Leadership Lessons from the Soccer Field

So I guess part of this blogging thing is getting to know the author a little bit.  I am married to Todd Ermi, a former leader at Procter & Gamble where we met, and he is also a stroke survivor.  We are blessed that he is with us today and he gets Father of the Year Awards in our house.  He is dad to 18+ year old Alexandra or Lexie (a college sophomore and literary genius), and is a stay-at-home dad to 4 1/2 year old Kate (preschooler extraordinaire).  I will blog about what we learned about the brain and recovery from Todd's 2001 episode in a future post.

Last weekend, Todd, Kate and I ventured to the damp soccer fields of our Montgomery County Maryland school district with dozens of other families to the kick off practice of the Damascus Soccer Club.  It was our first foray into this phenomenon that millions of others have blazed the trails before us.  Kate proudly dressed in shin guards, cleats and uniform dredged onto the field with a dozen or so other preschoolers for some soccer fun.  Coach Ivan was terrific.  He was fun and put the kids at ease immediately.  As I looked around at the three other teams, one of the other coaches had the kids immediately starting to scrimmage, but Coach Ivan took a different approach.  Now remember these kids are 3 and 4 for the most part.

    •  Instead of diving right into kicking the ball towards a goal, he got them warmed up.


    • Stretches, running drills, run forwards, backwards, sideways.


    • Little steps, big steps, run up to the lines on the field and stop before you cross it, catch the red towel, dodge the red towel, chase the Coach, block the Coach.

The kids were laughing and screaming and all along learning fundamentals of soccer, but it was more like play.  Then he introduced the ball. Before they actually started kicking the ball, the kids knew the boundaries, how to maneuver their bodies in different ways, and how to pay attention to the one with the red cloth.  The basics!  Now, let's use the ball, let's charge the goal, let's kick a goal, let's break into teams with the red pinnys (I hadn't thought of the word 'pinny' since high school - pinafore, do they even call them that anymore?!)

So why do we promote an individual contributor who has been relatively successful into a management role and start them immediately with the ball and expect them to score goals?  We assume they can figure it out on their own.  I literally heard a senior leader tell me the other day as he spoke of a newly promoted 28 year old, "they are smart, they can ask questions and they'll figure it out on their own."  Really?  Oh my...Do we really expect to give a new manager the ball and expect them to score a goal out of the gates?  There may be the rare one that can do this effectively, but let's get real people.  And let's go back to the soccer field and try again.  What are the boundaries of their decision making and influence?  What red towels do they need to avoid?  Follow?  Can they run backwards and forwards and sideways and not fall down too much, and if they fall, where do they go?  Who is their coach?  Is the coach qualified? Let's make learning fun!  And don't talk to them in a language that only DC United can understand, or Jack Welch.

Many companies understand the importance of new supervisor training and it is imbedded in their culture, however there are many others that are not investing in their growing talent, and they are missing out on an opportunity to strengthen their leadership bench and grow the talent from within. While on the surface this investment may be costly, but remember that regrettable turnover can cost 2 to 10 times the annual salary. Saving one regrettable loss due to lack of development can pay for a lot of development! Let's think about in terms of real cash.  Let's say the average salary of a new supervisor is $50,000 a year.  They leave because no one has invested in them.  At a minimum you have lost $50,000 in now having to interview and source for new people, the delay in work, missed deadlines, morale impact on others, etc.  You can provide some excellent development solutions with $50,000 and a lot less!

It more than pays for us to develop the talent we already have to prepare them for more responsibility in the future.  In Jim Collins Good to Great he sites that 9 of the 11 'great' leaders were from a promote from within culture.  And The Procter & Gamble Company has a century old practice of promote from within and they have remained a Fortune 10 company for as long as I can recall.  Let's equip our emerging leaders with the tools to succeed.  A resource out there that is quickly spreading regarding moving from peer to leader is Kevin Eikenberry and Guy Harris's From Bud to Boss book and workshops.

Like the Coach Ivan with the kids, work with them at their level, push them gradually, make it fun, and they will focus and deliver.

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