Coaching, adapting as much in play for businesses as sports teams

These days, when he puts on his suit and tie, he goes to work before a deafening throng of more than 20,000 paying customers, not to mention hundreds of thousands more following on TV and radio. His performance and that of those under him invite enough scrutiny to melt ice.

But Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has been where you are, behind a desk in an ordinary office where nothing was much louder than the chirp of an unanswered phone.

Coach Q was Mr. Quenneville then, or just Joel, a retail broker at Legg Mason in Connecticut. He served a modest client list during his off-season summers a couple decades back, when he was still wondering what he would do when his National Hockey League playing career ended. In some ways, it wasn't so different.

"Around the firm, you're supportive like a team," Quenneville recalled after a recent Blackhawks practice. "It's a competitive world. You make sure you're organized, prepared. Understanding what the other people are thinking helps as well."

Business and sports play out in different arenas. But anything that's competitive involves winners, losers and a game plan. So it's hardly coincidental business leaders often sound and act like coaches, and coaches sound like business leaders.

Sports is business simplified.

To watch is to see what it takes to win. It's all in front of you and on the scoreboard: which coaches have the best game plan and can adjust to conditions and opponents, and which players are fulfilling their promise, doing the jobs they've been assigned and working together.

In sports, we find inspiration and life lessons. And it's always easier to analyze someone else's situation. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler may not spot the open receiver who's so obvious from the cheap seats.

"You have to be ready to change," Quenneville said, offering one piece of advice useful for both the ice and office. "We do change quickly and we do change when we don't like the way things are going," Quenneville said.

"A good leader is a good leader," Blackhawks President John McDonough said. "Joel possesses a number of skills that translate to the business side. He's incredibly well-prepared. He's very, very passionate. He handles crisis very well. He empowers people and relies heavily on his assistant coaches. There's a high level of intensity."

Look around your workplace from the sports fan's perspective and the similarities to business are easy to spot. There's your boss, the manager. Even without chewing tobacco, he or she is spitting out orders, directing the action, hoping for victory.

And in their cubicles, you'll see a familiar array of complementary players: the specialists and those whose value comes from their versatility, the promising up-and-comers and the seasoned veterans. Over there is the guy who's probably going to get waived.

The manager tries to get the most out of the group without burning out his bullpen of sales associates. Just be glad that at the end of every workday, none of you has to take questions from the media second-guessing your every move.

"Running a business and running a company are both about getting people to follow a vision in pursuit of a team goal," said Peter Marino, a president of Minneapolis-based Olson, which acquired Chicago's Dig Communications, a Chicago-based firm he founded. "Our uniforms may be different and it's a lot tougher to pull a muscle in business, but many things are very similar."

It's possible to overdo the metaphors, but watching a ball game, or playing in one, can provide genuine insight for the student of business.

Irene Rosenfeld, the chairwoman and chief executive of the Northfield-headquartered global conglomerate Kraft Foods, learned plenty as a youth basketball player.

"There's no question … one learns about leadership through watching great coaches," said Rosenfeld, named the most powerful woman in U.S. business this fall by Fortune magazine.

The greatest challenge in leading any team, according to Rosenfeld, is execution. Anyone can say Adam Dunn of the White Sox shouldn't strike out so much, but breaking free of a baseball slump can be as difficult as shoring up a flagging revenue trend or bucking up a division in decline.

"Figuring out strategy is part of it, but very often the strategy is obvious," she said. "The challenge is how one brings that strategy to life. It's a combination of understanding the capabilities of the team, how they interact with one another, what the barriers are and how you remove those barriers. For me, that's the art of leadership."

Part of the art also is in knowing when to be a hard-liner and when to let your people loose. Quenneville, for example, demands specific duties on defense but allows for improvisation on offense. It comes down to effectively conveying the what and why to his assistants and the players under him.

"There are situations where he does need to crack the whip, and he does that at the right time," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said of his coach. "There's a good understanding of the psychology. … He always finds a way to bring the best out of his players."

Quenneville knows that as a coach he can't keep everyone happy. "Managing those (unhappy) guys can sometimes be as tough as managing your top players," he said. "Keeping everybody's focus on contributing to the team and the team's success is your greatest role as a coach. … I like players who say, 'I'm going to prove it to you.'"

In business and in sports, balance and cohesiveness are critical factors. Teamwork is crucial. Just having a bunch of stars is not enough, as the Miami Heat proved in falling short of the NBA title last season.

It's about working together, and sometimes just plain working. Dan Greenshields, president of ING Direct Investing/ ShareBuilder, cites Geoff Colvin's book, "Talent is Overrated," which suggests that exceptional performers in sports, music or business develop less because of innate abilities than continuous practice and a drive to constantly improve.

"You have to have somebody that pushes you and can look at mistakes that you're making and call them out, so you can improve," said Greenshields, who, during a break from college, helped coach future Olympic skiing gold medalist Tommy Moe. "There's a huge connection between really effective coaching and really effective businesses. … You have to have mentors or coaches who nudge you along the way because it's too hard to push yourself to get to the next level."

There's a reason a generation of business leaders and sales execs found inspiration in UCLA basketball coach John Wooden's Pyramid of Success and Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi's motivational film, "Second Effort." Each translated the keys to success in sports to career and personal advancement.

There's a reason sports films such as "Rudy" and "Hoosiers" hold timeless appeal. They offer playbooks to overcome the odds through discipline and perseverance.

Rosenfeld still cherishes the memory of coaches encouraging her and her basketball teammates to rally at halftime. And, having traded backboards for the boardroom, she sometimes draws upon it at Kraft.

"It's tougher to play from the lead," Rosenfeld said. "When you're behind, you're a little more inclined to take risks. I think you're willing to try new things. Often it is easier to motivate the organization when there's what we would call a burning platform.

"The way to address that is to never be complacent," she said. "We came from behind the last couple years. I'm really proud of what the organization has accomplished … and now we have to stay at the top of our game."

That's as true in the refrigerated aisle of your local supermarket as on the United Center ice, or wherever it is that you do business — win, lose or break even.

Phil Rosenthal is a Chicago Tribune business columnist

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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