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5 things managers can learn from my favourite hockey team

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22nd Apr 2016
Co-founder WorkTango
Columnist
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Rob Catalano is passionate about helping companies succeed – by leveraging technology to make employees successful. As a founding employee, Rob spent the past ten years at Achievers in three different countries. With his unique experience in HR Technology, Rob co-founded WorkTango – a platform that helps managers build authentic relationships and trust with their employees and create high performing teams.

When writing, I always ensure it’s about a topic I truly care about and something that excites (or annoys) me.

This time, I’m combining two topics I’m passionate about: management best practices and my favourite hockey team – the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Maple Leafs are a 100-year old franchise that I’ve followed religiously since I was a child.

Before this season started, there was optimism as the organization acquired a new coach named Mike Babcock. Since then, however, there has been a myriad of changes he has had to deal with.

Even if you’re not a Maple Leaf fan, hockey fan, or sports fan - there’s still a lot to learn from Mike Babcock when it comes to management.

It’s been a tough decade as a fan, though - they have been awful.

1. Suck it up. Deal with change.

As a manager, things change that you must learn to deal with. Some are out of your control. Some are just ridiculous. What has Coach Babcock gone through in only four months?

  • Changes in personnel – a new General Manager (equivalent to a new leader in the company) was hired that made impactful decisions like trading players.
  • Changes to players – over half of the players that started the season are no longer there after being traded. They have also been riddled with injuries. No continuity in his staff.
  • Weird policies – Leadership has a policy that all staff are clean-shaven, including players. I’m not kidding.

As bad as it may seem, someone else has it worse, and no one has it perfect.

Stay positive, but honesty and passion goes a long way in building trust. 

Managers will have to deal with situations that may be in or out of their control.

Part of your role as a manager is to look forward and adjust. The rest of this list can help you.

2. Be positive, but be honest, too.  Your team is always watching.

Maple Leafs results

(NHL standings as of March 7, 2016)

The Maple Leafs are dead-last in the league with 52 points this season with no hope of making the playoffs (every time I proofread that last statement it’s painful to read!).

Part of your role as a manager is to look forward and adjust. 

You may have or acquired a low-performing team. Your department may be the least engaged. Whatever the situation, as a manager, you set the tone for the team.

You need to have a plan and encourage your team to be with you on that plan. Exhibiting positivity that change is possible is a game-changer for your team. Sulking over impossibility of change will demotivate them immediately.

As important as that, also be honest. You and your team knows it’s a bit of a mess right now, so if you address the problem and be a part of collectively fixing them you will be in a much better place.

Even though the season is out or reach, Coach Babcock continually motivates, teaches, and pats players on the back during games to keep them motivated.

Coach Babcock

3.  Manage roadblocks and stand up for your team

There are problems that will hinder your team’s success. Understand them and ensure you remove them. That’s one of the most important roles of a great manager.

Roadblocks happen. You get it. Your team gets it. But the rest of the organization may not get it.

There are times that you also need to provide air-cover for your team when things go wrong. Sucking it up is a part of it, but having honest conversations with your team as well as senior management is important.

Make sure you establish the purpose of your team and the key performance indicators that drive success.

I love how Coach Babcock defends his team from a loss – he calls out how the referees messed up calls and got too involved in the game.

The best part of the video is that it’s ok to show passion as a leader. Managers are still human and can show emotions.

It’s still important to stay positive as the previous point highlights, but that honesty and passion goes a long way in building trust. 

Try a quarterly ‘brutal facts’ session. Have the team address and prioritize all issues that occurred the previous quarter, then prioritize what to work on the upcoming quarter together making specific team members accountable.

It shows your effort to improve things, educates you on what major issues are, and builds trust as you collectively improve things as a team.  

4. Have easy AND hard conversations

It’s important to communicate with employees – good and bad.

Make sure you’re consistently recognizing great behaviours and results. After all, what gets recognized gets repeated. Also, harder conversations including feedback is important to be aligned on what’s working and what isn’t.

In a recent game, Coach Babcock had a few rookies playing well and some not playing so well.

We don’t have a public forum like he does in this video, but he does a good job identifying that two of his players played great, and two needed to work harder if they want to be successful.

Now, I don’t know what his 1-on-1 conversations look like, but I’d bet he doesn’t shy away from those types of meetings!

Add these two items to your regular 1-on-1 meetings with employees and ensure you’re consistently providing feedback and recognizing great performance.

5. Get the team on-board

You need to establish what success looks like as a manager and build a culture to make it possible. Remember though, that you’re only a manager. Coach Babcock doesn’t hold hockey sticks on the ice and score goals, he needs to create an environment that the team can strive in.

Make sure you establish the purpose of your team and the key performance indicators that drive success, and a culture that will help along your journey to success.

From Toronto’s General Manager Lou Lamoriello: “Teams win championship and individual players can help you win games.”

It’s all about managing the whole team in the right way if you want to be successful.

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