Coaching “The Coach”

To say that Bill Bergan had a successful coaching career at Iowa State University would be an understatement. Bill produced a pair of cross country national championships and two second place finishes. He also guided his track and cross country teams to 25 conference titles and coached16 Olympians. After retiring from coaching in 1995, he was inducted into the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Associationís Hall of Fame in 2006.

Bill is also the President and Founder of Championship Productions, the premier supplier of instructional coaching products featuring renowned professionals across 15 sports. I was therefore more than a bit intrigued when Bill asked to meet for coffee in August 2008. Itís not every day that you get to meet a living legend.

“Iím not sure what Iím going to do,” Bill explained. “I need to start thinking about stepping away from the business, but the organization seems more dependent on me than ever. Due to our past success, weíve become complacent. Thereís a country club attitude that seems to transcend the entire organization. Weíre not as hungry as we once were.”

Bill went on to explain how he was working more than ever, much to his wife Karenís chagrin. He felt he had to personally stay on top of projects, or they seemed to slip.

I listened for the next hour, occasionally asking questions for clarification. Unfortunately, the situation which Bill was describing sounded amazingly similar to others Iíve encountered:

  • An entrepreneur takes a chance on a great idea
  • Success follows and so the entrepreneur hires some help; often inexperienced, but hard-working people that they can trust and can afford
  • They continue to experience success, often driven by the sheer determination of the founder
  • Original, loyal hires are promoted
  • The organization outgrows the skills and expertise of the original leaders as little personal development has been invested in them
  • When the founder takes a foot off the gas, it becomes apparent that the organization is not prepared to take up the slack
  • The founder is met with the disturbing revelation that they are ready to retire, there is no bench strength capable of producing a successor, and the organization will be in shambles without a strong leader

Upon completing his summary of the situation, Bill turned to me and asked, “Is this something you can help with?”

“Thatís exactly what we do,” I replied.

Over the course of the next four weeks, we worked on a plan to address the leadership and management issues. A model for leading cultural change was shared with Bill along with his responsibilities. A level of honesty was required with his senior staff that heretofore had been hidden behind happy talk. With guidance, Bill began to create a compelling case for change as well as a vision for the future.

Due to their deep respect for Bill, the majority of the staff accepted his warning cry and vision relatively quickly. Unfortunately, just realizing that they needed to change didnít mean that they knew what they had to do differently, or exactly how to do it.

For the next six months, I met with Bill and his staff one or two days per month. Some days were spent facilitating strategic planning sessions and setting goals for 2009. Another was spent guiding the team to identify how progress against the goals would be measured and shared throughout the year. Workshops on key management skills like prioritization, time management, and holding people accountable were completed. One-on-one coaching was offered to individual staff members who either required additional help to reinforce a workshop topic, or had a unique need that wouldnít be addressed with the remainder of the staff until later.

By the end of the 1st Quarter of 2009 Bill could already cite several instances where staff members were demonstrating behaviors consistent with the vision. The change was also obvious to employees throughout the organization, most of whom had also stepped it up as they observed management doing so. By the end of the 2nd Quarter, key metrics were clearly headed in the right direction.

Today, we continue to meet on a regular, albeit less frequent basis. We typically start by reviewing the companyís progress against its top objectives. Sometimes Bill wants advice on handling a particular coaching opportunity. Other times we discuss a new market opportunity and compare it to current opportunities. We always discuss the biggest gaps between the status quo and his vision and potential means of narrowing the gaps.

Bill consistently shares with me the most recent success stories from Championship Productions. We both marvel at how far both Bill and his organization have come in just a little over a year. Bill considers Brimeyer LLC a partner in Championshipís turn-around and has rewarded me with the greatest compliment Ė referrals to fellow leaders.

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