The Simplicity of Connecting

businessmen shaking hands

I have been devouring Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code lately.  Providing simple actionable advice on creating a positive and effective culture, it is quickly becoming one of the best books I have read so far this year.

A chapter that grabbed my attention early in the book is entitled “How to Build Belonging.” In it, Coyle examines long-time San Antonio Spurs’ Head basketball coach, Gregg Popovich. “Pop,” as he is known by NBA fans, has had one of the most successful tenures as a head coach in NBA history. His teams have always stood out to the common observer because they have exhibited unselfishness not common in the modern NBA. Their winning record and 5 NBA titles placed them consistently in the “who is the best team in the NBA” conversation.

Success on the court is one thing, but what has always stood out about Pop to me is how much his players, and even players on other teams, adore him. How does he connect with so many people? Coyle points to three intentional practices Coach Popovich practices (this chapter alone is worth the price of the book, and by no means am I doing it justice below):

Pop practices connectivity. Coyle details how Pop invades personal space, touches players’ elbows or gives them a pat on the back, and specifically attends to players who might have struggled in the previous game. This is all intentional. What challenged me was how simple this is. It is something any leader can do.Pop then critiques. Pop is known for not sugar coating any message to his players or other coaches. We have all read countless biographies of leaders willing to “tell it like it is,” but what makes Pop different is when and how the criticism is delivered. It always comes after a connection has been formed—as in step 1 above. This is more effective than the “feedback sandwich” approach where managers handout criticism “sandwiched” between two positive attributes. This tends to make the positives feel less authentic. Compare this to Pop” who has been known to absolutely berate his players, including the superstars like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, during practices. The players’ openness to such criticism seems to indicate a unique connection to Pop. For if they were not connected, would they be open to such criticism? One probably suspects not. Moreover, “Pop” seems to understand the need for the players to accept coaching, because as Coyle writes in the chapter, he thanks “each player for allowing him to coach them” at every season’s end. Talk about an example to follow in our own leadership!Pop teaches perspective to the team. I have heard stories, and Coyle details a few in the chapter, about how Pop uses game-film study sessions to show his team documentaries about history, politics, and other topics of importance. In fact, Pop encourages discussion about these matters within the team. This perspective not only reminds players that there are bigger issues in the world than the game of basketball, but it also reinforces how connected they are as a team (we can talk about anything and everything here). So when the Spurs lose a big game, and they have had some gut-wrenching defeats during Pop’s tenure, they’re able to maintain perspective and process the loss, and emotions that come with the loss, together.

What does all this mean for us? For starters, it reminds us that connecting with those we lead is not only vital, but often simpler than we assume. It just takes intentionality and focus. As Coyle reminds the reader, Pop does not engage much with technology, and did not carry an iPhone until 2018 (he has yet to send a single text message per Coyle).

No wonder he has the time for this kind of intentionality.

Here are some ideas to increase connectivity with your team this summer:

—Schedule a team dinner this summer.

—Tell your team “thank you” today (be specific for why you are thanking them however).

—Read and discuss a history book with your team.

—Consider ways of connecting physically with your team (Know your audience here, and obviously avoid anything that could be creepy or misinterpreted. A hand shake, fist bump, or a pat on the back when appropriate are proven to be extremely powerful!).

The list could go on and on. The point is this: To build a great culture, you have to be intentional about connecting with, and valuing, others.