A Beginner's Life

Coaching From Behind

4 min read
sportfan_ch soccer kids

I played lacrosse in high school. While we weren’t the best team in the State (that award almost always went to a team out in Long Island), we had a flawless home record – when I graduated we hadn’t lost at home in 6 years or something crazy like that. I played a very small role in that success – what’s actually interesting about this story is our coach.

Coach Rudolph, or Rudy as we called him, was also my U.S. History teacher. He was not a physically imposing guy – maybe 5'4" and 150 soaking wet. He had a teacher’s disposition and spat a lot while he talked.

I can vividly remember Coach running up and down the field, the lacrosse stick dangling useless in his hand. When a ball was thrown his way, he often dropped it, and then had trouble picking it up.

Coach Rudolph had never played lacrosse. To my knowledge, he had never played any sports a day in his life. But his track record as a coach was unassailable. Coach Rudolph also coached women’s tennis – a team has still never lost a match a home, some years losing barely a set.

Coach Rudolph couldn’t really lead by example. He couldn’t impress us with his skills or swagger, and he couldn’t tell us stories of his legendary victories in order to gain our respect.

Instead, we trusted Coach Rudolph because he knew our strengths and weaknesses, and knew how to combine this group of unruly young men together to win. He was the first person in my life to practice something I call Coaching From Behind.

Lately, I’m finding myself unable to lead by example. My team writes better emails, identifies flaws in my documentation, and tracks down trickier technical issues than I ever did. I gave up the inbox begrudgingly, and it took me some time to re-find my value in this company without it.

But it was clearly the right thing to do – the support inbox is marked with more huge victories – angry customers turned to evangelists, confused customers turned into successful Wistia users – than ever before. It’s a thing of beauty, and I’m damn lucky to see it.

So I’m reflecting on Coach Rudolph. I’m thinking about coaching from behind.

What does a good coach do?

First, a good coach focuses on the long-term, and knows the short-term results will come. Sir Alex Ferguson talks about this in his interview with Charlie Rose (I highly recommend taking the time to watch it). This means meddling less, and thinking about where we’re going more. I need to learn what our customers want from our support experience, and how we can constantly improve.

A good coach knows that process, and reinforcing good process, will scale themselves far better than micromanagement. Coach Rudolph would run us through a ground ball drill consistently, and the only time I ever saw him angry was when we didn’t take that drill seriously. During games, he counted the ground balls we won more closely than who scored the goals. While the goals get the glory, he knew winning the ground balls made it happen.

Finally, a good coach inspires leadership in those they are leading. Watch this talk (illustrated, because pictures are awesome) by Captain David Marquet, it will tell you everything you need to know. Set the vision and communicate it well, and make sure those you work with know they are empowered to make decisions that move us closer to that vision. I’m lucky, I think everyone on my team would have quit Day 1 if we didn’t operate that way thumbsup.

The biggest challenge for me is that none of this is my strong-suit. None of this is the stuff I gravitate towards naturally. Instead, I go out of my way to entangle myself deep in the weeds on specific projects that don’t lend themselves to high-level thinking or data gathering. I’m still busy accumulating personal wins and putting out fires, rather than thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of my team and how their talents can be combined to make a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

I need to spend more time listening, and less time talking. I should be providing slight course adjustments, not setting agendas. And I need to spend more time connecting with and listening to our customers, so I can prepare us for our next big leap. If I truly care about our customers getting the fastest, highest-quality help, that’s my best course forward.

My job now is to take everything I’ve learned, compact it down so it’s easy to share, and then pass that along to the team. They will take my experience, improve upon it, and then scale it beyond what I can do alone. Combine that with the skills they came in with, we are making a pretty unstoppable force for good.

This is a pretty awesome gig if you can get it smiley.

image credit: Flickr user sportfan_ch

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