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Five Leadership Lessons from a Hockey Parent

Growing up in the State of Hockey, I should have figured I’d end up being a hockey parent. Yet I’m still surprised when I find myself dressed in hockey paraphernalia from head to toe, hooting and hollering from the bleachers, and completely consumed by hockey culture. I do it because I see the ice as a place where our daughters are strong, assertive, bold, decisive, graceful, strategic, confident, persistent, resilient, brave and full of raw joy – and it’s contagious. I also do it because the game teaches me a lot about how I, as a leader, can better support my team.

According to the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey, women managers are doing more to support their teams and taking more consistent action to promote employee wellbeing – such as providing emotional support, checking in on overall well-being, supporting their team in managing workload, navigating work-life challenges and addressing burnout.

Why does Supporting Employee Wellbeing Matter?

Employee wellbeing is a key driver of employee engagement, productivity, innovation and retention – factors that matter critically to business success. We are multi-dimensional employees: our social, emotional, spiritual, physical, cultural, environmental, civic, mental and financial circumstances deeply influence our overall wellbeing, our sense of purpose, and why/how we approach our work. The global COVID pandemic, racial injustice, civil and political unrest and unprecedented climactic events have resulted in extraordinary levels of uncertainty, stress, anxiety and socioeconomic hardship. Unaddressed, this can take a huge toll on various dimensions of employee wellbeing, can compromise our occupational health and can put our businesses, economy and global community at great risk. Alternatively, when organizations and leaders attune to and support employee wellbeing – we can more effectively bring our visions and missions to life. So how can we all do more to support the wellbeing of our teams?

Five Lessons in Leadership from a Hockey Parent:

1. Coach Players How to Fall Safe. Since ice is slippery and falling is inherent to the game of hockey, one of the first things the coach taught my daughter was how to fall safe and swiftly pick herself back up. When a player can’t pick themselves up because of injury, players from both teams are also coached to take a knee on the ice as a sign of solidarity and respect – saluting the injured skater when she eventually picks herself back up. In the workplace, leaders can help team members ‘fall safe and pick themselves back up’ by:

· setting the expectation that some failure is an inherent (if not critical) step in driving change and innovation,

· positioning team members in a safe environment where they can try/test new things and make some mistakes without putting an entire project or business in jeopardy, and

· cultivating a culture of humility, curiosity and resilience where team members can forgo self-criticism, embrace failure and consciously apply the lessons learned to drive continuous improvement.

2. Create an Inclusive Game. A few years ago, the goalie on my daughter’s hockey team was out sick. The team was lucky enough to have a stand-in goalie, but that goalie knew nobody on the team and was a grade or two younger than the other players. While the players gathered around, ready to bang their sticks on the pipes of the hockey net and scream-sing their pre-game cheer, the young goalie stood awkwardly along the boards, alone. Noticing this, my daughter broke away and skated over to her and pulled her into the pre-game cheer. It will always be one of my proudest moments as a hockey parent. I didn’t care if we won or lost, I just cared about the empathy, compassion and support my daughter showed her new team member that day. In the work environment, leaders can create an inclusive environment by:

· creating an inclusive workplace where team members are heard, valued, contribute and belong,

· fostering a culture where team members seek out one another’s perspectives, lift up one another’s talents, amplify one another’s voices, and bring one another info the fold, and

· building team capability to effectively navigate constructive tension.

3. Foster Teamwork. Herb Brooks (1980 head coach of the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic Team at Lake Placid) once said about teamwork that “it’s not about the (individuals) name on the back of the jersey, it’s about the (team) badge on the front”. In hockey, teamwork is everything and selfishness and ego are frowned upon. Poor sportsmanship draws penalties and hurts the whole team. Each player has a unique position based on their strengths; success comes from leveraging each other’s strength, unifying as one force and fostering teamwork. In the workplace, leaders can foster teamwork by:

· consistently grounding and uniting the team around the organizations vision, mission, values and impact,

· investing in employee engagement, DEI, and workplace culture,

· assessing employee strengths vs areas of growth and purposefully positioning team members in complementary cohorts, and

· retaining and promoting top talent by preparing team members to step into new positions through education, shadowing, mentorship and other professional development opportunities.

4. Model Unselfish Play. In the game of hockey, I admire the offensive wing who can easily make her third goal in a game for a hat trick, but instead passes to her defender who rarely gets a chance to take a shot. I admire the team members who skate over to hug and reassure their goalie after she inadvertently lets another shot through. I admire the whole team when they swarm a player with cheers and hugs when she gets her first shot of the season. And I admire that, in hockey, credit isn’t only given to the player who puts the puck in the net; credit is also given to key team members who assist in achieving a goal. In the workplace, leaders can model this type of unselfish play by:

· growing you own emotional intelligence and awareness of ego/control,

· sharing decision-making power and seeking strategic insight from others,

· finding opportunities for others to take the lead (even if it means they might do it differently, do it better, or fail), and

· crediting, celebrating, rewarding and elevating the accomplishments of team members.

5. Embrace the ‘Whole Athlete’. Hockey happens in the context of school, friends, family, and the community – all of these dimensions influence how players show up and perform on the ice. In the workplace, leaders can ‘embrace the whole employee’ by:

· attuning to and empathizing with the stories, experiences and perspectives of their team members,

· encouraging self-care, personal/professional growth, workload balance, work-life balance and overall wellbeing,

· balancing the technical and relational aspects of “team”, and

· creating safe opportunities for teams to constructively reflect upon, and make meaning of, how the world impacts their work and how their work impacts the world.

How Will You Bring Lessons from Youth Hockey to Life on Your Team or in Your Organization?

This intentional work to support employee and team wellbeing isn’t typically written into a leader’s job description. Yet this work is a moral imperative and a business imperative. This work – and the skillset to do this work - is becoming ever more valuable and can be integrated into the systems and fabric of every organization.

· What role will you or your organization play in coaching players to fall safe?

· How will you or your organization create an inclusive game?

· What will you or your organization do to foster teamwork?

· What role will you or your organization play in modeling unselfish play?

· How will you or your organization embrace the whole athlete?

Mollie O’Brien, MA, MBA, is the Chief Strategy Officer at a Minnesota non-profit. She has 20 years of leadership experience in the non-profit, consulting, and corporate sectors in the fields of healthcare, environment, and cultural resources management/preservation. She is a creative, impact-oriented strategist who helps mission driven leaders, teams and organizations lead on purpose and make mission matter. Mollie is a former Registered Professional Archeologist. Mollie has her BA in Archaeology from the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse, her master’s degree in Archaeology from the University of Minnesota and her mini-MBA from the University of St. Thomas.


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