Leadership & Culture, Performance | Jul 13, 2020
Why striking a work-life balance could be your competitive advantage.

The At Home With Leaders podcast series has proven to be one of the most popular Leaders Performance Institute staples during the pandemic.

By John Portch

From Mark Shapiro in episode one, through luminaries such as Eddie Jones, Sir Dave Brailsford and Emma Hayes, the series has checked-in at home in with some of sports finest leaders on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.

Twice a week, our Senior Product Manager Matthew Stone is joined by alternating co-hosts Steve Gera of Gains Group and sports psychologist Michael Caulfield to chat to head coaches, general managers and other senior leaders about how they are adapting, attempting to thrive, and ultimately contributing to the eventual reboot of the sports performance landscape.

“The big takeaway for me thus far,” Gera tells the Leaders Performance Institute, “is that the circumstances and constraints of today are really forcing people to plan and be thoughtful about changes. This time period is really going to spur new thinking and ways of working across sport. From coaches who need to communicate clearer over a Zoom call, to players needing to wear microphones to enhance fan engagement, we’ve discussed the ways sport will and won’t change on the series, but the best thing is that we’ve been incredibly thoughtful in those discussions.”

Caulfield tells a similar story. “Everyone I’ve met – and I use the word ‘met’ – has just been so relaxed and at ease with opening up during this remarkable period. It’s almost like they are reflecting on their careers rather than in the middle of a job.”

“This has been a lot of fun and something I know I’ve probably needed as well as our guests and listeners,” adds Gera. “One of the first things I noticed when Covid hit is that we were all separated from our teams. This has been a chance to form a new different team and one that is quite complementary to our core team at Gains Group.”

There is plenty more to come in the weeks ahead as sport continues to re-emerge and our guests continue to delve into the practicalities of returning to play, but first, the Leaders Performance Institute pauses to reflect on what some of sport’s leaders are doing to emerge from the lockdown better placed than their rivals.

In part I, we discuss the efforts of sport’s leaders to strike a better work-life balance.


Why striking a work-life balance could be your competitive advantage

“We have to do things differently,” declares Thomas Dimitroff.

The Atlanta Falcons General Manager joined At Home With Leaders direct from his ‘War Room’ at the Dimitroff residence. From this very spot in April he led the Falcons’ draft strategy at what became a videoconference, hosted by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, when the physical event became a non-starter.

The focus here is not draft picks but the precarious work-life balance of a football front office, which Dimitroff discusses at length with reference to his late father, the renowned football coach Tom Dimitroff Jr. He says: “Growing up with a father who was in football for 30 years, and through that hardcore guilt that we all grew up with in this business, we have to do things differently.”

Hardcore guilt? “We can take a lead from the Europeans quite honestly. We know that we need to work smarter; we’ve been fighting it for years.

“Every new wave of young general managers and head coaches that come in thinks ‘I’ve finally got my gig, I’m not letting it go. I never want to be perceived by the head of football operations or the team builder or the head coach as someone who’s not putting in crazy hours and not burning the candle’.”

Guilty or not, such an approach is unsustainable and counterproductive. “I realise more and more that I’m unbelievably focused when I eat well, exercise well, get the right sleep. If I don’t do that, I could spend 10, 12, or 14 hours in the office and be nowhere near as productive as doing those other things and being much more eight hours of focus there.

“It’s unbelievable and I fight it, which I get a little upset with myself thinking I should know better than this. This is my 13th year as a general manager, almost 30 years in this business and the fact that I don’t have a real strong grasp on this or haven’t until now to me is something that really affects me.”

Could the pandemic usher in a sea-change? “Covid-19 is the genesis of us starting to work smarter and it’s allowing us to look at things in a different way. I’ve had a number of GMs reach out to me and say if ‘I could do this, if I could take a day a week’; if they could take Wednesday – I know it sounds like an odd day – and take the entire day and work from home without the incessant knocks on the door that they would get so much done, and feel energised from having Monday and Tuesday, which are very busy days in the NFL, work from home on the Wednesday, come back Thursday and Friday, and then Saturday they travel for games, they would be so much more rejuvenated.”

As it stands, the NFL is due to return on schedule, although the Women’s Super League [WSL] in England is just one of a series of competitions that have been wrapped up early. Chelsea FCW were declared WSL champions in June, a few weeks after the Blues’ Head Coach Emma Hayes spoke to the podcast. She too felt a sense of guilt, albeit for different reasons.

“Whenever I’m asked this in an interview and people ask how are you doing? I feel bad for saying I’m doing really well,” she admits. “I’m feeling happy, calm, and I’ve got my hormones under control; for me as a woman that’s been a real challenge after having a baby.

“We also feel guilty because we’ve been institutionalised into working in such a way and to such a level over a number of hours. I think in high performance environments the demands just grow; and I know from my position I have to think every year how am I going to top last year? To do that, and keep yourself fresh, to almost reinvent yourself; it takes an extraordinary amount of work to keep yourself topical with your players, your staff, too keep yourself hungry. That takes a lot of self-reflection to assess where you are and ultimately you don’t have time to just sit.

“Everyone has regained themselves, which is enlightening, but it also means that’s where the guilt comes. I think the guilt comes from a place of I feel terrible about the fact that I’m happy looking after myself; because I’m so used to looking after a team of people.”

Not that Hayes has lost sight of her players and staff. “The biggest concern with the development of football at least will be those footballers who struggle to return to play for fear of getting the virus; and I think that will alter an awful lot of what goes on inside team dynamics.

“You’re not going to have typical dressing rooms any more; [there will be] withdrawn behaviour. We’re going to have to learn as coaches how to observe and recognise mental health issues quicker because you’re not going to be able to hear things per se from players and staff alike because interactions are going to differ. It’s going to alter an awful lot what we do as facilitators.”

Mark Shapiro is thinking along similar lines in his role as CEO and President of MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays, who are still without a return to play in sight.

He says: “They have a thirst to get back to play, but while I think initially there might have been some minimising the impact of this, all of them see what’s going on globally right now and no one is minimising the impact and everyone is focused on not pushing back until the time is right.

“Now how do I make sure that we and the loved ones around us are in a mentally healthy environment and we’re taking care of ourselves? When that’s taken care of then the next step is how do I prepare to ensure I’m ready; and then finally the third step: are there opportunities to not only prepare but to get better? To utilise this unintended pause to find a way to grow, develop, learn in a way creatively that wouldn’t normally exist.”

The Last Word

Sean Dyche: Young Footballers Are Not Having Fun

Sean Dyche, the Manager of English Premier League Burnley, who returned to action in June, told At Home With Leaders that he harbours significant concerns for the youngest generation of players looking to break into the professional game in England.

“There’s no fact to this, this is just a feeling,” he begins in explanation, “I think you’re finding some highly skilled players but underneath it all they’re like ‘I don’t actually love it, I’m just good’. So there’s been this shift; people used to love it to be good at it, now some players out there are really good by training but not actually through desire. They’re not just playing in the street, they’re being given training programmes. This emotional freedom to just desire is pulled away from some of these kids growing up.

“The upside of that is that they’ve got a much better football education by the time they get to 16-18 years old. The downside to it is that it can get like a job; they’ve been doing a job since they were seven years old until they were 17; and then we wonder why they just look a bit apathetic and they don’t have that edge or that desire; no wonder, it’s been like a job. Whereas the kids who have just been playing; we see it now with kids who come into the academy at 14 or 15, they look different because they are different; they’ve just been playing Sunday league or been playing with their mates, they’ve got a different thing.”

Dyche makes an alarming prediction: “There will be players in the future of 27 or 28 years old saying, ‘right, I’ve made my money now, I enjoyed it, I was good at it, and now I’m off’. You’re probably going to get a psychological shift from that, which is not going to be good news.”

Looking for more performance insight?

This article first appeared in our Performance journal, which is available for download now and leads with a selection of insights lifted from our At Home With Leaders podcast series, which has featured the likes of England Rugby’s Eddie Jones, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Mark Shapiro, and Chelsea’s Emma Hayes speaking directly from their home offices.

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