Danny Kerry is the Head Coach for England and Great Britain men’s hockey teams. Prior to taking up this role in 2018, he coached the England and GB women’s teams that won a host of international medals, including the Olympic gold in 2016.
In a Q&A webinar I watched this week, hosted by Notts Sport, Danny gave his thoughts on leadership and the crossover between athletes and the business world. It was angled towards how top athletes have the ideal attributes to transfer into the business world, but also took account of how creating a high-performance sporting programme is incredibly relevant for creating high-performing businesses.
Here, I will summarise some of the key points that Danny gave on leadership and building a successful programme.
Leaders create other leaders
To be a successful leader, create an environment that creates other leaders. This can be done by providing opportunities for people to lead, whether that is on the pitch in matches, in training, or in projects that players can lead off the field.
On the pitch, the obvious leadership role is the captaincy. However, it is vital that top class teams have multiple leaders throughout the team, and the squad has a player leadership group to help develop this.
Leaders own the space (i.e. have presence), they make people think differently and they bring people with them. They also have the self-awareness that enables them to have awareness of others. Leaders need to be effective communicators but must allow others the opportunity to communicate too.
When looking to build leadership in others, you can look for those who have these qualities, but also look for every opportunity to develop these skills in people.
It is vital as a leader that you learn to see things from the perspective of the other person, particularly with younger members of the squad. Learn how to interact with them to bring the best out of them.
Danny referenced Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and the chapter ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’. In order to be highly effective and move beyond a transactional relationship, there is a need to demonstrate that you understand and care about the person before they will trust you and fully engage in your logic and vision. In terms of understanding a player, this includes understanding them as a person away from hockey.
Leaders need to be prepared to jeopardise personal relationships for the good of the team, although you can create an environment where people can challenge each other and maintain relationships.
As a Head Coach, you don’t have to have the best relationship with everyone. Other coaches can develop stronger relationships with certain players and the aim is to get the best balance across the team.
Relationships also change over time; for example, a younger player might feel more confident in having a stronger relationship with an assistant coach or senior players, whereas they may get closer to the Head Coach as they get older and gain experience.
Culture & Conflict
Culture needs to be built collaboratively from the bottom up. When it is forced from the top down, it becomes transactional and there is a lack of ownership from team members. Each team/department within an organisation can have their own unique identities which are built collaboratively through the team members.
Conflict tends to arise when there is a clash of values. A shared purpose and shared values should be created collaboratively. If someone steps outside these values, first seek to understand why, rather than judging.
There is a need to work through conflict. Although you might not seek to actively encourage conflict, there is a need to embrace it because it will happen in a high-performance environment – avoid creating an environment of false harmony.
If you create the right environment, conflict can be managed by the culture.
Another potential conflict could arise between players completing for the same spot in the team or squad. Danny’s ethos is that you stand the greatest chance of being selected by doing the best by the teammate you are competing against. Bring the best out of yourself and your teammate for the good of the team.
The coaches deliberately put the athletes into challenging situations in order to grow them, but plan these exercises away from peak performance events. To enable players to perform at their best, the coaches will seek to take the pressure off the athletes in the weeks immediately before a major tournament.
As the leader of the programme, Danny regularly receives 360 feedback. He doesn’t necessarily enjoy it but he understands the importance of it in improving himself and the programme as a whole. He also has a mentor and actively seeks to learn from other leaders, both within sport and across other professions.
When recruiting a leadership team, identify ‘the empty chair’, i.e. look to recruit the qualities and skills that are currently missing from the team. Encourage diverse thinking in leadership and in the team but know when to take control in order to move things forward.
I believe there is a huge amount of creating a high-performance sporting environment that translates to business, as well as many other areas of life, and I hope you find this insight useful for your own organisations, teams and personal lives.