Team-Building Wisdom from the Ottawa Senators

An Interview with John Phelan, Queen’s School of Business and mental skills coach for the Ottawa Senators hockey team
Human Resources

We asked John Phelan – who teaches leadership at the Queen’s School of Business and has been the mental skills coach for the Ottawa Senators hockey team since 2000 – about the similarities between sports teams and organizational teams. He says that building relationships is the key to good teams and good leadership – both on the ice and off.

How long have you been studying teams?

I’ve been coaching since I was 16, so I’ve spent a lot of time asking the question, “How do we get everybody on a team to contribute and work toward a team goal?” I was at Queen’s in 1989 doing my Masters of Arts degree in sports psychology, and I had the opportunity to work with the three-week Executive Development program at the School of Business. I have continued doing that since 1989, except for a period of time when I coached in the American Hockey League in Prince Edward Island.

Based on your observations, what makes a good team?

The more people understand themselves, the more they’ll fit into a team setting because they won’t have inhibitions or doubts. It is important to have an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, and to try and find out if you have any intellectual arrogance – when you stop listening because you think you know everything already – which can really damage a team.

Do the same rules for good teams apply equally to sports teams and organizational teams in workplaces?

Yes, they do. One important thing that sports teams do really well is identify roles. For example, on a professional ice hockey team, there are 12 forwards and 12 specific roles. They could be similar but each player knows what his role is. The same is true with defensemen. Often you see that when someone gets outside his role, or gets frustrated with his role, the team becomes less functional – or even dysfunctional, and people get traded.

The same thing happens in business; you come into a project setting and it is absolutely critical to define roles and everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. To create this openness for people to contribute you have to say, “Let’s open up and have a real brainstorming session,” as opposed to saying “That’s ridiculous,” or “That won’t work.” As soon as that happens, how are people going to react? They’ll say, “I’m going to be here physically, but my mind is going to be somewhere else.”

When you talk to some organizations, it’s amazing how often this happens. There was an executive from an oil company who suggested that her firm was getting 30 percent of what people had to give because of not developing personnel, and not developing teams to the capacity possible.

What is the role of a captain on a sports team? Is there an equivalent on a workplace team?

The key to being a really good captain is to deal with people one on one, to get to know all the team members really well. That way you know what makes them perform well, can see when they are not performing well, and can talk to them and listen to what they have to say. A really good captain brings out the intangible force that turns a really good team into a team with synergy, not a five plus five equals 10 team, but much more. As well, the captain can help the members create their own vision of what the team’s vision and goals really mean.

In business, the person who plays the captain’s role is often not appointed. It’s the person you don’t think is doing anything, but they know about everybody, and people come and talk to them because they are very good listeners. It is important to take the time to get to know people. You really need to build trust.

How should team conflict be handled?

There has to be confrontation in any team, and that is a good thing. Confrontation is simply how you resolve conflict. I might say to someone, “So tell me what is bothering you.” Humans too often see confrontation as bad, and they wait too long to address things. Then it gets emotional, and the issue doesn’t get resolved – people start to bring up skeletons in the closet from the past that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and it all gets hijacked.

One of my roles in player development is to be there if players have issues. They say, “John, can we talk?” and we’ll sit down. I’ll hear the issue, and help them establish what we need to do to resolve it. I ask them, “What’s in your control? Do you need to talk to the manager, or coach?” They might say, “What if they don’t listen?” If they don’t, you can’t control that, and at some point, you have to let go. In professional sports, if you don’t, it will affect performance, and players may either get sent down or traded. You put in considerable effort, but if the coach doesn’t agree, you have to ask yourself how you can learn from this experience, and whether there’s anything you need to personally change – perhaps cultivate a better relationship with someone, or perhaps learn to speak more clearly. Too often people get frustrated and say, “The hell with you, I’ll isolate myself,” and more often than not end up hurting themselves as they are not performing up to the expectations of the team.

What can team leaders do to make sure that conflict gets raised and resolved?

This is one of those things you can’t force on people, and that’s where captains and people who understand teams recognize that relationship is the key. People will come to you if they know you are a good listener, and you can probably deal with conflicts before they get way blown out of proportion and start damaging team performance.

And that’s part of the real secret of good leadership on teams – in his books, Robert Greenleaf talks about becoming a servant leader. His premise is that true leaders understand that their role is to help other people around them develop, become healthier, freer, stronger, more autonomous, and that this stems from relationships.

What else have organizational teams got to learn from sports teams?

In my relationship with the Ottawa Senators, I’ve seen that the coaching staff is very objective on assessment of players. They come in and talk to players about things like how much ice time they’ve had, how many shots on goal, the percentage of time on the ice they’ve been in the offensive zone. I know business tries to be very objective, but sometimes it’s hard to be except to say, “Did the project work, or not?” The more you can develop objective criteria for individuals, the better it is. It helps the individual clarify and perhaps even adjust performance.

Also, sports teams tend to spend time together outside of their profession, and they get to know one another. I think that leads to that intangible synergy. The more I know about you, the more I’m going to care about you. Especially with project teams, the more you get together the better it is; it creates that synergy. I think in business, especially in project teams, it’s very valuable to get to know one another.

Task and relationship are both essentials for teams. And if you take a little more time with relationships, the tasks will likely have more of a chance of being completed successfully. But it is hard; building a working relationship is hard to do. And remember this is not about necessarily liking the person, but it is about respecting the person and the role that person has with the team.

Also, it is very important at the end of meetings to debrief and say what has gone well, what you need to work on, and who does what. So often you leave and assume everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing – but it is important to make sure that not just the person but everyone understands who doing what. This helps to clarify roles.

Further reading: Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness; The Power of Servant Leadership; and The Servant Leader Within: A Transformative Path, all by Robert K. Greenleaf.

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