In the hot summer of 1973, the Arab oil embargo created gas lines around the block, and the heat was barely tolerable. A laid back 18-year old with a mop of blond hair was taking a year off from school, and responded to a help wanted ad at Eastern Mountain Sports in Boston. He was shown to a tiny, stuffy, windowless office in the back of a chaotic shipping area, also known as The World Headquarters of the People’s Mail Order Business – or PMO.
To reach the only free chair, which was shoehorned next to the manager’s desk and only half blocked what remained of the “aisle,” he had to wind around tables, file cabinets, a desk, a secretary, two clerks, and a sleeping golden retriever. Every surface was covered with piles of orders rustling gently from the reciprocating fan as it swept back and forth in a fruitless attempt to relieve the humid summer heat. A copy of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book” rested next to a dead plant on the corner of the manager’s desk – not because anyone was a communist, but simply to tweak the somewhat humorless owner of the company who thought there was something suspicious about a group that worked hard and seemed to have a lot of fun doing it. The walls were covered with schedules, a clock, shelves with old phone books, scrawled notes with big arrows pointing at nothing, and one large framed black and white photograph hung at eye-level next to the manager. The photo was a close-up action shot of a collegiate eight oared crew taking the 2nd stroke of a race – strong men, muscles straining, oars bending, stern, focused expressions. It was a great rowing picture of a great crew.
The young man stuck out his hand and said, “My name’s Whit Mitchell,” and pointing to the picture, added, “I used to do that – I rowed in high school.”
The secretary, sitting with her back to the manager and the young man, announced with conviction: “You’re hired!”
“She’s right,” said the manager. “You’re hired. That’s Manon, and my name’s Bill Pickard. Welcome to Eastern Mountain Sports. When can you start?”
Forty years later, the two men remain fast friends.
Bill, who had rowed on championship crews at Kent School, Dartmouth, Vesper & Union Boat Clubs, and on several US National Teams, later went on to be the first women’s rowing coach at Dartmouth while earning an MBA at Tuck with Whit as an assistant coach. As coach, he cultivated excellence within a team of women who would go on to become rowing coaches, national team & Olympic athletes, sea captains, diplomats, firemen, doctors, lawyers, vice-presidents of Development, C-level business executives, mothers of successful children, and— as fate would have it— one who would become his wife.
Along the way, he learned many lessons that would contribute to his success in business, in relationships, and in life.
Today Bill heads up his own company, Pickard & Murphy, a Seattle based senior level management consulting firm dedicated to making significant improvements in its client’s strategic or operational business position. He has worked with clients including Boeing, Microsoft, IBM, and more.
A Discussion with Bill Pickard, President of Pickard & Murphy, Inc.
Q: What lessons can athletes draw on to help them achieve success in business?
Bill: All sports to some degree, (but rowing in particular), teach athletes the value of sustained hard work, deferred gratification, high expectations, and the benefits of teamwork. To make a great sword you take the best steel you can find, put it in a fire and get it really hot. Then you beat it flat with a hammer, fold it over, and beat it some more. Then you dunk it in an ice bath, and then you keep repeating the process until you have a strong, flexible, razor sharp blade. Rowing coaches are sword makers and crews are swords that love being shaped. The fire and the ice and the pounding build the physical and mental strength needed to develop the confidence necessary to prevail. That process teaches both the sword maker and the swords to do more than they thought they could do. In business and in life, you get out of it in proportion to what you put in.
A rowing coach’s job is to teach their athletes to “Pull As Hard As You Can.“ Not 95% or save some for the end— as hard as YOU can. When a coach tells a high school student to pull harder, that athlete gets tired and thinks he (or she) really is pulling as hard as they can. But as the athlete matures and keeps training, he realizes that he is capable of much greater levels of sustained effort. What used to pass for intense effort is greatly surpassed. As physical strength, aerobic capacity, and technique improve, the mind strengthens as well. Former limits are left in the dust. Every year, self-imposed barriers are peeled away like the layers of an onion. Hard work and improvement beget confidence, and it is confidence that allows a crew to come from behind and triumph.
The harder you push, the more you learn that you can do even more.
Much of what it takes to be a successful athlete is about breaking mental barriers, and the same goes for business. So much of business is about having the confidence to “go for it”, whether you know everything about a topic or not. You may not have done a specific task before, but you’ve successfully done things similar to it. Taking that knowledge, generalizing it, and working hard while simultaneously being confident enough to know that you’re going to succeed— that is what it’s all about. Having good teammates helps too!
Most of the time the magic works. Some times it doesn’t. But as an athlete, you also learn that life doesn’t end when you lose a race. If you’re going to take a risk, sometimes you’re going to fail— but you’re also going to win.
In business, like in rowing, to succeed you have to work really hard and sustain that level of effort. Always pulling as hard as you can in practice enables you to pull as hard as you can in a race. You know you can sustain it for 2,000 Meters in a race because you have done it dozens of times during all those miles on the river.
Success takes time and breeds more success.
The process is circular. It takes sustained, hard work to build the confidence necessary to continue to work ever harder so that you can improve continuously and ultimately achieve the team’s goals.
Q: What has being a rowing coach taught you about leadership, and how do these lessons apply to leaders within a business or organization?
Bill: Coaching and leadership are all about teaching, developing teams and working through other people. The coach isn’t the one out there rowing— coaches are the ones preparing a team to row and win the race.
Business leaders have to be able to do the same thing. Leaders must effectively transfer knowledge to their teams, delegate both responsibility and authority, and keep them focused so they can do their best. When a team wins, a good leader gives the credit to the team because the team did it; if the team loses, a leader needs to stand up and accept responsibility for the loss and turn the negative energy from the loss into positive energy, preparing the team to win the next race.
Much like a coach, a business leader has to keep a team focused on what they need to do to win and keep improving. In New Hampshire it is cold and the season starts later than in warmer locations. A coach in Hanover cannot let a crew get down if they lose early season races. By setting realistic goals and cranking up the pressure to perform as the season progresses, the coach can keep a team focused on getting better. Metaphorically and actually, wins that are hard to come by in March and April, come more easily in May and June. In business, even with the best of teams, there are often setbacks early in the life of a new program. The business leader sets expectations, pushes for improvement, teaches, encourages, focuses, and eventually success comes. People are individuals and they are unique— good coaches are great communicators and find ways to communicate with people in the ways that work best for them. Good business leaders do the same.
Q: What important lessons or key principles have you learned while coaching that translate into being an effective leader?
Bill: Whether you are coaching 7 year-olds or elite athletes or teams of programmers or engineers my philosophy is that regardless of the activity, people must feel safe and they must be having fun.
They have to feel safe in the sense that when they’re trying things that are really hard, they have to know that they might fail and might not “win.”
If they don’t win, they must come back, keep working, change a couple of things and try again. When they ‘get it,’ as the coach you need to tell them: “That’s it— you’ve got it!” Reward progress and you’ll get more.
In business and on teams, if people think they’re going to get fired or disciplined or sidetracked if they fail or achieve less than expected, then they will avoid taking risks. No one wants to be the person who gets blamed for a failure. Everyone wants to hear about his or her successes, no matter how small.
Create a culture that rewards success and risk-taking but doesn’t punish failure.
When senior management sets that kind of culture, they’ll encourage more risk-taking and ultimately more success, whereas if they have a culture that punishes failure, or never rewards or acknowledges success then they won’t have people taking risks or going the extra mile.
“Ya gotta wanna do it!” Regardless of whether they are athletes or engineers, if a team isn’t having fun, they are not going to want to do all the required hard work. Obviously not all aspects of anything are ‘fun’. Great stuff is hard! Five 2K erg pieces in one workout or working for days without sleep on a proposal aren’t ‘fun,’ but in the end the totality of the experience must be rewarding. Members of a team need to enjoy the experience enough to keep coming back every day and putting in the miles that lead to success. People who are not having fun tune out, get cynical and negative, and drag everyone else down or simply leave.
If you work together as a team, you’ll get more out of people. As a coach if you set very clear and high expectations, your team will rise to meet them. If you don’t, they won’t. Business is the same. Without a clear understanding of what is expected, the team will flounder. If everyone ‘gets it’ then everyone can do their own jobs, and help the others do theirs.
If you want to be effective and win, you must set a goal and say, “this is the goal.” You may have a clear idea of exactly how to get there, or you might need the team to figure out the plan, and then execute it together.
Your team may look at the goal and say, “I could never do that,” but if you are doing your job, by the end of the season, they’ll get there, and they’ll know that THEY did it.
Give your team the tools they need to succeed, point them the right direction, and then get out of the way. They’ll do well.
Q: I understand that you used to send little inspirational messages to your athletes– any final words?
“A diamond is a lump of coal that stuck with it.”
“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he blames someone else.” – Steve Prefontaine
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” – Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)
Great coaches and great leaders build…“heroic hearts, … strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” (Ulysses – Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1842)
“…Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir the blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency…” Attributed to Daniel H. Burnham, 1910
“Doing your best is more important than being the best.” - Cathy Rigby, US Gymnast
“All sunshine makes a desert.”
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