Herding Cats… A Test In Leadership

I’m fascinated by human behavior, and I love a challenge.  These inherent traits bode well for my chosen profession as the leader of a sales team for a media company.  We develop custom integrated marketing campaigns that fulfill specific client needs. I get to work in a variety of verticals with customers who range from Apple to The Zoo. I love the creativity the job requires to develop these campaigns and as a by product no two days are the same. As much as I love the thrill of seeing a project we develop come to fruition and make a measurable impact, it was a one-word question and a group of over-achieving, short attention span having, 6th graders that made me realize why I like to get up in the morning. The question was simply “Why….?”

I am a HUGE Simon Sinek fan. His books “Leaders Eat Last” and “Start With Why” struck a nerve and made perfect sense.  He explained in very plain terms why we do what we do,  why some strategies work, and others don’t.  One of his underlying themes is “People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it.” I’ve subscribed to this notion way before Simon phrased it so succinctly.  This time, the sentence hit home and forced me to ask myself; “What Is My Why?” Why do I do what I do?  At this particular time, my father had passed a few months earlier, we were experiencing a dip in sales numbers, and I was looking for a bit of clarity. I was concerned that without an understanding of why I was doing my job, I would just be going through the motions. As they say, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  This lack of focus would become obvious to my team and clients would see what must be a facade. A downward spiral would surely ensue.  One thing was evident before I could figure out what I was going to do, there needed to be an understanding of “why” I would do it.

How I rediscovered my “why” was this; I was driving to work when I asked myself what seemed like a difficult question but in actuality was quite easy. “If I were able to do anything at all for two hours today, let’s say from 10 am to noon, what would I do?” After the standard “Attempt to eat a gallon of Cookies and Cream” and “experience zero gravity” were ruled out the answer was clear and evident.  I would gather “my girls” get them on a field, and I’d coach.  What suddenly became apparent was that my career is the same skill set and activity. I get to coach my sales team for a living.  It was an incredible realization.  The most rewarding part of what I do professionally and personally is help my team grow and lead them to achieve success… i.e. Coaching.

As I explored this parallel further, the commonalities between my professional and personal pastimes became crystal clear.  It was all about Leadership.  There were differences of course but at the end of the day, people are people and personalities are the same.  The biggest difference is one audience provides your instantaneous feedback with absolutely zero concern about an annual raise.

The conversations are a bit different; you might need to deliver instructions in shorter bursts, but deep down we are all wired the same. I do not claim to be Tim Cook (named by Forbes as the greatest leader of our time), Franklin D. Roosevelt (a leader who led our country through it’s toughest times), or Mickey Goodmill.Mickey 3 I am just a guy who’s fascinated with how the brain works and has made a hobby of studying human behavior. My conclusion is this; if you want to test your management science, pick up a ball, a bat or a lacrosse stick and head to a field.

I’ve stubbed my toe many times along the way, both in the office and on the field. Here are a few “Jackisms” that might help you along the way. These rules apply to both of my fields of play. My descriptions refer metaphorically to both teams.

Engage… Engage… Engage… It’s all about Engagement; Hence the title “Herding Cats.”  If you have ever tried to get a cat to do anything, it’s all about keeping them interested.  If you lose them, good luck getting it back.  Now, imagine doing that with a group of people.

Cat Dance 3
Keeping them is easier than regaining them.

Same principle. Keep them interested and motivated. According to a Gallup report “How to Tackle U.S. Employees’ Stagnation Engagement”, up to 70% of the Americans who go to work every day aren’t engaged in their role.  This lack of interest costs the American Economy up to $450 – $550 Billion in lost productivity*. This staggering number does not take into account the expense of Advil and therapists for the unlucky managers of the 70%.  When building this connection with your team, understand that not everyone likes mint chocolate chip. Different topics will appeal to different people. So keep it fresh and find specific individualized compliments to let them know you are paying attention and care about what they are doing.  In short, get involved in their world.  And OMG!!!  IMHO (In my humble opinion) this is VERY IMPORTANT, play to your audience.  What’s interesting to you might not be important to them.  If you are coaching teenage girls, you might want to study up on One Direction or texting abbreviations.  If you are coaching a sales team, be up on the latest trends in the business.  Do what you’ve got to do keep everyone interested and involved. A general rule of thumb: Whenever possible make it fun. Fun ALWAYS sells.


Individualization –  Everyone is different. We might have one common goal, and ultimately we are wired the same, but no two people get to the same place the same way. Getting to know what makes each person unique takes a bit of time but the alternative is banging your head against a wall when your cats feel like taking a nap.

Know their “Why” –   Everyone has their reason for being in front of you and on your team. It’s your job to find out why they are there and where they want to go. Everyone’s reason is important and very real.  If it’s important to them, it’s important to you.

Listen to Ray!!! – Up there on the level with Simon Sinek maybe even a little above, I’m a huge Ray Lewis fan. The greatest linebacker in the history of the NFL. I even named my favorite dog after him. He was an incredible player, and his leadership skills were second to none. Dude was a prophet, and I’m pretty sure he would agree. Truth be told, most of the time, I couldn’t follow his speeches, but I wanted to run through a wall for him when he was finished. One phrase he repeated stuck with me; “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Caring is a direct correlation to “Knowing their Why.” Once they know you genuinely care about what they want to accomplish, you are now headed in the same direction. Their goal is your goal. (Full Disclosure: I know there are many people who said: “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I just love any opportunity to share a Ray Lewis reference and a video.  Click his name for the link)

You’ve Got To Give To Receive – There are reams and reams of research about the benefits of giving.  It doesn’t have to be a material item.  The best gifts are your personal time, effort, and concern.  When getting your team to “know you care” as Ray puts it, you need to give of yourself.  When you lead by example in this way, they will then give more of themselves to the team.  If you want to read more on this principal, you might want to check out “Give and Take” by Adam Grant.  It’s a good read.

Be Transparent – You need to know your “Why” and let it be known.  As mentioned earlier, Simon says, “People don’t buy what we do they buy why we do it.” This rule is true for virtually any audience you can find. Anyone who has ever worked for me or played soccer for me knows I am a very competitive person, and it’s no secret I love to win. But they also understand (or, at least, I hope they do) that I want to help them improve and grow. Winning is a by-product of individual improvement. (see “Goals and Wins” post earlier in the blog)

Believe in your people – If you believe in them, they will believe in you. Some of my favorite players that I coached were not superstars. My favorites were the kids hesitant to play but found confidence in a supportive team.  This kid ended up loving the game, gave everything they had and played way beyond their ability. Confidence is an amazing drug. It makes people believe they can do things that were previously unimaginable. Henry Ford put it best; “if you believe you can or you can’t; you’re right.” (I am confident Ray Lewis would have thought of this, but Mr. Ford predated him)

Passion Is Contagious – If you are excited there must be a reason.  If you deliver information in a monotone boring manner, don’t be surprised if you get a monotone response.  Cats could care less about monotone.  They want the flashy ribbon or string.  Give them what they want.

Shrink The Goal – Celebrate Small Victories – If you are living your “Why” your goals will probably be apparent.  However, it’s your job to set, and show the path to what James Collins and Jerry Porras call the “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” or BHAG.  In their book “Built To Last  Successful Habits Of Visionary Companies”  they describe the BHAG being “created to focus an organization on a single medium-long term organization-wide goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible.” But remember, achieving your goal is a result of others striving to obtain theirs along the way.  You are not going to reach the BHAG in one meeting, one practice, or in a short amount of time.  So remember to shrink the goal. Focus on the mile marker in front of you and collectively enjoy the dopamine rush when you cross the line. These accomplishments feel good for all involved, provide a boost of energy and set the path towards the next goal on the list.

“Shooters Gotta Shoot” –  but they also need to respect the defense. On the soccer field, some people have a nose for the goal and love to take the shot. Others naturally know how to position themselves on defense. Same in the business world.  There are deal closers and account managers.  Each person on the team is important.  Let them thrive in their role.  They will be happier, more engaged and the team better rounded.  This being said, sometimes it’s good to switch them up for a day or two.  Let the sales team see how hard the back office works when an order is late. Or let the person who gets the glory for scoring a goal understand stopping a shot is harder than they think.

People are accountable to people, not numbers – At the end of the day, one of the main reasons the human species survived for millions of years is the drug serotonin.  It’s what makes you proud when someone you love accomplishes a goal. It’s what makes brave men and women in the service put themselves in harms way for others.  Serotonin is the loyalty drug.  When there is a genuinely caring relationship between two people, they will to more for each other than they ever would on their own.

As a Manager, you will assume the responsibilities of business metrics that are usually quantifiable by numbers.  As a leader, your goal is to build and grow a TEAM. With strong leadership, Together Everyone Achieves More and the metrics become accomplishments.

Cats mouse 2

*Sorenson, Susan, and Keri Garman. “How to Tackle U.S. Employees’ Stagnating Engagement.” Gallup.com. Gallup, 13 June 2013. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.



Go Ahead, Call Me Names…

As I mentioned earlier this week, for a few months a year I don an alter ego as “Coach Jack.” In all honesty, this is a bit of misnomer as it is the opposite of “alter” and all about “ego.”  When I’m on the soccer field with “my girls” I’m as inherent as a forty-something guy with a mortgage can be. There is a reward that comes after walking that undefined line and pushing a player beyond their comfort zone to a point where they may be rather unimpressed you, only to watch them accomplish things they did not know they could do.  When you laugh with the player later, the bond is stronger and unequaled by many things in life. During the times mentioned above, I am quite confident the name they are calling me is not, Coach Jack.  When a breakthrough finally happens that I help instigate, it makes everything right. It provides a feeling of invincibility that lasts until the next 12-year-old puts you in your place.

During my tenure as Coach Jack, there have been many players that have fueled and fed this drive along the way.  There was Danny of course, my nephew, who started it all.  He was the first person that caused me to be simultaneously angry and proud when he passed the ball in front of an open net so that a teammate could score his first goal.  In that same era, there was “Rachel Defense.” An eight-year-old girl that had a natural ability for timing and position that caused many a young man to rethink his future in soccer.  I think of “Ella the Goalie,” a dainty 9-year-old girl with bows in her hair that wanted nothing more than to be the last line of defense for her team.  By the end of the season after bumps, bruises and tears she learned her craft and stopped a point-blank shot in the championship game that earned her my eternal gratitude.  There was Caroline, who’s parents told me “she should play defense because she’s more comfortable when the ball rolls towards her and all she has to do is kick it.” Two years later, mid-way through the season, Caroline was our leading scorer.  These players and many others* pushed me to be the best coach I can be.  (*This short list intentionally omits current players, but I promise there are many more examples published in my tell-all novel.)  There is one player however that in my eyes has a highlight reel all to herself.
Her drive to compete second only to her overzealous coach.  She (and her smaller, but an equally important partner in crime) unknowingly push me not only to be a better coach but to be a better person.

As a coach you are not supposed to play favorites but I unabashedly admit, #10 is one of two very favorite players who has ever walked on a soccer field.  And it’s not just because of this moment:

Championship Game – Score tied 0-0.  :30 seconds left.

She doesn’t have things easy.  She’s the coach’s kid.  Every team has one. It’s the kid who has to be at every practice early and stays past the last player has been picked up.  The player that has to perform with higher expectations than the others to get praise, so it does not look like the coach is playing favorites.  They don’t get to leave practice or a game “on the field”. There is the talk of the team or strategy all week long.  This

Game Jersey, Goalie Jersey Elected Captain on Opening Day by her teammates.

player that is forced to play goalie, or offensive line or any other potentially undesirable position because the coach can’t put other players in situations where he or she would not put their child.  Other factors make this role more difficult.  The big loud guy who yells a lot is not always the most popular guy on the field.  He or she is an easy target for peer ridicule.  That’s not easy to hear. And lastly, but certainly not least, the coach can and will say things to this player that are a bit more direct and possibly cutting. They do this because…. well… there is no good reason.  It just happens, and I’m sorry it does.


Julia, #10,  is that player for me.  She had to stay in the goal long after the Julia kickother girls who wanted to try it realized it wasn’t always fun.   Without complaining, she accepted her fate and put in extra time outside of regular
practice to learn the position.  Now, even though it’s not her first choice when she plays in the nets with a confidence that makes me nervous and an ability that makes my voice crack when I congratulate her on a save. Other instances seem to have left a scar.  Such as the time that despite having scored two goals in the first half and making, at least, ten saves in the second half, she was not awarded the “Game Orange” because another girl had yet to receive such an honor. This offense took place five seasons ago.  I’m not sure of the shelf life for this atrocity.  In the time since then, I am fairly sure I could have grown an orange tree or two that would have repaid my debt several times over.

Julia Breakfast#10 turns 13 today. It’s gone by in a flash.  She’s been #10 since her grandfather first held her and proclaimed her a perfect 10 for being the tenth grandchild. I wish I could say that I remember every game, every moment she had made my life special, but that would be impossible. This morning I tried to explain that I not only love her because she’s my daughter which is almost mandatory, I like her and truly enjoy being around her.  She was quick to remind me that she was now 13, and that may change. Both of our statements may be true. Time will tell.  But I for the time being she’s one of my favorite people to talk with and spend time.
She’s an incredible big sister and a daughter that makes Patty and me proudIMAG0119 every day.  image1She does a spot on Dad impression, has a creative mind that connects unrelated topics with ease and an ability to make me laugh almost on command.  She is intelligent, caring, giving and compassionate for most of her waking hours. However, once she crosses the sideline to walk on the field, she’s a five foot, three inches, blonde haired, blue eyed, ball of Catholic school girl fury in a Lululemon headband.

The name “Coach Jack” is a natural extension of my personality.  Thirteen

2012-11-17 007(0) copy
Yellowjackets WIN!  Our first title and she hit the game-winning shot.  I thought it was ok to show a bit of public favoritism.

years ago today, #10 joined my team.  She gave me the name “Dad”, and suddenly my entire world changed in ways I could not possibly have Julia Posterimagined. I am a very fortunate man in many ways.  Two amazing kids call me this name every day (they also use Mac Daddy, which is acceptable and maybe even encouraged).  Granted, the name Dad is not always said in the most positive light.  Much like the situation above, when a player is pushed out of their comfort zone, the method to the madness is not always understood or appreciated.  When it’s a
parent that’s causing the discomfort, the irritation to the child is magnified.  That’s ok with me; they can say whatever they want as long as they call me Dad. I’ve answered to many nicknames in my life, but Dad is the name that I am most proud.  I’m more than willing to tell everyone why.


Happy Birthday, Julia.  We love you.  Dad, Mom and Aidan.

Goals and Wins…. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Championship…

“This season, all I care about are Goals and Wins!”

     –Coach Jack

Those were the words that started off my first speech of the season. I’m a firm believer that when leading a team of 7th-grade girls it’s important to establish priorities immediately. This being my 3rd full season, the girls were aware their coach was a little off kilter and may take his role of “Coach Jack” just a bit too seriously. Even with their measured expectations I could tell this statement took them by surprise. I’m confident they felt duped and were wondering what happened to the guy who used to promise fun and just wanted them to try hard?

Old Soccer
Yes, Jorts were part of the uniform and all the rage back in the 90’s.

I became “Coach Jack” in my early twenties when my nephew Danny’s, team needed a coach. I had nothing better to do so I coerced my buddy Doug into joining me for an adventure that would surely impress the ladies. Minutes into our first practice it was glaringly obvious to both of us that we had absolutely no idea how to communicate with wide-eyed, nervous 8-year-olds. There we were, standing in the middle of a huge field on a hot summer night. Fourteen pairs of brand spanking new soccer shoes and oversized shin guards waiting to be scuffed. We looked at them,… they looked at us… and we looked at each other. You know that awkward moment when you run into an old friend and have absolutely nothing to talk about despite having something big in common?  Yeah, that’s what it felt like. I was scrambling words to wind up our first pep talk when I backed Doug and me into a corner by concluding with an overly enthusiastic….. “you are going to have a GREAT time and we PROMISE you are going to have fun!!!” or something along those lines. I could see the veil of polite confusion lift. Their faces were lit up and all eyes were focused on the guy who promised FUN. It was easy to see I struck a nerve and was now speaking their language. And just like that, “Coach Jack” was conceived.

It didn’t take long to see they were buying what we were selling. We worked hard to make sure the kids had Fun. Our not so secret ulterior motive was to turn these kids into Spartan-like athletes that would drop their surname to become one of the greats like, Pele, Maradona, and Doug. I think we only lost two or three games those first couple of seasons (but who was counting besides me). That season turned into another and eventually into several years of rec teams, travel teams and indoor soccer. Eventually when my nephew Danny grew older, I hung up my whistle.


Yellowjackets Victory
U-10 Championship For the Yellow “Jack-ets”. After this Julia and I were off the CYO League. Julia is in the back row 2nd from the right.  Credit to Liz Sweeney for realizing my name was in the already agreed upon team name.

When my daughter, Julia, began playing soccer six years ago, I was more than willing to once again break out the whistle and “Coach Jack” was back again. Thankfully Julia tolerates her Dad’s antics. We’ve had our successes along the way that seem to validate my methods. Like any daughter, she lets me know when I go over the top, but I catch her laughing so I consider it a wash.


I currently coach the Immaculate Conception 7th grade girls. It’s a school team made up almost entirely of classmates. There are no tryouts and the team is the team. You take the players you get. Julia began playing for this team in the middle of her 4th-grade year. I became the head coach the following fall. Before my first full season with “my girls”, one of the parents of a long time player said, “good luck getting these girls moving. There is no chance of getting them to play aggressively.” I know a challenge when I hear it. This guy had history on his side. “those girls” hadn’t won a game in three years and scored only 3 goals in the past two seasons. My first season didn’t fair much better. We scored three goals en route to another 0-10 season.

Interspersed in the fun, I preach soccer philosophy over and over until the girls are sick of hearing the self-proclaimed “Coach Jackisms”. It’s known by all of them, that I’d rather have smart players than good players. Smart players can become good, good players don’t always become smart. Like most coaches, there are a few phrases that I probably repeat hundreds of times throughout the season. I continually tell them that my goal is for them to “understand the game”, “make good decisions” and the one that is emphasized loudly at least once a practice…. “We play smart soccer!”

Version 2
Worst to First…. from 0-10 to 10-0.            2014 ICS Eagles.

Somewhere along the line something clicked. We went from 0-10 the first year to 10-0 the second year. At the end of the season, we entered a tournament and did not know what to expect. We ended up winning the U-12 division to cap off an amazing season.


Towsontown Champs
2014 Towson Soccerfest U-12 Champs. I was freezing and the girls were in short sleeves. It’s moments like this that help Julia (next to me) tolerate the rest of my behavior that would make most 12-year-olds cringe.

So this year’s coaching mantra was “Goals” and “Wins”. When explained further, after the shock value of my opening statement wore off, “Goals” are what the girls would set for themselves and “Wins” happened whenever someone achieved their goal. When wins started to accumulate, our wins as a team were sure to follow. Before practice, I called on each girl and asked them to proclaim their goal for that practice. After practice, I asked, “who had a win?” Sometimes a girl would raise her hand and others a teammate

Soccer clap men
“Who had a win today?”

would point out, “Cindy played aggressive” or something to that effect. We would all give the soccer clap of respect to a player who achieved their goal and that’s how we ended the practice.


The timeliness of this post is a result of one of those moments of clarity that stops you in your tracks. It occurred during the game I coached on Sunday. This year we entered the same end of year tournament in a higher U-15 division to play against a mixture of 7th, 8th, and 9th-grade girls. Hopes were not that high since as 7th graders we were younger and smaller than the other teams. Surprisingly we were one of two teams that made it out of the first day undefeated.

In the semi-finals, we were playing a very tough team from Columbia MD. It was half-time and we were winning 1-0. All of the things we had been practicing were coming together. It was truly fun to watch. I called the girls together for my halftime review and started with the question; “are you having fun?” Almost in unison I heard and enthusiastic, “YES!” One player raised her hand. Before I said a word, she described a scenario on the field and how we could capitalize. Immediately another player chimed in with something they had noticed and how a teammate can benefit. Then another player spoke up, and another. All the comments were accurate. I didn’t have to say a word. All of a sudden I saw it in front of me….. “my girls” were indeed smart soccer players. They knew the game. They were playing for each other. They wanted to win and despite being probably the youngest team in the division, they believed they could. I barely said a word during the rest of halftime.

Then, as if it was something from the movie “Hoosiers” – I started the hand pile for our customary “Can’t Stop…. Won’t Stop” battle cry as per our custom before games and at the end of halftime. Still feeling the emotion from what I just witnessed, I said a the tone of pure pride; “listen to your teammates; trust your teammates; trust yourselves. You know what to do; I’m proud of you all and I love you guys.” This was a bit awkward for me, as I’ve never gone THAT deep as to tell a team I love them. Any perceived awkward moment was erased when voices responded immediately and almost in unison “we love you too coach”.

We didn’t win that game. We lost 2-1. The girls were upset with the loss of a contest that could have gone either way. That’s completely understandable and I would have liked to have advance to the finals as well. For the rest of that day (we had one more game against a team of 8th-grade girls and won 6-1 in case you were wondering) I watched them differently. These were girls who loved to compete and loved to play. They knew the game and were having fun. All I wanted to accomplish when I set my personal “Goal” during that very first practice a long long time ago was playing out in front of me. Regardless of the score, I felt like a winning Coach. I know I will consider that game one of the biggest “Wins” of my career.Whistle

Somewhere along the way, in the midst of all this fun, the lessons, the yelling, the sweat, the bumps the bruises, the measurement of being a successful coach went beyond win / loss records or championships.

Thank you, ladies, for continuing to teach me something new and being the reason I achieved my goal. To answer my own question; “are you having fun?” My response is; “more than ever.”