4 Business Lessons from Girls’ Softball

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I am (usually) the first to admit when I am wrong…

…and I had one of those moments very recently.

Stick with me here while I set this up.

This last weekend, my 11 year-old niece played in one of the USSSA girls’ fast-pitch softball World Series tournaments.  My family and I packed up and drove to the tournament to cheer her on.   And while I am always happy to see my niece play and spend time with the family, I must admit – in the interest of full transparency – I wasn’t that excited about watching young girls play softball ALL SATURDAY LONG.  It’s not that I’m down on girls’ softball – it’s just that I couldn’t see myself spending ALL DAY there.

Fortunately for me – my ignorance didn’t get in the way of me witnessing something truly great!

Let me lay this out for you quickly and simply.

My niece’s team played a total of thirteen 90+ minute games in this tournament, six of which were on Saturday alone.  In this double-elimination set up, they found themselves fighting through the loser’s bracket after an early loss.  The 12-girl team also found themselves down one pitcher due to injury.  Consequently, they played the entire tournament with only two pitchers,  one of whom was my niece, Destiny.

NOW at this point in the story – let me tell you that if you’ve ever thought that young girls’ sports aren’t exciting – take it from me.  You’re wrong.  I was.  And I’m not too big to admit it. To say that this experience was humbling would be an understatement.

First, it completely terrifies me how fast an 11-year-old girl can pitch a softball – underhand.

Second, these girls that are 4-foot-nothing can HIT! …and field!  (For those of you unfamiliar with softball/baseball terms I simply said “they can play!”)

I was in complete awe of the skill at this age.  The most shocking thing, however, was that they just kept going and going – pitch after pitch – play after play – game after game.  Most adults I know would have wimped out long before these girls did.

The six back to back Saturday games spanned 14 hours in temperatures that had a heat index of around 100⁰F.

I found myself cheering on each individual player much like I would my favorite professional or collegiate athletes.  Listening to their parents – I was drawn in to their personal stories, which made it more fun.  It was like watching (a very long) awesome lifetime movie unfold before my eyes.

Throughout the tournament, these girls scored a total of 123 runs while only allowing 33.  Wow!

Their hard work paid off! In the end, they found themselves in the championship game.  The only trouble was that they were going to have to beat the other team twice in a row to clinch the championship title (because of the double elimination rule), but the other team would only have to beat them once.

As they went head to head, Destiny’s team blew the other team away in the first game.  They carried that momentum into game two – and were up 6-0 at the end of the third inning.  Unfortunately, the girls were worn out (as you had to play more games in the losers’ bracket) and the other team made a late rally in the final innings to beat them.

They left the tournament in second place as far as the USSSA was concerned.  But in my heart and the hearts of the parents and family – they are champions!

Proud Uncle Side Note:  My niece won the MVP Pitching award for best tournament pitcher.  I’m so proud! 🙂

So what does this have to do with business?

Tons.  Here are FOUR KEY LESSONS I walked away with.

ONE:  Cheer on your teammates…even when they make mistakes.  While I witnessed several great plays throughout the game, I also observed a host of errors too.  Nobody’s perfect. But whether success or failure – the girls were the first to genuinely cheer each other on – time and time again.  They clearly had each other’s backs and continually lifted each other’s spirits.

 Business Application:  How do you encourage your teammates?  In the workplace, our teammates need us to genuinely cheer them on.  Lift them up.  Encourage their efforts.  Share in their successes.  And help them get past their failures quickly.  They need us to have their back – and vice versa.

TWO:  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  The second base player that they affectionately referred to as ‘Tic-Tac’ was of course the shortest and youngest on the team.  The first time I saw her step up to bat I thought, “oh boy – this isn’t going to be good” and even looked away.  And then I heard that solid ‘crack’!  You know – the sound when the bat connects perfectly with the ball.  I whipped my head around to see the ball flying into deep right field.  I was in shock.  As I watched Tic-Tac for the rest of the series – I discovered that she was a softball monster!  She was a regular deep hitter, fielded the ball superbly, and caught several fly balls on the run.  I certainly misjudged her.

Business Application:  How do you learn about others?  We judge people we don’t really know all of the time.  Sometimes it’s by brief first impressions, other’s opinions, or just general assumptions we make about them.  However, I challenge you not to succumb to an uninformed opinion.  Get to know people for who they are, the true capabilities they possess, and the experiences and knowledge they can share.  Who knows – you may have a power player on your hands and you don’t even know it.

THREE:  There’s no crying in softball!  Oh wait – yes there is!  I saw it. BUT – through tears of frustration, exhaustion, and sometimes pain, I watched these 10-11 year old girls fight on.  It was inspiring! In the very last game – after pitching all day – my niece stood on the pitchers’ mound in the final innings.  She was brought in to relieve her worn-out partner.  And as tears streamed down her face from being exhausted herself, she kept throwing pitch after pitch.  Talk about digging deep!  It was a testament to sheer determination of will that all of these girls continued on.

Business Application:  How strong is your resolve? Perseverance is critical to accomplishing any great task, especially when you’re up against tough odds.  When it gets tough, double down on your resolve.  It is these moments that define individuals and teams.

FOUR:  Always be a good sport.  One of the things I was most impressed with was that the girls exhibited what I would call stellar sportsmanship.  Every time someone was hurt (on either team) the girls took a knee immediately out of respect.  At the end of every game – win or lose – the girls would meet the other team at the pitcher’s mound join hands and pray together.  They always congratulated the other team.  And in the final championship game – they showed their grace as they cheered the other team on as they received their first place award.

Business Application:  How do you demonstrate business sportsmanship?   One of my favorite life lessons You can’t always control what happens to you (even when you try your best), but you can control your own reaction to it.  Business sportsmanship is displayed through our attitudes, integrity, and ethical/moral behavior.  Always choose the higher road – regardless of what happens to you.

Sports always provides great parallels for business.  There were actually several more lessons from this day that would be business applicable.  But beyond the four I shared above, I want to call out my own very personal learning with which I started the story – don’t knock it until you try it.  I was clearly wrong about girls’ softball.  It is pretty awesome!

The thing that caught my attention through all of this and that should catch yours is that these lessons came from the behaviors displayed by a group of strong and determined young ladies.  They certainly set the bar high for us adults.  And if they can do it, we can do it!

What business lessons have you learned from kids’ activities?

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Don’t assume they know. Tell them!

SuppotDon’t you just love it when you can see the lightbulb come on in others?

Recently, I had a conversation with one of our senior leaders and they were talking extensively about servant leadership and the importance of it in our business.  As I then sat through several meetings after that, I was very keen in my observations of those leading and participating.   

What did I see?  That we need more servant leadership.  We need to lose the egos and practice some humility.  We need to stop working in silos.  We need to be inclusive of other perspectives.  We need to be respectful of people’s time and opinions.  We need to champion and challenge each other.  We need to get away from what’s most important to ME and put others and the good of the organization first.  We need people to realize that ‘how’ we get there is just as important as getting there (if not more so).

In listening to Walmart CEO, Mike Duke, over the last few years he has been very clear that servant leadership is an attribute and behavior expected from our leaders at all levels.  So why is it that this message isn’t always filtering down or demonstrated? 

Then I remembered one of Tim Yatsko’s (EVP @Walmart) favorite Don Soderquist (former COO @Walmart) quotes, “Don’t assume they know.  Tell them.”  While this is a paraphrase and Don was referring to Integrity – I think the theme of the message is equally relevant here.  Maybe their leaders, mentors, and peers aren’t telling them.  Or holding them accountable to it.

So, I am telling you.   Be a good servant leader. 🙂

If you become known for this throughout your organization, I guarantee you that your career will blossom and flourish.

Servant Leadership is one of those topics that should be a regular course of conversation, because it’s important!  And not just at work, but in life in general.  It’s not something that we turn on and off.  It’s something that permeates who you are and is reflected in your thoughts, words, and actions.   

I realize that we all have different aspirations, styles and ambitions in life, but my personal experiences have led me to the truth that I am most fulfilled and accomplish the most when I am able to help or serve others.

If servant leadership is a new concept to you or is something you don’t understand, feel free to reach out to me, your mentors, or your leaders and inquire.  This is one of those “journey” things.  We all have to start somewhere.  Once we start, we find that there is always more to learn.  And the people that care about your growth and development should be happy to help you on your journey.  🙂

Special note for leaders:  Teach.  Teach servant leadership.  In your words.  In your actions. Talk to your teams about it. Don’t assume they know.  Expect it from the leaders on your team, whether up-and-coming or seasoned.  Hold them accountable to it.  Teach them to teach it.  If you want to leave a mighty legacy – invest this in others.

 If you take anything away  – let it be this –>   Be a good servant leader. 

 How do you demonstrate good servant leadership?

The Illusion of Effectiveness

magician-dove-hat-101206-02In our careers, there are common roads we all must travel.  Some of those roads are rougher than others.  Some are littered with pot holes and speed bumps.  One of those rougher roads is making the transition from doingbeing a high potential individual contributorto leadingmotivating others to perform at their best. 

Whether we like it or not, our role changes as we progress in seniority from being “one of the team” that performs tasks, to being the leader that get things done through others and then finally to a senior leader that gets things done through multiple layers of others. 

The challenge we often face is that throughout our early professional roles, we’re rewarded for our effectiveness as doers, and when we achieve a more senior position we often assume that our effectiveness as leaders will rely upon the same behaviors that have fueled our success up to that point. 

This can lead to the illusion of effectiveness

I think I am more effective and successful because I am ‘getting stuff done’.  Thus the illusion.  The reality is that we live in a world where we are required to churn out more with less.  If we continue to try to leverage the same skills that got us here, we’ll find ourselves being a high paid individual contributor that works around the clock to churn out “more”. 

The further reality is that this not only limits our capacity and potential, but it limits the capacity and potential of the talent that is entrusted to us.  If we always “do it ourselves”, our people never learn, experience, and grow – which is not good for us, for them, or the organization.  Success hinges on being able to effectively delegate and entrust our teams and the teams around us to deliver.

In our journey to become great leaders, we should all take a minute to evaluate ourselves and identify where we are personally doing, when we should be doing (well) through others.  

Below are 6 tips to help keep you out of the business of ‘doing’:

ONE:  Evaluate where you have to compensate for others on your team.  Then address it.  Get to the core of the issue, develop them, and get past it.  Continuing to compensate means that you are working at a level or two from where the company expects you to be.

TWO:  Evaluate your to-do list each day.   Ask yourself if the tasks are things you should be doing or things you should be teaching your team to do.  If it’s the latter – teach them.

THREE:  Entrust others with important opportunities.  There is a difference between delegating and entrusting.  Entrust is a key word in delegating:  It means that you care about the results of what you delegate, and you’re willing to provide the support needed to help the team member achieve those results.  Our job as leaders is to build future leaders, which means that sometimes you have to take a risk so that they can learn. 

FOUR:  Empower your team.  To empower your associates is to do three actions:

  • Give associates the freedom to get a job done (no breathing down their necks).
  • Provide associates with the right level of support to get the job done well, including information, training, resources, and so on.
  • Hold associates accountable to produce the outcomes needed.

All three actions work together as part of the process. Thus, when you delegate effectively, you empower your team.

FIVE:   Identify mentors and trusted leaders that lead well and ask them for input as you develop your leadership style. Ask them how they avoid the pitfall of being an individual contributor when they should be leading. Tip:  Most leaders love to teach / give advice, so just ask. 

SIX:  Copter down, but don’t forget to copter back up.  There will always be times when you need to roll up your sleeves and jump in to help get things done.  You may find yourself in a position where there is no choice but to be an individual contributor.  It’s the nature of our culture. The danger is that if taken to an extreme, the person becomes so involved in doing things the old way that they neglect the leadership aspects of their role.  Make sure that if you dive down, you pull yourself back up and don’t stay mired in individual contributor mode.

The benefits of getting it right –

Think about the leaders you know who lead well and trust, teach and train the team to do their jobs.  One of the common things I’ve noticed about these stronger leaders is that they are generally more available.  Because they are not personally driving each initiative, they typically don’t have to fill their calendars with endless meetings week after week.  They trust their team to attend the regular project meetings and insert themselves when there are broader decisions to be made.  This is a good “gut check” for any of us.  Are we available on regular basis throughout the week to spend time with our teams teaching and guiding?

On your leadership journey, continue to evaluate and push yourself to lead at the correct level.  Empower your team to drive initiatives and be available to teach / train as necessary.

The illusion of effectiveness distorts reality but if we are intentional in our leadership approach, we can unlock our potential, our team’s potential, and lead well.

 Question:  What tasks or projects are you doing now that should be driven by your team? 

“Hold on Tight” Customer Service

Pay Attention!

You can learn anything, anywhere, anytime, but you have to be paying attention.  Case in point.

I was on a whirlwind trip this last week and found myself at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport with my team. 

We had just dropped off the rental car and caught a rental car bus over to the terminal.  Once we were inside the terminal, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach when I realized that I didn’t have my backpack with me, which also meant that I didn’t have my wallet, ID, etc.  It was in the bus!  I left my carry-on bag with one of my peers and took off running back to the parking area to see if the bus was still there.

It was.  I ran across the street and jumped on the empty bus and looked around frantically.  No backpack.  I ran to the front of the bus only to realize it was a different bus driver.  Which meant – it was a different bus.

Clearly seeing that I was only slightly panicked, he asked me how he could help.  I quickly explained that my backpack was on board the bus that was just here before him.  He asked me if I had told anyone.  I replied, “I’m telling you.” Again, slightly panicked.

Without batting an eye, he said, “Hold on tight.  I think I can catch him.”  And with that, he shut the doors, put it in drive and took off. I stood behind him and grabbed the overhead bar for support.  For a brief moment, it reminded me of something out of a movie and expected dramatic theme music to start playing.  In case you’re wondering – we were the only ones on the bus.

As we sped past the departure drop off area, he grabbed the mic to his radio and started calling for his dispatch and the other bus.  While dispatch replied, the other bus didn’t answer.  Dispatch then began calling for the other bus, but still no reply.

Then we came to a fork in the road.  He asked me a quick question about whether or not there were passengers for other terminals on our bus.  My “I don’t know” response didn’t help.  But that was okay, because he replied, “Okay…then if I were him, I’d go this way.”  And he jerked the bus to the right.  Up and around the terminal we went.

As we leveled out in the arrival area, we approached a line of buses.  He said, “I believe this is your bus.” and pointed to the one directly in front.  As I jumped off his bus, he said, “I’ll wait here.”  I shouted my thanks as I ran to the bus in front.

I leaped on to the bus in front to discover my backpack sitting there all by its lonesome.  I startled my old driver as I let out a triumphant “Yes!”  He asked me if he could help me.  I told him that I had left my backpack, but everything was okay now.  I’m sure I left him a little baffled as to what had just happened and how I got there.

I climbed off the bus and held up my bag to the awesome driver to show success.  He gave me a smile, a wave, and then drove off.  I waved my thanks to him.

As I walked back to my party, I couldn’t help but think how great of customer service this driver displayed.  He didn’t have to help me.  I’m sure it wasn’t in his job description.  But he did it nonetheless.

Besides not leaving my bag on the rental car bus, here are 3 things I learned that day about exceeding expectations with a “hold on tight” level of customer service.

  1. 1.      Take Immediate Action – when a customer presents you with a crisis or problem they expect you to deal with it – don’t wait You can be anyone’s superhero.  Don’t pass the problem off to someone else.  Take ownership.  You’re action shows them that you are committed to solving their issue.  It shows that you are committed to them
  2. 2.      Include Others – if you don’t know how to solve a customer’s problem or need help – get it Use the resources available to you to find the right people or incorporate others in to the solution.  Leverage them to help. 
  3. 3.      See It Through – Once on the path to solving an issue – see it through to the end.  Like the driver said to me when he found my bus, “I’ll wait here”.   He did this to make sure that what he did solved my problem.  If it hadn’t, I imagine we would have been off on another adventure.  Even if you do pass it to someone else – follow up.

Exceeding a customer’s expectations doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes action.  Take every opportunity to go above and beyond!  There were so many examples of this in my story.  From the initial “hold on tight” all the way through to the “I’ll wait here”. 

I don’t know the name of my driver, but I’ll always remember the impact he made on me by providing awesome customer service!  And this is what we should want for our customers – to remember us and our company this way.

Be known for providing awesome customer service.  And as leaders, be known for teaching awesome customer service!

What “hold on tight” customer service have you provided lately?

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