A coaching mentality Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

Mary Spangler says leading an administrative team is like coaching a basketball team. An athletic team must include many different types of players because if it had only one type, it wouldn’t win or reach its goals. Spangler says it’s the same in business; you need different types of people with different strengths and weaknesses to be successful, and you need to help them understand their contribution to the team by playing to their strengths and learning how to improve on their weaknesses. As chancellor of Houston Community College — an education system composed of six colleges throughout Houston with a fiscal 2007 budget of $225 million — Spangler has encouraged her 5,391 employees to shine.

Smart Business spoke with Spangler about how to be a cheerleader and coach for your team to help it keep reaching goals.

Develop and encourage teamwork. Work with employees to say, ‘I don’t have all the answers. We’ve got a problem here, we all recognize it as a problem, but I’m not going to tell you what to do. We need to figure this out together; how are we going about doing that?’

Don’t talk about members of the team to other members. When you start talking about one person, then that person says, ‘OK, when I’m not here, is she talking about me?’ Be consistent, fair and open.

In a big organization, it’s hard if you’re deep in it to feel like you are making any kind of difference. Develop a vision and identify key goals. Hold in your head specific things, five or six things that you need to accomplish in order to achieve the goal.

If everybody can grab on to a piece of that, you can move something so that people feel that there’s energy and direction. Focus them on things you have done, not on the things you haven’t. Look at what’s good that is happening.

Communicate often and in different forms. You can’t say anything too many times. People don’t hear it the same way, and once isn’t enough. Use as many modes as you can to communicate that message; keep it focused and ask for feedback. Ask people, ‘Do you understand? Have I made it clear that this is what we’re trying to do? Do you understand what we need to do about it?’

I like to set up forums where I can sit around the table with a dozen people or go into a roomful of people where I can stand and have them ask me questions. They ask you, ‘Why did you do such and such, and are we going to have to do this and that?’ Answering their questions clearly, directly and with confidence communicates to them, ‘OK, this person sort of does understand, has thought about it, maybe does-n’t have all the answers but is enough connected that he or she can come into this environment without feeling nervous or defensive.’

Make good judgments. Watch people make bad judgments. I learned as I was moving up, I watched the person who I reported to and asked myself, ‘Did they handle that well? How would I have handled that? Did they say the right things?’ Look at what happened and ask, ‘Would there have been a better way to handle that?’

The more decisions you make, the better you get at it. When you make a decision, the reason it probably works is that you’ve made a commitment to it. Make a decision based on the consistent principles of fairness, equity and compassion, not making up the rules as you go along but having some guiding principles, applying them and making that decision work is how you learn judgment. It’s a skill to learn through practice.

Keep your promises. It’s critical when developing trust to not tell people more than you can do. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Maybe 90 percent of the time you can deliver it, but they’ll only remember the 10 percent that you promised and didn’t deliver. If you can’t promise, then you say, ‘I can’t make a commitment on this. However, I will review it; I will consider it,’ or, ‘I hear what you’re saying; I understand your concerns.’

Model behavior. Don’t expect people to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself. If you want them to be good team members or deliver on their outcomes, you need to demonstrate that yourself.

You can’t expect from them what you don’t do. Those are ways you develop trust, and then they get to know you as a real person and not as a name on their check. It comes from meeting with them in their environment, greeting them and showing them, ‘Hey, I’m a real person.’

Reward those who reach goals. Give feedback. You say, ‘You’re doing a good job, keep it up, don’t give up.’ You have to be a cheerleader and a coach on the sidelines. In a lot of ways, I can’t play the game, but I’ve got to watch all the moving parts and try to maximize that effort.

Not everybody expects an award or a pat on the back, but when there is especially good work done, and it comes to your attention, it should be reinforced. Focus on the positive, and when people feel good, they’re more willing to work hard.

HOW TO REACH: Houston Community College, (713) 718-2000 or www.hccs.edu