What I learn from a tennis star
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I remember some legendary tennis matches from my childhood. Matches between top players like John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker. But most of all, it was Andre Agassi that kept me hooked on TV. Apart from being a great tennis player, he had some rock star allure, was funny at the right times, was just enough underdog to earn extra sympathy points and he made an impressive comeback. So when he’s interviewed by HBR, I’m all ears. And he has some interesting life lessons to share.
[On emotions] I’ve seen people use emotion, positive or negative, as a tool, and it works for them. But typically, the more you can remove emotion, the more efficient you’ll be. You can be an inch from winning but still miles away if you allow emotion to interfere with the last step. So you have to accept: the weather, heat, rain, stops and starts, the line calls, whatever your opponent is giving you, however tired or injured you are. There are so many things that can distract you from taking care of business. The only thing you can control is your engagement.
As a BA, but also in many other consulting or facilitating roles, this is sound advice. We are building bridges: bridges between business stakeholders, bridges between business and IT, bridges between managers and operational people. All these people come with their own ideas, their own story, their own emotions. In this jungle, we have the opportunity of creating a well balanced solution to whatever problem is on the table. If we add our own emotions to the mix, we’re bound to complicate things.
This also means we should prevent being too attached to our own ideas and preferences. We may have good reasons to believe what we are proposing is the best solution to the problem. But if we let your own emotions shine through, we risk building an additional wall between ourself, our stakeholders, and the solution. Instead, we should be taking down walls, get people across the bridge.
So instead of fighting against our stakeholder’s ideas and preferences, lets accept what we get, build upon it and have other stakeholders build upon it.
I’m not saying we cannot challenge. We frequently have to. But we are not on a crusade. We are trying to make people see things from different perspectives, showing them viewpoints and solutions they didn’t envision themselves. We should be making the effort to really understand our stakeholder’s reasoning. Our goal is to get everyone involved co-create and accept a solution that is pushing boundaries just enough. We should not let our own emotions distract us and let us lose focus. If we do, we risk indeed missing the solution when it’s only an inch away.
To me, this doesn’t mean we cannot show attachment. We have to be fully engaged to reach the goal above. If you have no emotional bond with this goal, if you don’t really believe in it, even feel it, you probably won’t be able to put everything you have into reaching that goal. But you are first and foremost playing the process, not the solution.
[On coaching] Coaching is not what you know. It’s what your student learns. And for your student to learn, you have to learn him. I think the greats spend a lot of time understanding where the player is. The day they stop learning is the day they should stop teaching.
Many of us will be coaching other people at some point in time. Sometimes as real coaches, but more often unofficially in our day to day interactions with stakeholders and other BAs or team members. Ideally, we’re not just focusing only on their current project. We have lasting impact when we succeed at leaving something behind for our stakeholder or peer BA to keep in mind after we have moved on to another project. It’s like a second order goal in our work.
Understanding our stakeholder’s or coachee’s reasoning behind his proposed solution or approach (as described above), is understanding of the first order. If we do this well, our stakeholder or peer will open up to alternative ideas and viewpoints. Understanding the person behind the role of stakeholder or BA coachee enables us to make him change his reasoning, his way of looking at things at a more generic level (or better: add a new way of looking at things). This way, we leave something behind for future use, after we have moved on. We did not only have impact on the current solution. We have lasting impact on all future solutions.
Again, this starts with listening carefully to our conversation partner, learn from it, then see how we can get him to take the next step.
[On having impact] My own mission is to focus on impact. I’m not one to sit in a boardroom and talk about something. I’d rather roll up my sleeves and get in the trenches.
A question I regularly ask myself is this: what is the result I’m trying to reach? What do I want to leave behind? What is the change I believe is necessary that I will pursue, that I will engage myself for? That’s the impact I aim for. Sitting in the boardroom and talking about it can be important to get the management support needed to realise that change. But rolling up our sleeves is just as important. Work with people. Don’t tell people what they should do, show them how we do it. Much of this is about finding the right balance between delivering, co-creating, coaching and mentoring, about choosing the approach that works best at any given time with any given person. But if we never get our hands dirty, it will be very hard to build trust and to get our ideas from theory to practice.
A tricky part in all this is finding the balance between reaching an agreement that is accepted and reaching an agreement that is pushing boundaries. Most of the time, we can’t get it as far as we’d like (and we should not have the arrogance to believe we have a monopoly on wisdom), but we should not be satisfied with whatever people are willing to accept without resistance either.
A nice metaphor might be working out to build muscles. It’s only through stretching them just enough so they break a little bit every now and then that people become stronger. But working out for too long or too hard will bring fatigue, temporary injuries or worse. Also, in sports, a good coach can make a big difference, positive or negative.
What difference are you engaging for?
- Quotes are from the Harvard Business Review interview with Andre Agassi: Life’s Work: An Interview with Andre Agassi.