What Softball Taught Me About How Collaboration Drives Performance (and Why It’s Not the Best Performers Who Win but the Ones Who Play Best Together)

I spent much of my youth and young adulthood playing softball. I was drawn to the action, the camaraderie, the competition. 

An added bonus was the lessons learned on the field and off, lessons that continue to resonate many years after leaving “the diamond”. 

Lately I was reminded of one particular lesson that I learned quite early -- then forgot -- and recently re-learned. It’s a lesson that has been incredibly important throughout my career. It has to do with the power of collaboration for driving performance.

If a teammate was in a slump, we wouldn’t let her stay there. If a batter on our team failed “at the plate”, she took the personal responsibility to immediately share with her teammates what she learned about the opposing pitcher, as she knew it would benefit the rest of the team. As a member of the pitching staff, if I noticed a flaw in a fellow pitcher’s delivery, or saw a vulnerability in an opposing hitter, I shared it right away, hoping it would improve her performance, as well as that of the overall team.

I carried this approach with me as I started my corporate career. I knew my success, and my ability to contribute to the larger organization in a meaningful way, depended  on the team around me. I also recognized that even though I was new to the company – and indeed, new to corporate life – I could find ways to contribute.

But it all depended on a collaborative approach, where I felt safe to ask questions, to try new skills, and to even share thoughts and ideas, without fear of penalty. Having a place to practice was massively beneficial as a player; it’s equally as important in corporate life. 

Collaboration Is at the Heart of the Most Successful Teams Whether in Sport or Business

On the field I was a pitcher. I was the one with the ball, who started every play, and I was comfortable being the one “in charge”. But it didn't take me long to learn that as a pitcher, I was only as good as the team around me: if not for the catcher on the other end of the battery, the defense behind me, the offense who would provide our team’s runs, and the coaches who set the strategy, I could never be successful. 

Over the years I’ve been on many teams -- softball and otherwise. The most successful teams I’ve been a part of were those in which we, as players, encouraged and supported one another.

But as a sales director, I occasionally get the pull to want to “go at it alone”; there’s a part of my brain that feels I can only prove my worth on a solo path.  Luckily that path is usually short. It doesn’t take long to be reminded that the go-it-alone approach is a set-up for failure. 

Like so many things in life, sales is also a team effort. The sales director may be the one with the game plan and more often than not I still find myself in the familiar position of being the one starting the play, holding the ball. But I know I have little chance of succeeding if I don’t recognize and rely on the team around me. My performance will be optimized -- and my company is more likely to win -- when I embrace the contributions and seek collaboration with my teammates from business development, marketing, pre-sales, consulting and customer success.

This is true across all positions, organizations and industries. In a recent study featured in Salesforce, 86% of respondents (which included corporate executives, employees and educators) blamed poor collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures. Organizations that make it easy to share best practices within teams and to crowdsource ideas from within communities of practice are set up best to succeed. 

L&Ds Role in Driving Collaboration and Performance

So how will L&D respond to this seemingly universal call for greater collaboration in the workplace? I suggest we take a team approach.

First and foremost, L&D should seek out the experts in their respective roles -- the best players at each position, if you will --- and find ways to capture their greatness. Content can be created -- videos, articles, audiocasts -- in which the experts can share their wisdom. That content should be made accessible to others in a way that is easy to find, especially via search. Individual pieces of content should be in small, bite-sized pieces that others can easily find and ‘consume’ on demand, when they need it, in the flow of their work. 

L&D should also find ways to provide a safe space for learners to practice new skills, a place where feedback and coaching can be provided and received, before “game time”. In softball you would never try out a new pitch for the first time in a live game situation; why would you try a brand new sales pitch for the first time, in front of a prospective customer, without having a chance to practice it, get feedback, and refine?

Where L&D can really support this call to collaborate across teams is to provide a social platform where teammates can comment, ask questions and share great content with their peers.

When company leaders and subject matter experts within the organization demonstrate best practices for creating and sharing user generated content, more team members will get in the game and share what they’ve learned, what they’ve suffered through, and what they’ve overcome. Team members now, and in the future, will be the beneficiaries.

When I onboarded with my current company, my speed to proficiency was fast tracked -- not so much from the formal content that was part of the onboarding learning plans -- but from the comments associated with the content, socialized via our learning platform.

I was learning key skills and information that was unique to my role, within my company. Nothing has a bigger impact on performance. It didn’t matter that I was a remote employee working on the other side of the world. I felt the support of my teammates who provided crowd-sourced responses to my questions, and shared pieces of content that they knew would make me a better seller. 

Conclusion

My experience as a softball player taught me to value the team around me, and the absolute necessity of collaboration in wins.

The most successful companies will be those who share the same mindset and have a strategy for supporting it: subject matter expertise will be captured and shared, employees will have easy access to pertinent information and a way to ask questions and review commentary from other team members, and they will make available a safe space to practice new skills. This  sets the table for collaboration in a way that yields massive results for the entire team, and sets apart the winners from those who struggle to succeed.

Four-time All-American, 3-time Olympic medal winning pitcher Lisa Fernandez said it best. 

The team with the best athletes doesn’t usually win. It’s the team with the athletes who play best together.

Lisa

 

Kristin Lamendola
Sep 01 2020

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