Just two months from now, hundreds of the world’s elite athletes will stride, slide and Salchow their way to the medal podium of the 20th Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy. But if you’re an entrepreneur, the best action won’t be on the slopes, rinks or tracks — it will be on the sidelines, where coaches will be pushing their athletes toward peak performance.
Sports psychologist Peter Jensen will be there with them. “Coaching brings to the table a lot of things that traditional management styles do not,” says Jensen, who also teaches at the Queen’s School of Business and heads up Performance Coaching, a Toronto-based corporate training firm. “The level of performance that’s required today is so high that you can’t just demand it out of people; they choose to give it to you. Managers have to start focusing on building commitment in people, and that’s what coaches do.”
After 19 years of working in tandem with Olympic coaches, two years ago Jensen began harvesting their best lessons for business managers. It has been a bumper crop. Jensen packaged that learning into a presentation called the Five Rings of Truth, which he delivered this fall to audiences across Canada — and shares here with PROFIT:
“Great coaches are extremely effective under pressure because they’ve worked on their self-awareness and self-control,” says Jensen. “Not-so-good coaches get caught up in the moment and their emotions, and they lose sight of their own purpose.” Self-awareness also helps you identify your weaknesses, which are obstacles to effective coaching. A poor communicator, for instance, may leave employees wondering what their task or goal is.
“Trust leads to commitment,” says Jensen, because trusting employees believe you won’t set them up to fail. But don’t expect leaps of faith. “Good coaches know you build confidence and competence in tandem, and the best way to build them is with the successful completion of a small step,” Jensen explains. “Coaches work on the staircase, not on the top of the landing.”
Being able to describe what successful behaviour looks like is a key difference between good and bad leaders. For instance, telling an employee to be a better listener is like telling a figure skater to jump higher and rotate more often. Instead, says Jensen, describe what good listening looks like: “You’re leaning forward in your chair, making eye contact and saying ‘uh-huh’ every so often, so I know you’re there.”
Work through it
Many managers make incorrect assumptions about obstacles to performance; in doing so, they direct an employee’s energies toward solving a problem that doesn’t exist. “Good coaches don’t block a block with a block,” says Jensen. “They find out what’s really in the way and focus on that. It’s about asking effective questions and listening.”
“Any time you’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, you’re going to run into adversity,” says Jensen. “But it can be the best teacher if you take an active role.” In other words, find the lessons in failure, and you’ll take another important step to the top of the landing.