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Winning Teams: 3 Essential Lessons Learned from The Shorty Cakes

When you toss your two cents in…be prepared to take charge of the whole piggy bank. A business lesson I wish I had remembered when I met the Shorty Cakes.

When my daughter was 9 years old, she signed up to play softball with the community recreation department. Of course, this meant that as parent, I also was highly likely to be signing up for some role or other…in charge of tee shirts, snacks, or even as one of the assistant coaches.

Here’s where my two cents lesson comes in…I happened to express my opinion to the organizers that since this softball league was described in the community recreation event booklet as an “instructional league”, I felt we should make the primary focus of this team be just that – a team where all the team members learned how to play softball and every girl could play any position she wanted to try. And voila, they replied by handing me the keys to the whole bank…I was the new head coach of the Shorty Cakes!

I soon learned that the league also required that a score be kept, teams would be ranked by their records and there would be a playoff series – all purely instructional of course. Oh, did I mention the draft? Yep, team coaches would pick the team members. How do you draft 9 and 10-year olds, most of whom had never played softball? I had opened my mouth enough already and didn’t want to end up as the commissioner, so I let my daughter pick her teammates. The end result was a team of girls with largely un-explored athletic ability and who were absolutely united in having a good time, making up lots of cool chants, doing the wave, and screaming…a lot of screaming…at frequencies that my Bose noise-cancelling headphones couldn’t handle.

At the first parent’s meeting, I explained my aforementioned coaching philosophy. Every girl was going to play every game and play an equal amount. Our Mia Hamm protégé (we did have one ringer as it turned out) was going to ride the bench as much as any other team member. If we happened to win, well, that would be icing on the cake (no pun intended!). The goal was for the girls to learn what it meant to be on a team, have fun playing softball and learn how to run the bases, throw, catch and hit a ball….and most importantly – know when NOT to keep throwing the ball. Knowing the actual score or what inning it was fell into the same category as winning – nice to have, but not necessary.

I suggested that any parent or daughter who had a different view should petition the league for a trade. Thank goodness no one did because I had no idea if we could even do something like that, but it made for good coach theatrics. Everyone was on board.

These were the absolute essentials that I felt needed to be clarified before we had our first practice. As I reflect back on my fledgling coaching career that summer, there are remarkable parallels to what I have since learned coaching leadership teams. Just as the Shorty Cakes had, every successful team must have Three Essentials in place - before their first meeting:

Essential One - A Real Team

· A bounded group…it is independent and stable, each member knows who is on the team and understands the various member roles

· An interdependent group where the roles of each member connect in support of the team’s goals

· A stable group where the same people are going to show up every time

Essential Two - A Compelling Purpose

· It is challenging…a stretch, but not impossible

· It is clear to all what success looks like

· It is consequential – with meaning, so members bring energy and conviction

Essential Three- The Right People

· A diversity of perspectives needed to perform creatively and solve challenges

· The skills needed to do the work of the team

I have studied this concept extensively through the work of Drs. Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman and their decades of research at Harvard University. They found that these Three Essentials are the fundamental building blocks of successful teams. In fact, these Essentials, when combined with the Three Enablers (the subject of my next article) account for 80% of the variables that determine team effectiveness.

My experience with numerous teams – whether it be executive leadership, special project, or ongoing operational teams – is when we take the time to put a good foundation in place, based on the Three Essentials, they are up and running effectively much faster than teams that just dive in. Team members are much more engaged and candid, they make better decisions, and team stakeholders are more satisfied with what they are getting from the team.

This was precisely played out in my daughter’s softball team over the two years we were together. I know you have been waiting with bated breath to learn what became of our Shorty Cakes. Well, the first summer we had a record of 1-9, and the single win might have been the result of a forfeit, because the other team could not field enough players – my memory isn’t clear on that. What I do remember clearly, is that the girls had a great time. Beyond the chants and screams and wobbly waves, they looked forward to every game and getting their turns to pitch, bat and play first base or any other position.

We had highlights – like the night my daughter (who was much more interested in show choir) was at second base and caught a line drive (purely a defensive move, she says) and turned a double play. We think it was the only hit ball she caught in two years. However, the pinnacle of the Shorty Cakes saga occurred in the second year. We improved enough that we made it into the play-offs much to everyone’s surprise.

In the penultimate game, we faced the most “hated” team in the league, the Force. They were highly favored to win. Their coach (let’s call him Darth) and I had actually had cross words earlier in the season for some silly reason, so I entered this game wavering on my commitment to the team’s instructional purpose. I rationalized that, with at most one more game to play, the girls would gain more from experiencing a potential championship than they would from one more instructionally focused game.

So, it was the bottom of the 8th inning, we were down by one run with the tying run on 3rd base and coming up to bat was………Brittany. Yes, dainty Brittany…she was slightly taller than the bat, weighed about the same and had not had a single hit the entire season. I had the option of bringing in a pinch hitter, but I had never called for a pinch hitter in two years. What signal would that send to Brittany if I did? I remember the girls on the bench looking at me, the parents looking at me, all of us conflicted and yet knowing what the right thing to do was. Drum roll here please…and lo and behold…Brittany got her first hit of the season. We tied the game and went on to win it in the 9th inning. We lost in the finals, but no one cared. We had beaten the dark side, the Force, and Brittany got a hit.

Now, that’s darn good enough, but like a Ronco product commercial… “Wait, there’s more!” Fast forward seven years and I am walking out of the high school after a parent-teacher conference and stop by a field where a varsity girls softball game is being played. Sure enough, I recognize two of my Shorty Cakes girls on the varsity team – Erin, the Mia Hamm protégé, and you guessed it…Brittany.

I was beaming remembering dainty Brittany’s first-ever hit seven years ago. She and the Shorty Cakes truly did have all the right, the essential, stuff. They were indeed a real team…a stable and interdependent group of girls who consistently showed up to practice and play and worked toward a shared goal. That goal was their compelling purpose - to learn the game, to grow, to explore their abilities and stretch their boundaries… and to have fun while doing it. Their chants and celebrations borne of small victories proved that out and kept them in the pursuit of the game. And we certainly had the right people, with the diversity of skills from protégé to absolute newbie…each totally invested in her unique way, and dedicated to doing the work of the team.

There is also a moral to this story that can easily be applied to many teams we are on. When the purpose is learning - the right people are learners. Not stars, know-it-alls, or competitors. Brittany became great because she was part of a team of learners, who never lost their focus on encouraging every player to try, and keep on trying. My job as the coach / leader was in maintaining our focus on the learning purpose – even when greatly tempted to jump into performance.

I’d call that a homerun…right out of the of the ballpark!

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