What football teaches us about virtual teams and remote management

Companies and sports teams are like well-oiled machines. Like a clockwork where all cogs seamlessly intersect with the next. Every part holds its own very important role. So everybody should concentrate on their own strength. And leave the rest to others.

You are a manager of a distributed team and you keep trying to coach your team to be more cohesive, engaged, motivated? You try to create team building activities for them to show your appreciation of them? Stop it ! Stop it now ! Here is why:

After one of my last Action Plan workshops one of the participants gave me this feedback:

“I found the class cool and entertaining, but would not book it that way, because I could do all these things on my own, possibly saving time and having more time for the final planning of the implementation.”

Thanks to my readers’ and participants’ feedback I am able to continuously improve my approach to virtual team building. So thank you for any kind of feedback!
And for this participant’s feedback, I am especially grateful! Because it lets me point out something very important:

Any kind of team building can be done by your team itself! You do not need a coach for team building.
But with a coach, your team building attempts will be more successful.

How a coach makes your virtual team building more successful

Let me explain step by step why a coach makes a huge difference for you in creating a cohesive team. And because I love football metaphors, I am going to use one for this.

We can compare a virtual work team with a football team. Every player has a different task within the team, like scoring goals, defending goals, opening the game, giving the final pass or waiting on the bench and be ready for the moment they are needed. In a working team, you also have different tasks, like engineering, marketing, HR, finances. Every team member has to fulfil its task to sell the product.

What else do football teams and work teams have in common? Yes exactly, the team captain. In work teams, the captain is (mostly) not called captain but team lead or manager.

Some football teams, most of them from the lower leagues where there is less money, do play with a so-called “player-coach”. A player-coach simultaneously plays with the team on the field and coaches the team at the same time. A kind of a jack-of-all-trades. The last successful player-coaches in the top leagues were Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli, both for Chelsea at the end of the 1990s. All of the other top clubs chose to separate the roles and started into the championship seasons with a team consisting of players AND a coach. Today this proved to be the successful way to go. You will not find one player-coach in the top leagues (or even some leagues below).

So what does that have to do with your work team? In a work team, your team manager is the captain of the team and stands on the field trying to win the game with the rest of the group. But often team managers do not solely concentrate on their managing tasks, they try to coach the team at the same time. They transform into a player-coach. But what proved to be a success for football teams also is true for work teams: Do not make your manager your coach!

6 reasons why a coach makes the difference

Here are SIX reasons why having a coach for your team will make it more successful:

1.) The coach sees the big picture

We are in the interview zone after a football match. A reporter asks our player for his opinion about a critical scene during the game. And the player answers “I do not know, I didn’t see the scene. I’ll have to watch it in the replay.

No worries. Our player was not daydreaming during the match but focused on fulfilling his own special task. Being on the field, the players do have a different perspective than the neutral observer from the outside.

The coach, in comparison to the players, has the perfect overview spot over the whole field. She sees who needs tactical advice, which side is more open for quick attacks and which player leaves the goal dangerously unprotected. The coach is able to analyze the whole team at once by being outside of the pitch and like this, she can interfere and undertake changes to help the team win.

A team building coach has the same advantage as a football coach: She is not part of the team and not part of the daily work routine. Due to this, a team building coach brings in a new perspective. The coach sees communication patterns and behaviours that the team is not aware of.  He can analyze from the neutral outside the whole team and give tips for improvement

2.) The coach is neutral

You are losing 2:0, it starts to rain and more fouls are played than passes. Every now and then every team has a bad day. Teams consist of human beings, even though we tend to forget that sometimes in professional football. It is natural that team members get stressed on the field on a bad day. But if things heat up too much, the coach has to change the tactic or take a player out. A player would most likely not send himself out. It is easier to look for the mistake in somebody else’s behaviour than on your own.

In this matter, football teams and work teams are behaving totally conform. So it is the coach’s task to check who needs a break and who could bring in some new creativity. The coach is not soaked from the rain and was not fouled 5 times by another player. He can analyze the situation without heated-up emotions and bring in new creativity.

Your work team can get stuck in a daily routine, in unhappiness and a blaming culture. A coach shows you how to get out of the downward spiral and change your corporate culture to one that you admire.

3.) The coach lets you state your opinion

What did the coach say in his cabin speech during the half-time? Whatever it was, it was the right thing if the team comes out of the cabin with the right attitude for the second half-time.

A team works under certain rules and one of these rules is often to not disturb the group’s harmony. Do not speak up against the group’s decisions. Never criticize the team captain (manager). Be quiet and accept the status quo. Holding back her own opinion and strive for consensus within the group for the sake of harmony. This is what we call groupthink. And The result of groupthink is often an irrational decision-making outcome. One of the most famous examples of groupthink is the Bay of Pigs Invasion under John F. Kennedy, which led to a disaster in America’s Cuba politics.

The coach is not part of the team and therefore not influenced by groupthink. She can state her opinion freely. And even better, the coach can help the team to overcome groupthink. During the team building session, she creates an open and safe environment for the team members to talk about opinions and decisions. To give feedback is not an easy task for everybody.

But within the safe environment that the team coach creates and the communication tools that the coach gives on the hand, the team can finally have an open discussion.

4.)The coach helps us to self-reflect

The picture we have of ourselves can tremendously differ from the perception somebody else has of us. We might think that we would have been the better person to attempt the shoot on the goal. But actually, our teammate next to us was in a much better position. And for sure we do not deserve a yellow card for the committed foul.

The coach has the right tools to help us analyze our behaviour without having to fear to lose our face in front of the group.

Sometimes taking one step back and reflecting our own doing helps the team to jump two steps in front.

5.) The coach lets the team members concentrate on what they can do best

Some players only touch the ball a few times during the game, but when they do, the ball is in the net. They always stand at the right moment and the right spot. Others catch every ball before it is in their own goal. And some know how to play the opening pass to start an attack on the other team’s goal. People do what people do best.

Thanks to a coach, everybody in the team can concentrate on what they can do best. Let your engineer concentrate on engineering and your marketing star on preparing the next campaign.

The football captain should not be busy with finding new tactics and reading up new training exercises. Let him solely focus on his own task: leading the team.
And the same goes for the team manager of your working team. He should not be occupied with trying to find the right team building tasks, but with managing the team. Leave the team building to the team building coach who is an expert in analyzing teams and choosing the right tasks for each individual team. Like this, everybody can do what he or she can do best.

6.) The coach has a long-term plan

Every good coach has a game plan. And plans win games. The players might not see the overall picture at the beginning, but they will understand that the plan works as soon as the passes “magically” arrive at their teammates and they find the holes in the other team’s defence to strike a goal.

Trust in your coach during the training even if you do not see how the exercise will help you during the game. The player might not immediately see why during training she shall run around five sticks over and over again, but as soon as you out pass five players in the next match and see that all the time you finally studied the new free-kick variant, you’ll understand the big picture the coach had from the beginning.

Your work team will not always see what the team building exercise is for. But as soon as your team changes it behaviour you’ll see that your team building coach had a plan. Always concentrate on mastering one exercise after the other. You do learn football in small steps. If your coach tells you tomorrow to start playing tiki-taka football like the FC Barcelona without having ever played with a ball before, the result will be a frustrated team that is losing the ball every time. Football can only be learnt in small steps, and so is working in a team. Do not try to play tiki-taka immediately, but start becoming an effective and happy team with small steps at a time. Slowly but steady. Team building is not done overnight. Work on it on a regular basis. And use the help of a team building coach.

Focus on what you do best

A coach doesn’t make the captain unnecessary. They are both supporting each other in doing what they can do best, on the field or off the field. When the coach, the captain and the team work hand in hand and everybody can concentrate on their very own speciality, they have the capability to win the championship.
So as a manager of a working team stop trying to be a jack-of-all-trades and concentrate on what you can do best: leading your team.

So do you want to become a bonded team where everybody can concentrate on their own strengths? You want to keep your best talents and improve efficiency?

RemoteDynamic offers Virtual Team Building and Virtual Team Development workshops and asynchronous activities. Customized for remote teams and customized for the needs of synchronous and asynchronous working teams.

Virtual Team Building

Get to know and trust each other with engaging and fun team building exercises. Bond with short daily activities and team events.

Virtual Team Development

In online workshops you bond, engage, solve problems. Topics: team culture, collaboration, trust, communication, and more.

Meeting facilitation

We facilitate engaging and effective online meetings for you, so that you can concentrate on bringing in your ideas in discussions.

Transition & Onboarding

We support you in setting up processes and structures for your remote team and in onboarding your newest virtual team members.

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