I recently had the privilege to speak with author Jon Gordon, who has published so many great books on leadership and building positive team cultures and included in today’s post is that special interview that you are not going to want to miss.
Just in case you have been living in a cave for the past 15-20 years, here is an introduction from Jon’s website: “Jon Gordon’s best-selling books and talks have inspired readers and audiences around the world. His principles have been put to the test by numerous NFL, NBA, and college coaches and teams, Fortune 500 companies, school districts, hospitals and non-profits. He is the author of The Wall Street Journal bestseller The Energy Bus as well as numerous other books. Jon is a graduate of Cornell University and holds a Masters in Teaching from Emory University. He and his training/consulting company are passionate about developing positive leaders, organizations and teams. When he’s not running through airports or speaking, you can find him playing tennis or lacrosse with his wife and two “high energy” children.”
I was so excited to talk to Jon that I started recording the interview without him realizing it so if you listen to the interview please hang in there in the first couple of minutes of the interview as I let him know he is live and we begin what I know you will find to be one of the most useful and worthwhile 30 minutes of your life. If you’d just like to read the notes from the podcast then continue to read below as I have outlined all of the valuable information that Jon shared with me during the interview. Here are those notes:
Jon Gordon Podcast Notes
- When asked what Jon thought would be the first thing a new coach should focus on he said that it all starts with learning. The best coaches he has known are those who are continuously learning through interviewing other coaches, talking to other great coaches and gathering all the wisdom you can then figuring out what works for you, identify the kind of culture you want to build and the core values that will represent that culture then you can start to build it. He cited the example of Cornell University under Dave Pietremala and Jeff Tambroni that he wrote about in “The Hard Hat”, and how they wanted to develop a culture of the hard work ethic, the blue collar work ethic, the selflessness that was what their team was going to be about and they used a red hardhat to symbolize it and remind players every day about what is expected. Once you know these things then you can begin to put everything else into place. X’s and O’s should be the last thing you should do, building the culture, establishing values and instilling teamwork should be #1.
- For players who are having trouble embracing the culture and who are having trouble getting over the fact that they aren’t perfect, Jon says that “thoughts are thoughts, it doesn’t mean you have to believe it (the negative self-talk)”. The fact that you are having negative thoughts means that you are really just “tuning in to them”. It isn’t easy for some because their upbringing or social environment may have been negative. Every athlete is bringing a story with them to your team and it is important for you as a coach to know what story they are telling themselves and what role they are playing in that story, are they a victim or are they a hero? Is there story a drama, a horror story, or an inspirational tale? You as a coach need to strive to make them feel like they are the hero in their own story and their story really should be an inspirational tale. Everyone gets knocked down, but its what you do when you get back up that matters. Their ability to believe they have control over that story important. Help them tell themselves a better story, help them believe in that story. Reading stories such as the ones the Jon writes, especially those like “Training Camp” and “The Hard Hat”, help players see themselves better in their own story, they can connect with them because its all about stories. A speech doesn’t do it, a coach talking doesn’t do it, players need to read the books, reflect on how the story applies to them and start to form their own positive story.
- The two main factors that determine a successful team are positive players who are telling themselves a positive story, and a connected team.
- “A connected team becomes a committed team”. Jon tells a story about Gettysburg Lacrosse team and what their head coach, Hank Janczyk, did with his team to help get them connected. After practice he would have each player share a “defining moment in their lives”, something about who they are and why they are they way they are. He said the results were “unbelievable”, the captains spoke first and shared things that their teammates didn’t know about them. Things that were personal and flaws that although they were not necessarily proud of them, they did explain why they were the way they were and how in some cases those things helped them learn and grow. That year, Gettysburg won 20 games in a row.
- Jon also works with Clemson University and says that when Clemson focused on the connectedness of its players they broke through as well. He tells a story about Dabo Swinney and how he brought back a stool from a remote fishing village, one like you would see in a place where a bunch of people sitting around sharing stories with each other would be, and he put that stool in the middle of the team meeting room each day during camp, and after practice he had a different player share their story while sitting on the stool. They would talk about who their hero’s were, what their hardships were, what their lives highlights were (3-H’s), and what their defining moments were. The stool was called the “safe seat”, it was a safe place to share, a safe place to be vulnerable, a safe place to talk about who you were, and then the team got to ask questions as well. As each person sat in that chair, the walls of pride and ego and selfishness came crumbling down, and that paved the way for being vulnerable and meaningful connection and powerful relationships. This created an environment that served the human needs of love, connection, and being part of something bigger than themselves.
- Jon says some would criticize these team building events as too personal and touchy-feely, and he has seen a lot of teams go the route of confidence courses and “Navy Seal” training and the like, and he thinks many of these things are effective and worthwhile, however, there is nothing more powerful than when people get connected through sharing and being vulnerable. Clemson wasn’t weaker as a result of the sharing they did, they actually became stronger because they wanted to fight together and for each other.
- Players want to know that their coaches are real. Coaches need to be vulnerable as well and show the trust in their team that they expect their players to show for each other. Today’s athletes want a relationship with their coaches, they want to connect with them. They have to buy into you before they can buy into what you believe and what your vision is. “Leadership is a transfer of belief, passion, and love”, they must know what you believe and see that you live it.
- When I asked Jon what is the biggest mistake that he sees leaders in all types of organizations making, he said that many leaders do not deal with the negativity that exists in their organizations. “The Energy Bus” is a popular book with many leaders because it deals with the “energy vampires” and the negativity that will sabotage your team. Every leader must deal with the negativity before any growth can occur in the organization. If you ignore it, its not going to go away. The second biggest mistake is that they don’t focus on their culture, they think that once they build it that it will last forever and they can move on to other things, however, culture is something that must be constantly attended to. Examples of who true this is are very graphically illustrated in “You Win in the Locker Room First” with the case of the Atlanta Falcons under Coach Mike Smith. The 3rd biggest mistake leaders make is that they don’t communicate well and that includes listening. Leaders focus so much on the metrics that they don’t focus on what matters. At the core its about relationships and communication builds relationships. Jon is a big believe in 1 on 1 meetings, a coach should meet with them all and then do it again.
- Jon is a big believer in leaders focusing on continuous education throughout their careers and being lifelong learners. He recommends a few resources:
- Podcasts. Jon believes that this free resource is a great way to ingest new knowledge and enhance your skills. “Coaching U”, “Finding Mastery” with Michael Gervais, “EntreLeader” with Dave Ramsey, just to name a few.
- Coaches should reach out to other coaches. Top names in many sports will reach out to other people at all levels to get information and grow their knowledge base. He cites Bill Belicheck as someone who is constantly reaching out to college coaches. Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder is another incredible coach who reaches out constantly.
- Positiveuniversity.com is a great resource for coaches who want to learn how to grow and build postive team cultures and continue their own education