that you are glad you are entering this period of uncertainty with such a strong team on your side.  Inspire confidence that together you can get through anything that comes your way. 
  6. Delegate Small Decisions – A sense of control alleviates stress caused by uncertainty, so find opportunities to allow your employees to exercise control within their departments.  For example, can employees within a department figure out how they are going to cover the work if someone is out, rather than being told that everyone needs to work 10-hour days?   For the short term, can they control moving the weekly meeting to virtual rather than meeting in person in the conference room?  Delegating some of the smaller decisions allows you and your management team to focus on more strategic decisions.
  7. Offer Support – Understand that some of your employees may be feeling overwhelmed and fearful.  So even if you do not feel stressed, be aware that others may be experiencing extreme stress.  They may be worried about the health of an older relative, or their personal financial situation.  Remind your employees about resources that are available to them, such as your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or other mental health or financial resources.
  8. Practice Self-Care – Are you taking care of yourself?  Getting enough sleep?  Exercising and eating right?  Are you giving yourself mental health breaks?  Taking care of yourself can help protect your immune system and enable you to be at your best.
  9. Include Humor – Laughter is a terrific stress-reducer.  Are there ways to inject appropriate humor into the workplace?  For example, we are being reminded to wash our hands with soap and water for 20 seconds at a time.  A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times listed 20 songs that you could wash your hands to, such as “Stayin Alive” by the Bee Gees, “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, and “Karma Chameleon” by the Culture Club.  Could you pipe those songs into the bathrooms to add a bit of humor while encouraging them to practice good hygiene?   Or could you start the weekly meeting with a funny clip from a movie?
  10. Encourage Breaks – Exercise and sunshine can reduce stress.  Consider encouraging your employees to take short breaks to walk outside.
  11. Fix Existing Problems – Does the current situation allow you to make changes that you’ve been procrastinating?  Is it time to update employee policies or terminate that underperforming employee?  This time of uncertainty may be the perfect time to act and fix existing problems.
  12. Identify Potential Opportunities – Are there opportunities in this time of uncertainty to provide a new product or service to existing customers or sell to a new market?  What long-term effects might the pandemic have on your industry?  How can you adapt your business model to a new normal?  Staying focused on opportunities and possibilities can give you an advantage over your competition.  It is also much more fun than looking only at the negative impact of the current situation. 

Companies that are well-led through difficult times often come out stronger than before.  It’s time for you to step up and lead!

Annual Goal Letters

Happy New Year!  What are your traditions each January?  Do you reflect on the past year?  Do you set annual personal and professional goals for the coming year?

For many years, I’ve had my Vistage members write an annual goal letter to themselves as if it were the end of the coming year and they’ve achieved all of their professional and personal goals.  They then share their letters with their Vistage group in January and hold one another accountable to those goals throughout the year.

By writing the letter as if the goals have already been accomplished, we are able to bring positive emotions into the equation and envision success.  And by sharing those goals with others, there is increased motivation and encouragement to achieve them. 

If you are interested in trying this approach, I’ve included the instructions I shared with my Vistage groups below.  Please let me know what you think!

Vistage Annual Goal Letter Instructions – Updated for 2020

For our January meeting, your annual goals should be written in the form of a letter to yourself as if it is the last day of the upcoming year.   The intent is to look back over the year and experience the feeling of being able to accomplish ALL your goals for the year.  As many of you know, visualizing something can help you achieve it.   As in the past, please add a BHAG to the top of the letter.  The BHAG (“Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal” in Jim Collins’ books “Good to Great” and “Built to Last”) is defined by Collins as a huge and daunting goal, like a big mountain to climb.  It is clear, compelling, and people “get it” right away.  It falls within the space where 3 circles intersect – something you can be deeply passionate about, something you can be best in the world at, and something that would increase profitability/drive your economic engine.  In the book “Good to Great”, Collins mentions Boeing’s BHAG of becoming the best in the world at commercial jet manufacturing even though at the time, they were not even in the commercial jet market.  Please note that the BHAG is not likely something that can be accomplished in the upcoming year.  It is a north star toward which you will strive.  Be sure to include a target year for your BHAG.

It is important to make your goals SMART:  Specific, Measurable, Achievable (but stretch!), Results-Oriented, and Time-Specific.  Here are some additional guidelines to follow:

  1. The letter should be dated as of December 31, 2020.
  2. Make sure your name is on your letter – an easy way to accomplish this is to start with Dear _______.
  3. The goal letter should cover the entire year and be written in past tense.  Remember, the intent is to experience that sense of accomplishment!
  4. Your goal letter should include both business and personal goals, and you should have at least 3 of each for each quarter of the year.
  5. Many goals will have milestones that are measurable interim targets toward the larger overall goal.  Whenever possible, align those milestones with the quarters during the year to make your quarterly updates easier.  (We will again be reporting on our progress to the group each quarter.)  Make sure to include specific dates for those milestones and goals in the letter.
  6. Once you have established your goals and milestones, review your goal letter to ensure that you have at least 3 business and 3 personal goals or reportable milestones for each quarter of the year.  (It is common for people to have more goals in the first quarter or last quarter of the year, and neglect the second and third quarters.  Remember that the goal letter is for the entire year.)
  7. Try to avoid vague terms such as “more”, “fewer”, etc., and replace them with specific, measurable targets.  (People often set goals such as “spend more time with my family”.  You can make it more specific and quantifiable by changing it to say “have dinner 3 nights per week with my family.”)
  8. Look back over your goals from the previous year.  Were some of the goals unrealistic?  Were some too easy to achieve?  The intent is to set goals that make you push yourself, but not to set impossible goals that will result in you wanting to give up and stop trying.
  9. After reviewing your goals from the previous year, should some be carried over into this year with new deadlines?
  10. What could be a game-changer for you or for your business in the coming year, whether it’s something you initiate (such as a potential Blue Ocean Strategy), or whether it is something that may happen due to external forces (such as competition, new technology, or legislation)?  Make sure your goals address this potential game-changer.
  11. What is the most important thing for do this year toward your BHAG?  Make sure you have goals that help you keep that BHAG in focus.

Now start working on those goals and visualize your way to success!

The Best Players Have Coaches – Do You?

Coaching session

The best players in the world have coaches.  In addition to trainers who help them learn how to play with less risk of injury, they have coaches who help with their mindset.  Even the best players have bad days where the game or match doesn’t go as planned.  If they are not careful, that one bad day can lead to another and result in a downward cycle. 

A good coach can help them put things into perspective.  One bad game or match does not mean that they are no longer an elite player.  One bad game just means they are human.  A good coach can get them to learn from their mistakes and help them overcome any negative self-talk.  They can help them reframe the situation and then focus on their strengths and the goals they want to achieve.

The best leaders have coaches, too.  As a CEO or business owner, you regularly make decisions that impact your business and your employees’ future.  Have you ever made a decision you later regretted?  Of course you have!  When you make a poor decision that has negative consequences, how do you react?  Does negative self-talk kick in, such as “That was so stupid”, or “I’m not good enough”?  Do you start to question your ability to lead?   Do you procrastinate making decisions because you are afraid the decision will be wrong again?  How do you get yourself back on track before you fall into a downward spiral?

If you have a good coach, they can provide an objective perspective and help you reframe the situation to overcome the negative self-talk.  They will hold you accountable for what you said you would do and remind you of the goals you previously set.  They will challenge your assumptions to help you see things from a different perspective.  And most importantly, they will encourage you and help you become the best leader you can be. 

The best players have coaches – do you?

Is It Time for a Tune-Up?

Checking the Oil

Do you periodically take your car in for a tune-up:  perhaps an oil change and tire rotation?  Let’s look at the similarities between your business and your car. 

Could you imagine saying, “Since the original oil in my car got me this far, I am going to keep it for the next 100,000 miles or so”?  Of course not!  Without regular oil changes a car’s engine could be damaged, necessitating expensive repairs or perhaps even an engine replacement.

Similarly, our businesses need regular tune-ups in order to operate well.  If you don’t periodically check under the hood of your business, you might miss some potential damage that could be impacting your business performance.  The mid-point of the year is a great time for a tune-up!

Take a moment to step away from the business and get others’ input on how things are going.   Talk with your employees and find out what tools and training may help them do their jobs more efficiently.  Ask for their innovative ideas on how things could be done differently.  Just like rotating the tires on your car, sometimes minor changes can yield lasting results. 

Are you easily able to find and retain good employees?  How can you increase your success rate for hiring?  What are you doing to retain the good employees your currently have on your team?  How can you increase your retention rate?

Check-in on your culture.  How is employee morale?  Do your departments work well together, or are there silos that prevent information from flowing freely between the teams?  Are you aware what the ever-present grapevine is saying about the company?  And what it is saying about you as a leader?  Have you checked Glassdoor.com recently?

Ask your front-line employees what they are noticing in their interactions with customers.  Has anything changed?  Do they feel the relationships with customers are becoming stronger?  Or are you becoming a commodity to them?

Reach out to some of your key customers and find out which of their needs are and are not being met.  If there is a pain point, perhaps simple changes could be made to alleviate their pain.  Or there may be an opportunity to create a separate line of business and create a new stream of revenue while making your customers happy.  Be open to the possibilities!

And while you are tuning up your company, why not tune-up your life?  What is working well for you?  What could you do differently to reduce stress and enhance your personal happiness?

Take advantage of this mid-year point for a comprehensive tune-up.  Your employees, customers and family will thank you!

Memorial Day Traditions

Memorial Day

As a child, I loved Memorial Day because it generally meant the end of the school year and the beginning of summer. I recall childhood Memorial Day memories of going to my grandma’s lake cottage and putting the dock in the water, cooking on the grill, and enjoying time with family, as well as attending the Memorial Day parade in the nearby town to honor those who died while serving our country. I enjoyed seeing the poppies and waving a small flag at the parade, even though I didn’t really understand the depth of meaning behind the holiday. As I grew older, I came to understand the importance of that celebration.


As an adult, those traditions have changed only slightly since I now live in Florida. I still enjoy time with family and friends, grilling, and enjoying time in the water (which is now a pool instead of a lake). And we display our flag proudly to thank those service men and women who died in service to our country.

Creating traditions and memories can be important in business as well as in families. What type of traditions have you created for your business? What types of celebrations and team-building activities do you have that result in lasting memories for all involved? How are you honoring and recognizing the hard work of your employees? It might be time to thank them for their service!

Leadership Lessons from the NHL Playoffs

Those of you who know me are aware that I’ve been a big Tampa Bay Lightning hockey fan for almost 25 years. Sadly, my team lost in game 7 of round 3 of the 2018 playoffs. As I watched the NHL playoffs this year, I realized there are many parallels that can be drawn to good business leadership.

For those not familiar with the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s an elimination tournament consisting of four rounds of best-of-seven series. Eight teams from each of the two conferences qualify for the playoffs based on regular season points totals. It’s a very long process over a period of weeks that is emotionally and physically exhausting for the players. (And emotional for some of the fans, too!)

Throughout their playoff run, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced some major adversity. Their ability to overcome setbacks was impressive in the early rounds.

In each of the first 2 rounds of the playoffs, the Lightning won because of a total team-effort. When one player had a bad night, another stepped up and elevated their game to ensure a win. All four lines contributed to the effort, from the stars to less-recognized players. They play unselfishly, trusting their teammates to pull them through when times were tough. Can you count on every one of your employees to contribute to your success? Are they working together as a team? Do you have a culture of trust? Or is internal competition limiting your overall success?

When the media and others doubted the Lightning, they believed in themselves and pulled together even more. They felt they had something to prove and then went out and proved it. Does your team tend to listen to the naysayers? Or do they believe in themselves even in the face of adversity?

When the Lightning fell behind in a game or a series, they did not give up. They sacrificed their bodies to block shots and kept trying until the last second ticked off the clock. That determination and perseverance allowed them to win games they were not expected to win. Are your employees that engaged? Are they willing to sacrifice their own needs for the needs of others?

When they played the more physical Boston Bruins, the Bruins used some questionable tactics to distract and upset the Lightning players, including licking the face of a Lightning player. Have your competitors ever tried something that pushed your buttons? How did you react? The Lightning managed their emotions and stuck to their game plan, leading to an eventual series win.

The Lightning’s ups and downs continued into round 3 with the Washington Capitals. They had lost 2 games at home before winning the next 2 away games to even the series. After again trading wins, it all came down to game 7. The Capitals did not allow the Lightning to score in that game, eliminating them from the playoffs. As in business, the best strategy can fail if it is not executed properly. How are you ensuring that your strategy is properly executed? Do you debrief with your team when you lose a deal or a customer? Do you regularly monitor KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)?

While my team will not achieve their goal of winning the Stanley Cup this year, I am hopeful that some of these leadership lessons from their playoff run will help you achieve your ultimate business goals.

Are You an Inspirational Leader?

Are you an inspirational leader? Even when times get tough? How you lead your team through challenging times can significantly impact their motivation and potentially the success of your company.

Let’s assume that Joe and Sue are CEOs who have just learned that their biggest customer has been acquired by a much larger company. The acquirer informed them that they will no longer need their service or product. This customer represents a significant portion of their business, and the acquisition was completely unanticipated. They did not have a contingency plan in place. (For more on the importance of contingency plans, see my blog entitled, “Distant Storm Clouds – Do You Have a Plan?”)

Joe hears the news and immediately retreats to his office and shuts the door. He spends the next hour frantically calling his contacts at the customer, trying to ask them to make an introduction to the new owner so he can get back in the door. When that doesn’t work, he sits in his office, completely stressed out, and worried that he may lose the entire business as a result. He stays in his office, afraid to talk to his employees even though he knows they have also likely heard about the lost customer. He waits until all of his employees are gone for the day, then goes home, where he also avoids his family. He does not want to worry them, and he is so stressed that he cannot think clearly. He continues to avoid speaking to his employees for several more days. While he knows that the problem will not go away, he is afraid to tell his employees that he does not have a plan.

Sue hears the news, and immediately calls her management team together. She shares the information she has just learned, and tells her team, “This is a big loss for us. I must admit that I did not see this coming, and do not have a plan that is ready to implement. I will call the customer in case there is a way to negotiate a longer transition period. Meanwhile, we will need to work together to find a way to increase sales to replace the volume of business that we lost. At the same time, we will also identify where we can cut costs to offset the loss in revenue in the short term. One of the first things we will do is to determine how to share this information with the rest of our employees so that they can help us find the necessary solutions, while being truthful that we do not know how this may impact us in the short term. Let’s spend some time brainstorming ideas, then I will ask each of you to take the lead on one or more initiatives. We will check in with one another daily to see how things are progressing and how we can support one another. I have confidence in our team and know that we will be able to work through this challenge and come out on the other side even stronger. Let’s do this!”

Which of these two leaders inspires more confidence?  If you worked for Sue, you would likely respect her approach, and how she takes charge of the process while seeking input from her management team. She admits her mistakes, and most importantly, expresses confidence in her team’s ability to work together to overcome the challenge.

Sue is an inspirational leader.  What type of leader are you?

The Importance of Specific Goals

Do you have an annual goal-setting process? Or is it your idea of goal-setting to create New Year’s Resolutions which are set and forgotten in a matter of weeks? I encourage everyone to have written, specific goals with target dates. The more clear and specific you are, and the more often you look at your written goals, the higher your chance of success.

In my Vistage groups, my members write an annual goal letter to themselves as if it were the end of the upcoming year and they were looking back on the year to congratulate themselves on accomplishing all their goals. This exercise enables the members to visualize their success and to use past-tense wording that helps the brain believe these things were already accomplished. The goal letters are then shared with the other members in the group, so that the group can hold them accountable for their goals. We provide updates to one another regularly through the year to keep those goals top of mind, increasing the likelihood of success.

I’ve been writing an annual goal letter to myself for over 20 years and have found it to be an integral part of my annual planning process. When I am crystal clear about what I want to achieve, and when I create milestones toward my goals that are reviewed regularly, I have found that I am much more likely to accomplish those goals.

It’s important to be very specific about what you want. If you say you want to “increase” revenues, then specify an amount and a target date. If you say you want to spend “more” time with your family in the coming year, define what you mean. Will you no longer take work home? Will you take weekends off? Will you spend 2 hours each week with each child doing something they want to do? Will you and your significant other have a weekly date night?

After many years of working with CEOs and business owners, I have observed that there are 2 different types of reactions at the end of the year when a goal is not very specific. Let’s use a revenue example to illustrate the 2 different reactions.

At the beginning of the year, 2 CEOs write a goal that said they want more revenue than the previous year. When both CEOs wrote the goal, they were thinking that a 10% increase would be great. Unfortunately, they did not specify 10% when writing the goal. At the end of the year, one business increased revenue by 15%. That CEO was disappointed because she thought she could have done better. If she had specified 10% at the beginning of the year, she may have been celebrating a great accomplishment with her team rather than feeling disappointed. The other business increased revenue by only 7% and the CEO was bragging about his achievement, when he did not actually achieve his goal. If instead, he had specified a goal of 10%, he likely would have been pushing his team throughout the year to achieve the 10% instead of settling for 7%.

It’s not too late to write your annual goal letter and share it with others who can hold you accountable. Please let me know of your success!