Coaching employees through a recession

  • By James McCusker Business 101
  • Tuesday, March 25, 2008 2:25pm

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament and its climactic Final Four offer us not only examples of team sport competition at its finest but also, for those who watch carefully, some excellent examples of how to manage when facing adversity.

There is an ebb and flow to basketball games, just as there is in business and in life itself. And one of the things that a coach has to deal with is that no matter how good your players are, no matter how well prepared, sometimes your team is behind at half-time and you have to figure out a way to scramble back.

The situation of falling behind and being threatened by the possibility of losing has some direct parallels to managing a business through a recession.

And since basketball teams use the half-time break to improve their play — often enough to come from behind and win — we ought to look at what good coaches do during that time to turn things around.

When we think of coaches’ half-time speeches, we tend to emphasize the motivational content, the “Win one for the Gipper” rhetoric that gets the team fired up. But while that can be an important part, it is actually only one of three elements in a good half-time speech, or in a good recession management plan.

The three key elements are these: tactics, priorities and motivation.

What often seems to work well is to present something tactical and tangible first.

In basketball, for example, that might mean showing how you want the shooting guard to draw out the defender a step or two so that your forward can have a clear path to the center defending the basket — forcing him to foul or accept a score.

In the workplace, it might mean showing how to pull together with cross-training so that the firm can reduce overtime and temporary worker costs. Or it might mean shifting suppliers, or delivery schedules, to lower the price structure.

Similar parallels exist for the priorities element. The goal in this element is to get the team, basketball or workplace, to focus on its strengths and contain its weaknesses.

For a basketball team facing a point deficit, this might mean reminding them to stop worrying about their missed shots; they can win if they do two simple things: eliminate turnovers and make their foul shots. Focus on not making costly mistakes, and the shot-making accuracy will take care of itself.

In the workplace, it might mean reminding the team of the fundamental math of business: reducing costs by a dollar is the equivalent of increasing sales by five, 10 or even more dollars, depending on your margin.

This is a particularly salient point when facing an economic slowdown, because sales increases are hard to come by.

By focusing on cost containment — like mistake containment in basketball — the business not only sustains itself but also puts itself in a more competitive position.

Our current economic slowdown is accompanied by substantially higher materials costs. Cost containment in a “recession plus inflation” period like this means that a business can maintain, or even lower, its prices while its competitors are raising theirs — and regain its sales momentum.

The motivation element is a world unto itself and requires some judgment. There are some coaches and some managers who are really good at motivational speeches. Most of us, though, are not. And if we launch into our best karaoke-night imitation of Knute Rockne, Henry V or Vince Lombardi, we are simply going to look foolish.

In a basketball half-time speech there is often a lot of yelling. Sometimes, though, the motivational element is understated and is really a matter of instilling confidence.

Confidence is contagious, and coaches often start — and sometimes end — by expressing their own confidence in the team. “I know that you guys can win this game. You are a better team than they are; you just have to play like it.”

Also, because confidence is contagious, coaches, like managers, often can change a team’s attitude by addressing an individual — say a star forward who has been stone cold and has not made a single basket in 11 tries during the first half.

As the team is just about to break to return to the floor, the coach will say, “And Smith, if you get the open shot, take it.” Sometimes he might add, to another player, “And that goes for you, too, Carlos.”

There are limits to sports analogies, of course. But when a business faces that first drop in sales, it is easy for the entire team to get that bedraggled, “‘whupped’ in the first half” look and attitude. Good coaches know how to turn that around. Good managers can do it, too.

James McCusker, a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant, writes “Your Business” in The Herald each Sunday. He can be reached by sending e-mail to

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