Leadership Competencies

7 reasons why coaches make great Vistage Chairs

why coaches make great Vistage Chairs

For several decades, Matt Doherty’s business was basketball. During his college years, he played under legendary coach Dean Smith for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, starting alongside such future stars as Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins. He later became an NCAA head coach at Notre Dame, his alma mater UNC, Florida Atlantic University and Southern Methodist University.

Now, he’s a Vistage Chair for a peer advisory group of CEOs and business owners — and he’s not the only sports coach to make that jump.

Julie Heisey coached women’s basketball at the collegiate level for more than 20 years before transitioning. After winning three NAIA national championships as an assistant coach, she built a top 25 program at Trevecca Nazarene University. From there she moved to Seattle Pacific University, where her team made it to the NCAA Elite Eight.

As the Co-Founder and former CEO at Bradley-Morris, Inc., Shaun Bradley had extensive corporate experience before he became a high school football coach and community volunteer. He now uses both backgrounds in his role as a Chair.

So, why do many former sports coaches find themselves instructing executives?

We explore 7 reasons why coaches make great Vistage Chairs, with or without a corporate background.

1. They’re team leaders

When Heisey became an executive coach, a fellow Chair told her, “You know, Julie, you are going to make this transition easier than a lot of leaders because you’re already used to not being on the floor.”

That’s proven to be true for her. One big challenge for many former C-Suite executives is learning to be in the passenger seat. Sports coaches, on the other hand, already know how to center others and work from the sidelines. Crucially, they’ve got plenty of experience guiding a team — whether it’s a team of athletes or of business leaders.

2. They’ve got eyes on the prize

After a corporate and coaching background, Bradley knows what it takes to win. He also knows that sometimes winning doesn’t look the way you think it does. “My definition of winning is: Did my team members accomplish things that they never thought they could?” he says.

A good coach is always on the lookout for the strengths of their team and opportunities for excellence. As an executive mentor, they have the skills to keep their members oriented toward growth by looking at the big picture.

Doherty makes reference to an acronym of his own creation. “You know coaches love acronyms. ‘STEVIT’ highlights six things you need to know for leadership. You’ve got to know your ‘self, team, environment, vision and industry.’ And you’ve got to mine for the truth,” he explains.

3. They give great pep talks

When Doherty thinks of his role as a coach, he remembers where the word came from: a slang term referring to a horse-drawn carriage, or “coach,” taking someone from point A to point B. In many ways, that’s still a coach’s purpose.

Sometimes a team has a run of bad games; sometimes a company has an underwhelming quarter. Both coaches and executive mentors must buoy people through it and help them recover. Both know that giving up is not an option.

“If you have been a successful coach, you understand what motivates people,” Heisey says. “You know how to inspire people and how to hold people accountable, which all comes back into Chairing.”

4. They know how to listen (and observe)

Some coaches might be wary of mentoring business leaders if they’ve never had a company of their own. But being a Vistage Chair isn’t necessarily about being an expert; it’s about being a sounding board, a confidant and a fresh pair of eyes.

“My job is not to educate members on how to play their game,” Bradley says. “My job is to listen to them and help them with the various issues and challenges that they have.”

Often, on some level, members already have the solution to their problems. But it’s the job of a Chair to draw the right conclusions out of them.

“A good coach sees everything,” Doherty says. Paying attention to body language, tone, and what’s not being said is crucial. Experienced coaches are already used to keeping a keen eye on the dynamics of a playing field.

5. They take a holistic approach

To be effective, both a coach and a Vistage Chair must approach team relationships with a mind for the whole person. “You have to have that sense of trust and you have to show care,” Heisey says.

In Bradley’s view, the most important element for success in a team — whether it’s a sports team or a corporate leadership team — is chemistry between members. That’s only achievable with a holistic mindset.

“There’s a personal side to all people, and every player is more than just what they do on the field or on the court,” Bradley says. “In the same way, a Vistage member is more than just what they are doing with their company.”

6. They’re great communicators

The best coaches know how to foster effective communication with individual players and across the team. By keeping an open line of communication between peer group members, Chairs are able to fill any gaps in their knowledge.

“Because I don’t have a business background, I don’t know what might be missing from the conversation,” Heisey says. “Thus, I will find the member or members who excel in a specific area, like finance, and call on them. It’s just like knowing who my best shooter or defender is.”

Coaches are also experienced in recruiting, a valuable skill that many Vistage Chairs don’t expect they’ll need. Talking a good game (and backing it up, too) is a big part of attracting new members to peer advisory groups.

As Doherty says, “One of the biggest challenges for Vistage Chairs is recruiting. As a college basketball coach, that was my number one job for 22 years, and I enjoyed it. That skill helped when it came time to build a Vistage group and continually fill openings with new members.”

7. They hold their team accountable

“Coaches are used to training,” Doherty says. “We’re used to holding people accountable. And it’s fun to motivate 50-year-old successful CEOs.” As a basketball coach, Doherty would have players who were late run sprints. As an executive coach, the last member to arrive at a meeting has to serve as a scribe during issue processing. Both strategies have proven extremely effective at getting him results.

And that’s just the start of the ways Chairs hold their members accountable. When it comes to executive coaching, it’s all about prompting follow-through and self-reflection; it’s how they push their members to get better.

“When we hold people accountable or we give people feedback, we are giving them a gift,” Heisey says. “Because we can’t get better if we don’t know where we went wrong.”

Becoming a Vistage Chair doesn’t always require years of corporate experience. Sports coaches learn many of the same valuable leadership skills as seasoned executives and, most importantly, they both know what it takes to win.

Related Resources

Executive Coaching vs Vistage Chair

Why I became a Vistage Chair

Category: Leadership Competencies

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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