SBJ/July 11-17, 2011/Opinion

Throw out the script and reclaim your management playbook

For the past several decades, the proliferation of leadership training in sports business has stripped managers of their individual identities by prescribing what all managers should say and do and how they should say and do it. Thousands of managers have been force fed slightly different versions of the same content packed with scripted responses to hypothetical situations with little or no attention to context.

The result: A virtual army of leadership-trained managers throughout the sports world who have acquired unsophisticated, blunt “communication” tools to apply to management situations that are infinitely richer and more complex than those they were designed to address.

If you’ve been through leadership training described above, you’ve had your playbook scripted for you by someone who doesn’t know half as much as you do about who you are, who’s on your team, and what your day-to-day issues are. A manager forced to rely on a small handful of management tools to respond to a dizzying range of management challenges (increasing competition for sponsorship, corporate, and personal spending in a weak economy; beaten-down workers fearful that sports and entertainment cuts will increase and promotions will dry up, etc.) would be like restricting a club golfer to a driver, sand wedge and putter, and setting him loose at Augusta National.

Leadership training content too often missed the mark, and is laden with maddening “shoulds”:

• You should get your pom poms out and cheerlead;

• You should always hold regular, mandatory team meetings;

• You should never raise your voice in frustration.

By definition, managing a team of people is dynamic and complex, so there are many exceptions to these shoulds. Managers need to be given license to reclaim their playbook by heightening awareness of their team’s dynamics, and by shaping team policy and responding to circumstances with this awareness in mind. To be sure, developing this awareness and learning to apply it effectively can take an entire career. But merely shifting focus from scripted shoulds to the dynamics of the team can have immediate positive impact.

Here are three ways you can begin reclaiming your management playbook:

1. Be the expert on your team.

Despite what the leadership gurus say, no one is a better informed expert on your team than you. You observe your people every day. You know their tendencies, triggers, work ethic, and strengths and weaknesses. You know who needs a daily dose of inspiration and who needs a daily kick in the butt. If you don’t know these things, then get to know them immediately. If you do, rely on that knowledge, and shape team policy based on it. Pro scouts often say, “You only really get to know a player when you see him play every single day.” A player’s statistics (or an employee’s year-over-year season-ticket sales) only tell part of the story. Be leery of the leadership guru who tells you he knows more about your team than you do. You know a ton. Take stock now.

2. Be real, not right.

You won’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. You were promoted to manager because of what your boss saw in you — sports industry knowledge, strong interpersonal skills, and/or frontline job performance, not because you were the Grand Wizard of sports business management. You have your own weaknesses and knowledge gaps, so go ahead and get comfortable with them. Insecure managers pretend they have no weaknesses, or hide them from their team. Be frank and communicative about where you can add value and where you can’t. This will help your team seek the most efficient and effective resource for their specific issues. It will also humanize you, and mitigate pressure to be all management things to everyone.

3. Be yourself.

Ever watch a high school coach who talks and acts how he thinks coaches are supposed to act? He paces the sidelines, jumps up and down, and screams incessantly at the refs. He looks and sounds ridiculous. Managers can be the same way. Nothing more awkward than a manager saying and doing things solely because he’s heard and seen other managers doing those same things. The words and actions don’t ring true, and rarely fit the specific needs of your team. Instead of blindly applying your favorite management techniques, take stock of those you found useful and effective, and think carefully about whether you can find an effective way to employ them with your team. Management techniques can be transparently gimmicky. At the end of the day, who you are and what you bring to your team will have a more profound impact than some canned technique.

Don’t be fooled by the leadership gurus. Managing people in the sports industry is complex and hard, so learning a few generic communication models will not make you a great manager. Sure, they might momentarily inspire and fill you with confidence, but you’ll quickly find that their usefulness is limited to a few easy-to-handle situations (which you would most likely have been able to handle with your pre-training skills). When you try to apply them to the hard cases, you’ll find that you need to think and respond on your feet. Your ability to do so effectively boils down to your knowledge of yourself, the individuals on your team and what it takes from you to maximize your effectiveness in those situations.

You need more than a driver, sand wedge and putter to play Augusta. You need more than leadership training to be a great manager.

Sean O’Neil (sean@one2oneleadership.com) is principal and CEO of One to One Leadership (www.one2oneleadership.com), a sales and management training firm with clients that include the NBA, MLS, Oakland Raiders and New York Knicks. He is the co-author with John Kulisek of “Bare Knuckle People Management: Creating Success with the Team You Have — Winners, Losers, Misfits and All.”

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