Do Star Leaders Make Great Coaches?



One of the paradoxes of sports is that star athletes seldom make great coaches. Can you think of a Hall of Fame athlete in any sport who would go on to be a Hall of Fame coach? Outside of a few examples, we remember superstars on the field or superstars on the sideline, but seldom the same person in both roles.

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has data and research that suggests that this paradox of leadership is not limited to athletics.  Using data from 100 C Suite Executives and over 900 of their direct reports, CCL researcher Pete Hammett concludes that superstar executives (as defined as those in the C Suite- CEO, COO, CFO, etc.) may have the best talent for their role but are seldom good at developing others.  In other words, they know how to be a great player but are a poor coach. Through analysis and interviews, CCL offers interesting insights into how the star talent/lousy coach paradox may play out in business. My interpretation of the findings from their research follows.

1. The C- Suite executives had an inflated self measure of their coaching abilities. On virtually every measure of coaching behavior, the executives rated their skills better, at times significantly so, than direct reports. The executives thought they were better at coaching than did those being coached. These C Suite incumbents might have been stars, but could not effectively encourage the potential of others.

2. The C Suite executives demonstrated a low need for interaction with associates. Executives were selective about interactions with others, preferring a small group of familiar contacts or working independently to working with a larger or more diverse set of colleagues. As a result, the executives really didn’t know or understand the talent on their team.

3. The C suite executives had higher confidence in their organization’s ability to identify, develop and nurture talent than the talent did. This may be a case of  “the system worked for me” attitudes or lack of feedback about organizational processes. Significant confidence gaps existed between the effectiveness of managerial skill to develop people and the ability to advance people based upon merit. It appeared that the talent at the top of the pipeline was more satisfied than those in it.

Creating Talent Dynasties

The 100 C Suite incumbents studied do not represent all C suite superstars. I happily count several exceptions that I have had the good fortune to “play with” and “play for.” They had superior talent. They made everyone around them better. When they left, they left the organization better. We need more of them.

As Hammett describes, C suite executives must be more like “player coaches” than exclusively a coach or the superstar player.  A player/coach has to care about developing his or her own talent and developing the talent around them. They must lead by example. They must lead with challenge and with empathy. They must spend enough time on the field to know how execution is different than the view from the skybox.

Careers are short. Legacies are long.  We do not have to accept a false choice of being remembered for having great talent or developing great talent. Do both, and be remembered for a talent dynasty.


Reference: Hammett, Pete (2008). The paradox of gifted leadership: Developing the generation of leaders. Industrial and Commercial Training, vol. 40, no 1. Pp. 3-9.

Tired of Being a Quitter? Manage The Three P’s.


Photo courtesy of istock photo

Just 49 days ago, we charged optimistically into the New Year, determined to make necessary changes for good.  Armed with determination, advice and plans, we were confident that 2013 would be the year we’d reach the goals that would improve our lives.

Where are you today, six weeks down the road into the New Year? It’s estimated that over a third of people who made 2013 resolutions have given up by now. By June, over 60% of 2013 resolutions have been discarded. The reasons why we give up on the resolutions once so meaningful to us would be an interesting topic. But a more interesting topic is not why people give up on goals, but why others keep going.

The reasons why some persevere and others give up are as individual as the people making those choices. But research from Martin E. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania suggests a common trait among those who persevere towards goals. The “keep going” crowd tends to be more optimistic than the “give up” crowd. Some are optimistic by nature, which gives them a useful advantage in many parts of life. But the really good news from Seligman’s research is that we can learn to be optimistic, or at least optimistic enough to achieve our goals.

The Mr. Rodgers Legacy

I blame Mr. Rodgers for the bad rap on optimists. (This may make me the first to blame Mr. Rodgers for anything.) He represents a caricature of those perceived to be ill prepared in the dog eat dog, grind it out world.  Mr. Rodgers represents those perceived to be not tough enough, not aggressive enough, not strong enough. We can’t imagine living to his standard of responding to every nasty remark or misguided plan with his neighborly smile and pointing toward the sunny sky.  Nor do we want to.

The truth is, I love Mr. Rodgers. But his style of optimism isn’t really what Seligman encourages us to emulate. Seligman was the pioneer in the concepts of learned helplessness and explanatory style. In his words:

Learned helplessness is the giving up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do does not matter. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why things happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness.

Martin Seligman from Learned Optimism

In other words, those who give up too easily (i.e. pessimists) explain to themselves that nothing they can do will change their circumstances, so further effort is futile. If the effort is futile, the logical choice is to give up.

Seligman presents optimism as the opposite reaction to learned helplessness. In his view, it’s not that optimists spend their days in Mr. Rodgers neighborhood where the skies are always bright and sunny. It is that optimists have a different orientation when faced with failure. They think about it differently. They talk about it differently. This orientation makes optimists less likely to quit in the face of challenges.

The Three Keys to Learn Optimism

Of all the contributions Seligman has made to neuroscience and psychology, none may be more important than demonstrating the relationship between how we explain events to ourselves and our outcomes. What we tell ourselves about events matters far more than anyone else’s views, no matter their importance in our lives. We can truly be our own best friends or worst enemies.

If you would like more of a best friend relationship with yourself, start by monitoring the “three P’s” in your thoughts: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization. A description of each, along with what the optimist and pessimist may say to themselves during a challenge, follows.

Permanence: Optimists see events as temporary or situational. Observations such as “sometimes” and “recently” show up when they process disruptive events. Explanations could be: My schedule was out of control this week, but I’ll get back to the gym on Monday or There’s a right time to approach my boss. Today wasn’t the right day. Pessimists explain events as permanent. Words like “always” and ‘never” show up in explanations about why they quit. Explanations might be: I never have any discipline about exercise or My boss always ignores my ideas.  After all, if it’s always going to be like this and circumstances are never going to change, why try?

Pervasiveness: Optimists view good events having universal causes and bad events as random occurrences.  They believe life is generally good with occasional obstacles. An optimist might explain: The family is doing well. Everyone is adjusting to the new town. Like my team. The new role has a big learning curve, but I’ll get through it. Pessimists view bad events as having universal causes and good events as random occurrences.  They tend to expect catastrophes to spread from one part of their lives to another. Explanations might sound like: They must have picked me for this job because they were short-handed. I’ll never fit in here with this team. The family is going to have a tough adjustment, too.  Why did I agree to this move?

Personalize: Optimists externalize blame.  When things go wrong, they look for what went wrong in the situation, not themselves.  You might hear“ It was the wrong time” or The competition won” when optimists explain bad outcomes. Pessimists internalize blame. When things go wrong, they often find some way to blame themselves. “ I should have….”or “ Why did I think I could do this…” may explain mistakes.  The continuous self-blame creates a downward spiral in confidence that exacerbates pessimism.

 It’s Not too Late for 2013 Resolutions

We still have 303 days left to achieve 2013 goals. There may be good reasons why you need to change a goal, or perhaps you just haven’t started. But if you’ve just quit at the first obstacles, think about why. Can the way you explain the situation to yourself make a difference? Are the obstacles permanent or temporary? Prevalent or situational? Is the barrier about you or other circumstances? The great news is that you only have to answer these questions for yourself. The way you answer may make the difference in giving up or going on.

What do you think? Can you learn optimism by managing your explanations?  Do you think this makes a difference in outcomes?


Seligman, M.E.P. (1990,1998, 2006) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.  New York: Random House.

If you are a Martin Seligman fan like I am, there is a treasure trove of his work here:

Five Ideas to Spread the Valentine Day Spirit at Work



The Beatles remind us All You Need Is Love.  That’s not quite true in life, including our work lives.  A little love, however, goes a long way to make us happier, more engaged and optimistic.  Who doesn’t want more of those things in the workplace? So, don’t limit the celebration of Valentine’s Day to your personal life. Bring it to work! Here are five ideas, one for each day of next week, to get you started.

1.  Count how many “human moments” you can have at work. “Human moments” is Ed Hallowell’s term for being completely present in every interaction. Hallowell argues that residual benefits of human moments last long after the exchange due to the positive mental energy they produce. How many times this week can you put down your phone or handheld device, look away from the screen, set aside reading material then devote your complete attention to others?

2.  See how many positive interactions you can have per day. Don’t be like Dilbert’s pointy-headed boss with a smiley button; just try for as many sincere expressions of good will as you can. It’s good for you, good for associates and good for business. According to research from Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, positive connection in the workplace may produce increased attention, learning and creative thinking. That’s pretty good pay back for an exchange of smiles.

3.  Select words with care. Words are among our most powerful tools to engage others and open possibilities. Susan Smalley describes words as living organisms because of their ability  to influence and change people. Think of how the substitution of What if…? for I/we can’t encourages ideas. Or, how the substitution of and for but opens up options. How often can your choice of words this week lead to better outcomes?

4.   Find occasions for people to use their strengths in their work.  This includes, you, too. According to the Gallup Organization, the hours each day that we do work related to our strengths is inversely related to levels of worry, stress, anxiety and sadness we feel.  The fact that we often produce better results when using strengths is the cherry on top!

5.   Move as much as you can. Show some love for you, too. Set a goal for 10 minutes of extra moving around in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon. (A professor in graduate school shared that one of the most important behaviors to stave off weight gain is walking for 15 minutes after lunch.) Sit less and move more.


What if every year, we devoted Valentine’s Week as a time when everyone tried to make the workplace a little nicer? That’s a goal to get behind, one day at a time this week.

What will you do to make life at work a little better for someone else this week? For you?

It Works!: 6 Design Tips For Your Culture



You don’t live in the same place. You don’t speak the same language. You aren’t of the same race. You don’t share the same history. You deal with an enormous disparity in income and assets. Yet, your team shares an enormous problem and spectacular opportunity. You can save lives.

The situation described above happened. I learned about it through a Segal Design Institute sponsored presentation by Will Harris from Design that Matters (DtM). Will discussed how a cross-cultural team, based in Boston and Vietnam, worked together to save babies in the developing world from death or brain damage from jaundice. Learn more about DtM and their result, Firefly, here.  They tell the story better than I can. It’s a story that should be retold.

The intent of Will’s presentation was to describe how design principles work across cultures.  It did.  But, like all thought-provoking discussions, it left me with different questions. Are obvious cultural differences an asset to design thinking?  When we know that we don’t share much in common, does it make us more open to learning about each other?  Conversely, does a shared culture get in the way of good design thinking?

Six of the design principles shared in the Firefly story are described below. These worked across cultures, but can they work within one?

Find a Local Partner

In the Firefly example, DtM needed a local organization to be its partner for practical and cultural reasons. Within cultures, I wonder how often the “they are just like us” assumption encourages the “go it alone” instinct. We think since we speak the same language, live in the same community, or work for the same people we must see the problems and solutions the same way. Good ideas aren’t encouraged early without fresh thinking. Resources and efforts are diluted when they could be combined. Could we increase impact if  “find a partner” was the first rule of design everywhere?

Identify the Problem

DtM and their partner, East Meets West, were clear about the problem. Over 9 million babies in the developing world, particularly in Asia, need treatment for jaundice ever year. Left untreated or under treated, these infants will die or suffer severe brain damage. The treatment for jaundice is known; the problem was both in the availability and access to the necessary equipment for therapy.

When was the last time your intracultural team framed the problem it was trying to solve? Did it matter enough to put effort against it? Were there many problems? Did everyone work on his or her favorite problem? A lack of alignment around what the problem is and why it matters always shows up. Invest the time to define the problem on the front end to avoid tears on the back-end.

Embrace the Culture

Understand the culture the way it is. Appreciate people, practices, identities and values the way they are, not how we wish them to be. Ironically, it can be easier to accept and appreciate cultures other than our own. Our culture is like our family; we think it’s the only odd one. We approach it with a list of improvement opportunities. Don’t. Good design starts with empathy. As a colleague of mine advises: “Love ‘em first.”

Watch and Learn

When was the last time you were a visitor in your own culture? Do you notice how people interact? What patterns do you notice? Who speaks? Who listens? Who decides? Ask about how things work. Look for contradictions between how things are supposed to happen and how they really happen. Dig deeper with questions like: How could someone new learn this? What have you seen others do?


Does your intracultural team have a shared point of view that expresses its collective learning? This could be as simple as four points: 1) This is the problem 2) These are the most important things we’ve learned 3) This is what we will do 4) This is what we won’t do. Agree before  you design, before you invest, before you plan.  Have everyone on the team give input into a single point of view that can explain the problem, the most important things to know about it, and your solution boundaries.

Fail Fast

After you coalesce on a common view, fire up your imaginations. Fail your way to success! Create user worksheets or pictures to describe as many solutions you can think of based upon your synthesis. Don’t hold back. Have users rate the designs. Toss the crazy ones they don’t accept. You can’t pick out the crazy ideas from the rest. Your users can.

DtM produced several solution options that met their criteria. Each of the designs could have worked. By giving the users multiple choices and a vote in the selection, they jumped started adoption. This point made me think of how much time teams I’ve been a part of spent on coming up with “the answer’ when the reality was there were several potential answers. We cheated our users by choosing for them. Their top choice might have stayed in our trash.

 Across the Globe and Close to Home 

Will Harris and DtM showed how innovation can be nurtured to span cultures. The bonus insight is the design practices that enable innovation to cross cultures also works within them.  In fact, these principles may be more important working within a culture to overcome biases and shared assumptions that limit innovation.

Have you applied lessons from cross-cultural experiences to work within your culture? What happened?

Thank you, Segal People, for this insight! Thank you, Will Harris, for an inspirational presentation. Design that Matters, indeed.