The other day one of the parent’s paused while picking up their child from little league practice to thank me for volunteering to be a coach. She seemed very appreciative of my efforts and said “I really don’t know where you find the time to do this, but I think you should know how much it means to my son.” That got me thinking about the importance of corporate culture, and the way that life outside of your work environment can have such a profound impact on your success in the office as well.
When I started coaching little league it was a decision made mostly so that I could spend more quality time with my own children as they practiced and played in games that matter to them. However, as often happens, when I get involved with something my mind seems to gravitate toward picking out lessons that can be learned and applied elsewhere from all that is going on. In this instance, I was faced with a team of kids who each vary tremendously in their skill levels, enthusiasm for the sport, access to training equipment and individual personalities. The main challenge as a little league coach is actually very similar to the challenge of being CEO of a start-up or an executive at any company you may work for – because at the end of the day, it’s the people that determine the success of the project more than any other factor.
Developing the patience to work with each employee is essential, and honing that skill is easier with a child who struggles to field a ground-ball cleanly than it is with a programmer who is holding up the production cycle of an important product deployment. Getting your organizational structure in place is also much less stress inducing if you practice with a team of 9 very amateur ballplayers and a few assistant coaches than if you take on that task with a tight burn rate and short runway on a start-up seeking a second round of funding.
The key thing to keep in mind is that you want to practice away from work, the same way these kids practice away from the bright lights of a big game. Honing your skills and learning to execute at your best when it matters most is something that should become part of your every day experience. Whether you are cooking dinner, teaching a young man to turn a double-play, explaining the importance of accuracy when throwing to a cut-off-man on a relay to home plate or are engaged in hiring a new CTO to handle the rollout of a massive server infrastructure upgrade – the skills that matter are essentially the same. What magnifies them and makes them appear different to a casual glance is the significance we place on the outcome.
So, when that mom stopped me to say thanks, I made sure to mention how much I appreciate her son bringing so much energy to practice. I hinted that he might be better suited to the outfield because he has a heck of an arm, and I told her I’d like to take a chance at teaching him how to switch hit so that he can improve his batting average with runners in scoring position. These things may sound confusing if you are unfamiliar with little league baseball, but if you listen deeper, you’ll quickly understand that conceptually it’s also great practice for exactly the same sort of discussions on a much broader scale in any boardroom you inhabit.