What can you learn from a softball mom?

Most of my weekends in the late spring and summer are spent on softball fields in various states, mostly along the east coast. It has been a four-year journey that I have been enjoying with my daughter, a travel softball player. Her primary position is as a catcher, and her secondary position is at third base. Anyone reading this who knows me well is smiling because they know that I have observed a lot along the way and that I constantly draw on what I see on softball fields (both high school and travel) to explain life and work. I have curated many stories and drawn numerous lessons from watching my daughter, coaches, and teams engaged in play on the softball diamond.

As I am back into the swing of being a weekend road warrior, I thought I would take you down my mind’s corridors and share my observations about management through my softball lens.

Every player needs a mule.

Yes, a mule as in the animal. Bear with me. The life of a parent whose child plays travel sports is to “be the mule.” If you happen upon me on an early Saturday morning, I have a Yeti cooler on my back weighing about 20 pounds stashed with water, sports drinks, ice, snacks, and lunch; a backpack strapped around my front with a GoPro, chargers, first aid kit, and sunscreen; folding chairs hanging from my shoulders; and a supersized tumbler of black coffee in hand as my sustenance. Occasionally, I also pull a cart with a tent and whatever else is needed for the day.

Arguably you could say all a player needs is water for hydration, or back in the day, we did not have all those things, and we still did just fine. You would be right. But back in the day, employees were treated as commodities, and the go-to managerial style was more command and control. As we learn more about employee engagement, we must realize that there is much more we should have in our tool kit (or mule kit) to provide our teams with what they need. It’s not about the free snacks and drinks. It is about showing up, honoring the whole person, and having their back.

Every team has its unique codes, signs, and language.

Whether it is hitting, pitching, catching, or fielding, there is a shared language of understanding that a team has in terms of situational play. Whether it is a series of numbers or a catchphrase, once uttered, every player understands their role once the ball is in play. This is because the coach has created a way for the team members to communicate on the field in a language only they can understand.

Having a shared language with your team can improve communication and foster collaboration. It is also a way to create your unique sub-culture within your company or organization. For example, a phrase I use with my team when I want to signal that I plan to unplug from all my devices and disconnect from work is, “I am going dark.” Another example is when I want to provide them with a guidepost for a crucial decision or situation. If they need my guidance, I use my DEFCON levels of situational awareness and signaling, which are like the military levels. For example, when an issue is high risk and decision-making is critical, it is much less overwhelming for my team to move into action when they hear it is DEFCON 1 because we have a clear understanding of what that means and how we all need to show up and move together.  

The catcher is the only player on the field who sees everything.

There is only one player, other than the coach, who has a full view of the field and can call out plays as needed to the other players who do not have the same vantage point. There tends to be no praise and no glory for this position. The catcher blocks a lot of balls, calls most of the pitches, and protects the plate. They are in a position where they are always expected to “be the wall.”

As a manager, you have a unique perspective because you have access to many more data points than your team members. The lens you have into your organization and the information that you hold is critical for guiding strategy for your team and your managers. So, what do you need to be able to provide direction for your team members? First, you need their trust, and building that trust requires good communication and information sharing. Second, you need to strategically call the pitches and “be the wall.”

Every hitter has a purpose.

The lineup for hitting is created with a strategy. The goal is to load the bases and have your strongest hitters bring your players home. A home run is good, but a home run with bases loaded is much better. If you have a player who consistently hits home runs, you will likely not lead with that player but will wait until the bases are loaded. If you have a player who is great at stealing bases, you probably want to have them early in the lineup; if you have a player who bunts well, you might want to place them in a position to advance a runner. Depending on how fast they are and how the play goes, it often means their job is sacrificing themselves for the sake of moving another player.

Every team member has a superpower, and as a manager, part of your job is to recognize, test, and develop the superpowers of your team members in order to be game ready. Therefore, it is crucial to assess the strengths of your team members as well as opportunities for further development. You also should be ready for the possibility that sometimes a sound strategy will be to sacrifice yourself for the sake of advancing your team, asking for forgiveness rather than permission.

The coach can make or break the game and the players.

A coach sets the tone for how the team performs and can lift players up or tear players down. I have seen the full spectrum of coaching behavior in the past four years. I have seen a coach kicked out of a game, argue with umpires, make bad calls, yell at players, and demoralize a team. Conversely, I have seen coaches communicate well with their players, encourage players who make mistakes, give high fives to team members even when they lose, and engage players in open discussions to debrief about a game. I have seen players join teams because of a coach and leave teams because of a coach.

Psychological safety and building trust with your team are essential elements for a high-performing team. As managers, we are in direct control of creating an environment where employees feel valued and heard. We should lead with curiosity; the behavior that we model matters. We should not take our responsibility for tending to our teams lightly. It can be easy to push cultivating our teams further down our “things to do” list because of the daily demands on our time. However, to do that is shortsighted because our teams are a direct reflection of ourselves, win, lose, or tie.

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