What can comms teams learn about managing expectations from an elite sports coach?

Have you been asked to make something mundane ‘go viral’?

Perhaps you have been requested to gain front page national newspaper coverage for a niche or hyper-local story.

Ok, maybe we are simplifying the issue a bit, but comms teams often face huge expectations from other people within a business. Sometimes, they can seem unrealistic.

And that can create pressure, particularly with more strategic expectations, at a time where comms teams are often being pressed to prove their value, budgets are squeezed, and results are scrutinised.

It is something we intend to look at more in the coming weeks and months, through our media training blogs and webinars.

And we thought we would kick off by looking at what lessons we can learn from another high-pressured environment – football.

Club officials, sponsors and supporters all have expectations. They may not necessarily be aligned. And the person expected to deliver is the head coach or manager.

How do they cope and prove their value? What can we learn from them?

Adam Clark is a UEFA A Licence coach who has managed senior football teams. He has also set up his own youth football coaching company – Park to Pro - and had created a mentorship programme for aspiring grassroots coaches.

I sat down for a chat with him to see what he thinks comms professionals could learn from his industry.

 

Understand

Adam says a crucial starting point is to understand the reasoning and motivations behind expectations.

Are they based on evidence, ambition or, perhaps, ego?

“For someone to have expectations of you, you must have done something in the past,” he said.

“If you think Chelsea have just spent around £100m on a new striker, he is expected to score lots of goals because that is what he has done in the past. And, because of that, the team is expected to do well.

“But that doesn’t take into account what could happen in the future. He could suffer a serious injury and miss most of the season.

“When the expectations are set by leaders, you need to understand why they think like that. In the football world, is it because they have invested in the squad and put the groundwork in place? Or, is it just something they desire?

“If you ask questions and talk to them more about it, you can usually work out whether it is an ego-driven thing, whether the whole club supports it, and if you will have the tools to make it possible.”

To put that in a comms team context, there could be an expectancy you generate more media coverage or boost social media engagement, to give a couple of examples.

What is the motivation for that? Is it to raise the profile of the business and sell more products? Is it to attract new customers from a different demographic? Maybe it is to improve the brand image. Or, it might be to position the senior leaders as sector experts.

Once you are clear on this, you can then think about whether it is realistic and if you have the resources to make things happen.

 

Smaller targets

When I worked in comms, I found the start of the new financial year to be one of the most daunting times as the expectations and visions for the 12 months ahead were laid out.

It can be easy to feel you are being set up to fail.

Adam believes the key is to break targets down into more realistic sections.

“There is a cliché in football about taking one game at a time,” he said. “And there is some merit in that.

“If the club has an expectation of finishing the season in the top three, I would break that down into much smaller targets.

“So, you may, for example, break the season down into quarters and have an understanding of where you need to be at each stage.

“I like to build in slow blocks. If the overall aim is to get into the top three and we finished 15th out of 20 the previous season, the first step is to see if we can get into the tops 12. Once we’ve achieved that, can we get in the top eight? I would ignore the top three target until we have built to that and the end line is in sight.

“There are managers who break it down into micro targets. I know some working in the professional game who have six mini targets for each game. They will have a target for the first 15 minutes, then a target for the next 15 and so on.

 

Managing up

And that leads us nicely on to managing up.

I often felt during my career that plenty of people from outside the comms team had opinions on what should be done and how it could be achieved.

But their expertise was in other areas. And they did not fully understand the complexities of working with the media, managing a crisis, or building an engaging social media presence.

The same is true in football, where everyone with an interest in the sport tends to want to offer an opinion.

Adam believes the best approach is to enable leaders to have input without relinquishing control.

He said: I’ve always tried to speak to a club chairman and explain why I made a decision or why I didn’t pick a particular player.

“If I made a mistake, or should have done something else, I’ve admitted it. And when they have questioned something, I have tried to make sure I let them in and that they feel at ease offering their thoughts.

“So, I might say something like “I can see why you would say that”, “Or I think you are on to something, I’ll try that” and then bring the conversation back to what I will be doing about it.

“By doing that, you are allowing them to have input, but you are not giving them control. If you are a closed shop, it can quickly become personal, and you start clashing.” 

 

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Pressure

Many comms expectations are long term, similar to a club’s ambitions for a season.

And the path to success is rarely smooth. Some things may go better than expected and others could be a struggle.

Adam says a vital lesson we can borrow from football is to trust your plans and processes when things go wrong. And to find ways to prevent pressure from becoming a decisive factor.

“Pressure is an external influence, and if you allow it to get into your brain, you’ll not be able to think quickly and clearly,” he said. “And then that pressure starts to build, and you think more negatively.

“It is hard, but I’ve tried to learn to ignore external pressure.”

“Even when things are going against you, you need to try and stick to the process you first implemented. Once you move away from that, you move away from the task you set out to achieve.

“Have a good structure in place. One thing I do is to make a ‘to-do’ list, book appointments and make sure I stick to my free time. If you do that, you’ll feel comfortable and be able to stick to your plan.”

 

Reflect

Adam also thinks how comms professionals view mistakes and challenges can impact whether they meet those long-term expectations.

He believes they should be viewed as learning opportunities that can mean we are more likely to meet those targets.

He said: “Reflection is needed in any line of work.

“And you need to give yourself time to reflect calmy. If you do it immediately after something has happened, you will get an emotional response.

“People will read into it if you show distress in your body language or with the words you choose, which can increase the pressure.

“If you sleep on it first, you tend to realise things were not as bad as you thought they were.

“Sometimes, it is good when bad things happen, like missing a sale, a target or a deadline. We can learn from them and understand what we could do differently. It can also help us evaluate whether the expectations were too high in the first place.”

 

Mentor

Being part of Adam’s football coaching mentoring programme, I’ve been impressed by the network of coaches he has across Europe.

As well as that network, he also has a mentor. And he believes having someone you can turn to for guidance and support is pivotal.

He said: “You need someone who can show you a mirror so you can see where you are at and who can objectively critique you so you can see things better.

“You want someone you can ask questions to so that you can access the library in their brain. Be prepared to ask questions you may not feel comfortable asking. And questions that may expose your weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

“Asking for help is not a bad thing. It is a way of seeking guidance and finding a different way of going about things.

“Again, it is a bit of a cliché, but you don’t know what you don’t know.

“I’ve got a mentor I speak to regularly, and he has helped me hugely. It is one of the best things I have had.”

And a mentor does not need to come from your profession.

Adam said: “I know of a manager who has worked in the top leagues who had an A&E doctor as a mentor – and that has to be a great way of learning how to deal with extreme pressures and stressful situations.

“Some other football coaches have people from other sports as mentors. England manager Gareth Southgate has been out to the US working with American Football coaches.”

 

Curious mind

Something that becomes increasingly clear when you speak to Adam is the value he places on having a curious mind.

He believes asking questions and wanting to improve is crucial to finding ways to improve and meet expectations.

And he has a particular interest in neuroscience and understanding how the brain works.

He said: “After around three years of coaching, I tore up everything I was doing and have focused a lot more on the brain and how it works.

“The brain is key to everything. If your thinking is clear, you will achieve more. You can improve your references and how quickly you can access them. Everything we face is a stimulus, and it comes down to how we interpret it.

“In football, whether you win or lose, it comes down to how you think because that comes first. If the thinking is clear and the structure is there, you have more chance of success.

“And, I think that in any line of work or sport, you need to be willing to push yourself.”

 

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