How coaching can make the difference between IT pros who sink or swim

IT departments can improve project outcomes by adopting the same coaching mentality that helped Andrew Haley achieve gold as a Paralympic swimmer

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Welcome to the second post in our three-part series, Haley’s Comet, where we lead up to the Pan Am/ParaPan Am Games by drawing on the lessons learned from former Paralympian Andrew Haley’s journey to greatness as a world-champion swimmer. As a two-time cancer survivor to a global swimming phenom, his story will inspire IT leaders and offer practical tips and strategies for overcoming hurdles in the race toward the finish line of complex IT projects. Read part one: Reframe challenges to move projects to the finish line

Coaching plays a fundamental role in turning great athletes into world champions. As a Paralympic gold medalist, Andrew Haley knows this better than most. From his first dip in the pool in North Sydney, N.S. to his 1998 World Championship win, Haley says coaches provided him with inspiration, guidance and, sometimes, the tough love he needed to succeed in his chosen sport.

One of Haley’s most important lessons came early in his career in the form of a coach who taught him the value of embracing himself exactly as he was. Not an easy challenge for a young man who had survived cancer twice before the age of nine and lost part of his right leg in the process.

“My coach told me to focus on what I have, not on what I don’t have,” says Haley. “I was susceptible to using my disability as a crutch, but he wouldn’t let me do that. Instead, he told me that everyone has something, so be yourself, train hard and stay positive.”

When Haley arrived at the World Championships in 2002, he was ranked fifth in the world in the 400-meter freestyle, but his self-confidence was shaky. Wise counsel and reassurance from coach Bill Humby gave him what he needed to break through and win the bronze medal.

“He said you already have a gold medal, so just get in there and give ’er.”

Today, Haley is a sales leader for the Toronto Blue Jays, but he says the lessons he gleaned from his athletic mentors are ones that translate to the corporate world: coaches set the strategy and the road map and the team provides input and feedback to ensure goals are achieved.

As the Baby Boomer generation retires, organizations need to think about effective ways to develop the next generation of leaders, and according to the American Management Association, coaching is just the silver bullet they need.

“Coaching is suited to fill this need as it becomes more closely integrated into succession management and leadership development. Also, coaching will be especially well-suited to handling the faster cycle times and more diverse management challenges,” the report states.

Fostering leadership skills is another area where coaching can be an effective tool, especially in disciplines such as IT project management. In many cases, employees who take on PM roles lack confidence and skills, says Susan Madsen, a project management and leadership development coach. Coaching can help address any gaps.

“One of the best ways is by working with a senior mentor who is a great leader, and who takes the time to coach and mentor others. It’s all about implementing and demonstrating leadership in practice,” she says.

By adapting athletic coaching principles to fit the corporate milieu, IT managers can become more effective coaches, and help their employees live up to their potential, according to authors Marcie Schorr Hirsch and Therese S. Kinal who took on the subject in a Harvard Business Review article.

Step one is creating a development plan for the employee that leverages his/her natural talents and interests.

“Encourage honest self-assessment of (his/her) strengths and areas of challenge,” Hirsch and Kinal advise. “Be creative and think of how you can get the best out of your employee while still fulfilling corporate needs.”

IT coaches, they add, can also play a key role in helping staff develop a deeper understanding of organizational goals, which can, in turn, boost productivity.

“Your ability to help your employee learn to make sense of your organization in new ways or to reframe her understanding of his situation in the company so that she sees new alternatives and strategies—that is invaluable.”

Andrew Haley is a former world class and world record-setting Paralympic swimmer who has won gold medals at the 1998 World Championships and the 2000 Paralympic games. A recognized leader in Paralympic sport, Andrew was recently inducted into Swimming Canada’s Hall of Fame and has served as his swim team’s captain. After a successful swimming career, Andrew now works in sales for the Toronto Blue Jays and is a professional motivational speaker on achieving peak performance. If you are interested in contacting Andrew to speak to your group please contact The Sweeney AgencyFind Andrew on twitter @ahaleyca

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