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All I Ever Needed to Know About Performance Management I Learned From Little League Baseball

April 16, 2010
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Related Topics: Motivating Employees, Performance Appraisals, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
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Dave Ulrich. Jack Welch. Patrick Lencioni. All are big names that have something to teach us about the art of people management and motivating talent to perform at a high level in your organization. You’ve heard of them, paid money for their books and been attracted to conferences they’ve headlined.

I’m adding Kelly Leak and Tanner Boyle to that list. But you won’t find them signing books or pulling down 20-large to speak to your local SHRM chapter.

Instead, the modern-day versions of Kelly and Tanner are more likely to be playing Xbox with your kids or threatening your cat with a pellet gun. Before you call the police, wait! Although they’re neighborhood kids (and maybe hellions sometimes), you can learn more from them than you can from the HR thought leaders. You just have to take time to stop, watch and listen.

Today I’m simply here to tell you that all I need to know about performance management I learned from 9-year-olds and Little League baseball. Here’s the scenario that made the connection for me:

• I’m currently coaching a baseball team of 9-year-olds.

• We look pretty good, but we lost a recent game and our outfield was struggling. Really struggling. Like Bad News Bears struggling.

• We had practice the next night. We did outfield drills that were pretty simple in concept. Run and catch the ball, and if you can’t catch it, don’t let the ball get by you. Rinse and repeat.

• No one could catch or stop the ball. It was bad.

• I let it go on for about 10 minutes, feeling like the most inept coach in the history of sports.

• Then I thought, it’s scoreboard time.

• I said the following to the kids: “Guys, we’re going to make this a competition. If you catch the ball in the air or stop it from going to the fence, you get a +1. If you drop the ball or the ball gets by you, it’s a -1. After 15 minutes, we’ll stop, add up the scores and declare a winner. Winner gets to watch the others take a hard lap around the field and soak in the glory of their win."

• The result: Intensity went up 500 percent, and the kids kept competing even when they dropped a ball. We were keeping score, and as a result, the kids had skin in the game.

The lesson from a performance management standpoint is clear: That which is measured and communicated gets results. Competition is good. Never apologize for setting up a system where everybody competes and, as a result, the players perform their best.

If you don’t fully appreciate the connection between your organization and a bunch of 9-year-olds on a scrubby baseball field, it’s probably because you don’t have kids, or have never been a volunteer youth coach. I’m using baseball as my example, but I’m positive the lessons are seen in non-athletic activities as well.

Regardless of the youth activity, the challenges are the same. You’re a volunteer. The kids aren’t paid to be there. You’re competing against 101 other things for the attention of Kelly and Tanner and the other Bears. If it goes poorly, you have two choices. One choice is to muddle through the season and celebrate when it’s over. The other choice is to work to improve the performance of the kids.

Let’s stay with the baseball example, since I’m currently living it. Here are some other lessons my Little League team is currently teaching me in ways my workforce can’t:

1. The power of praise: One of the most underrated skills involved in being a performance coach in corporate America is the power of the positive comment. I’m not talking about your formal recognition program or the clichéd certificates of recognition some managers seem to focus on. Instead, I’m talking about the concept of “saying it when you see it.”

In Little League baseball, you generally have to praise good skill, effort or attitude before a kid is going to respond to your efforts to improve their skill. A good rule of thumb is three “spot praises” (you give the quick, positive feedback immediately when you see good stuff) for every attempt to correct them or improve their performance in any way. The praise becomes the currency between you and the kids that allows you to coach them for improvement. You should try that in the office sometime.

2. Coaching isn’t telling: I know I’ve done my job on the baseball field when a kid tells me why they missed the ball or overthrew first base by six feet before I coach them on a given play. That means I’ve invested the time to help them understand a skill at a level where they know the steps that are required, but also can troubleshoot their own performance as well. Powerful stuff.

You know what the role of a coach is when this self-assessment happens on the field or in your office? You just praise the player. She doesn’t need you as much because you’ve taken the time to teach her, rather than simply tell her repeatedly.

3. The same words that motivate Kelly don’t work for Tanner: In corporate America, you have a hammer called at-will employment. You pay employees to work for your company, and as a result, even the most progressive managers have a tendency to talk the same way to all employees on their team. After all, you have a job to do and time is limited.

That one-size-fits-all approach won’t work on the youth baseball field. Talk the same way to Tanner as you do to Kelly, and Tanner shuts down. Youth activities remind you quickly that customized coaching is necessary to improve the skills of individuals and get the best team results possible.

The next time a high-potential employee is struggling in his first role as a manager of people, don’t buy him a bunch of business books on management. Save your money, and instead require him to coach a youth sports team.

If newly minted managers open their eyes, they’ll learn lots from the kids—things like calming talented individual contributors down when they’re upset, breaking up unproductive meetings and teaching the kids how to stay humble when they’re riding a hot streak.

You know, the important stuff.

Workforce Management Online, April 2010 -- Register Now!

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