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January 22, 2019

Are you a leader who happens to be a business executive?

Steve Vlk

My name is Steve Vlk. I’m the CEO of the Sioux Falls and Fargo offices of Marsh McLennan Agency and I spend a lot of time thinking about leadership. A colleague recently asked me what leaders I respect and aspire to be like. I simply pointed at the autographed picture of Duke University men’s head basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, hanging in my office. My team often rolls their eyes at my overuse of sports metaphors but there’s a lot to admire about — and learn from— the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history. 

Coach K once said, “I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach. I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball.” I think executives also need to view themselves as leaders who happen to be business coaches. I’ve spent years studying the strategies of Coach K and here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from him about being a business coach:  

“When you first assemble a group, it’s not a team right off the bat. It’s only a collection of individuals.”

Your employees are much like a sports team, with each individual brought in for a special purpose. They’ve spent much of their lives honing their professional skills, but they have no experience putting them to use on your team. 

Does your onboarding process provide them with the tools and resources to properly put their skills into play? Do you have a peer mentoring program to help employees effectively leverage the talents of others on the team? Does your culture support an attitude of “we” versus “I”? All of these are critical for moving your employees beyond a “collection of individuals.”

“People have to be given the freedom to show the heart they possess. I think it’s a leader’s responsibility to provide that type of freedom.”

I’m honored to have been chosen to lead a nationwide diversity and inclusion initiative at Marsh McLennan Agency. I’ll admit, when I first started on this journey, I initially thought of diversity and inclusion in obvious terms like race and gender. 

However, I quickly learned a diverse and inclusive culture encompasses so much more than that. It’s about facilitating a culture where all our employees —  introverts and extroverts, parents and child-free, millennials and baby-boomers  — can come to work and truly be themselves without judgment, discrimination or derision.   

“Erect no artificial walls that might limit potential, stifle creativity or shackle innovation.”

If there’s talent at your organization and the team member wants to be there, a winning coach will find a place for it. Not everyone on your team can play the same position but give your employees room to grow, the opportunity to indulge their passions, and the ability to make mistakes, and they will deliver wins. Talent flattens the organizational chart; that’s a good thing. 

“Don’t take your culture for granted. There needs to be a constant renewal of values that lead to camaraderie.”

I’m not passionate about our culture; I’m obsessive about it. And I have to say, we do a darn good job of facilitating a culture that allows employees to grow personally and professionally; attracts and retains talent; and fosters trust and communication. Some have advised that I stop worrying about it so much. I think that’s a mistake. Coaches need to be hypersensitive to issues that might throw off the balance of the team. If you wait for a survey to tell you how you’re doing, it’s already too late. Damage to the culture has already been done. 

“Throughout the season, I look into my players’ eyes to gauge feelings, confidence levels and to establish instant trust.”

A business coach needs to take the pulse of the organization on a daily basis. One of the easiest ways to do that is look around and see if people smile. Of course, everyone will have a bad day at some point but my goal for my team is that they’ll be excited to come back and play for me again the next day. 

“A common mistake among those who work in this sport is spending a disproportional amount of time on “x’s and o’s” as compared to time spent learning about people.” 

As a business leader, you are likely immersed in financials, strategic initiatives and other business functions on a day-to-day basis. But good coaches know to spend time focusing on their most important asset — their talent.  

Marsh McLennan Agency has on-staff experts and resources to help you improve your coaching skills and develop your talent. If you’d like to learn about our solutions (and haven’t tired of my sports metaphors), I’d be happy to visit. You can reach me at