In sports, you can easily define a coach’s role. They work with players to develop their skills, establish plays and strategies the players can use on the field, and, come game day, they provide the support, structure, and purview their team needs to reach their goals.
A leader’s role in building a trusted tech team is no different. In this case, the leaders are responsible for motivating their employees and helping them grow and develop their skill sets. They step into the fray to make sure individual contributors understand their role on the larger team and help integrate different groups to ensure everyone is working toward the same common objective. Then, come game time, they have to sit back and trust that their tech teams are armed with the skills and strategies they need to succeed.
“At Central, we refer to our leaders a lot of the time as coaches, and that’s really how I want them to look at their roles,” says Matt Korte, Chief Technology Officer at Central Insurance. “They want to put their players in the best position possible to win the game.”
In this article, we dive into how Central’s leadership has applied this approach within our cutting-edge insurtech team and outline six sports coaching strategies you can use today to turn your group into a winning team.
Understanding Your Role as a Leader and Coach
The first step a leader needs to take when building a trusted tech team is to make sure they know their purpose within the larger group. In many cases, this means understanding that you will not be the one to score the winning touchdown. Instead, it’s your responsibility to put the employees you oversee in the best position possible to succeed.
“In business, you want to put your team in a position where they’re filled with enough knowledge to make efficient decisions and ultimately win the game for you and your company,” Korte says. “It’s up to you to give them enough context that they know how to respond and are prepared for any number of different situations that they might face.”
In practice, this might mean providing support to an individual contributor, bridging gaps between groups that need to work together, or equipping employees with the training they need to respond appropriately—even during high-stakes or stressful periods.
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Recognizing a New Definition of Success
In Korte’s experience, professionals who have advanced in their careers from individual contributors to leadership roles sometimes struggle to understand the new part they play in a team’s success.
“I think for a lot of leaders, it’s very difficult moving from that player mode to a coach mode because we’re trained to want to be on the field,” he says. “But the coach is never going to win the game. The coach is never even going to play the game. As a coach, you have to put your team in the best position possible to win on their own. That’s your new measure of success.”
– Matt Korte, Chief Technology Officer at Central Insurance
6 Sports Coaching Lessons You Can Use to Transform Your Tech Team
Leaders who take the time to teach their teams these six key things will see significant positive impacts come game day:
- How You Contribute to Your Team’s Success
- How Others Contribute to Your Team’s Success
- How to Make Decisions
- How to Respond to Failure
- How to Respond to Pressure
- How to View Accountability
#1: How You Contribute to Your Team’s Success
In the same way a leader needs to understand most of their work takes place off the field, it’s crucial that each team member clearly understands the part they play.
“Similar to the business world, in the sports world, everybody has the position they’re playing. The coach’s job is to make sure they understand how to best perform in that position, what success in their position looks like, and how that contributes to the larger team winning the game,” Korte says.
When team members feel they clearly understand the expectations of their role and how their work helps the company win, they are more likely to perform better within that role and tend to remain in that position longer.
Applying this Mindset at Central
Tech teams within non-technical industries like insurance might struggle to see the direct contribution of their work to the overall company goals. However, it’s up to the coach to provide that context.
“Start by defining what winning is for your company,” Korte says. “At Central, winning is underwriting excellence. We want to produce a consistently high combined ratio, but we have a lot of different skilled positions within the organization beyond underwriting.
“It’s crucial that our teams understand there’s no one skill set within our organization that’s going to win the game for us. We have to learn to work together through multidisciplinary teams and we have to recognize how you can best contribute with your technical skill set to that goal of underwriting excellence.”
This effort starts by being clear and direct with both departments and individual contributors about how their efforts contribute to success.
“The more we as leaders can articulate what success in each of these roles looks like and can connect the dots to what that means for winning the game, the better. And then when we do face adversity as a company, we can come together as a team, respond appropriately, and make the right decisions to move the organization forward.”
#2: How Others Contribute To Your Team’s Success
There will be times when trusted tech teams need to pivot for the good of the company, and it’s a coach’s job to make sure they can do that confidently.
“Let’s say you’re a linebacker, and you’re supposed to guard a certain offensive player,” Korte says. “The play starts, and you see your teammate fall down or get hurt, or maybe the opposing team changes the structure. You have to be ready and willing to respond accordingly.”
If your employees are operating in silos, it will be difficult for them to know where and how to best pick up the slack in situations like these. Instead, it’s the coach’s responsibility to bridge gaps between groups. They must ensure everyone knows how each member, area of a tech team, and even other departments operate in pursuit of the overall goal.
This knowledge also creates a level of respect and understanding between groups that will help streamline communication and collaboration on and off the field.
#3: How to Make Decisions
The most successful sports coaches and tech leaders run teams that know how to make fast, decisive decisions. In the face of pressure, they don’t question their instincts but instead feel prepared to make a choice and follow through, even if that means adjusting down the line to get back on track.
Decision-making is one area Korte has invested a lot of time in when building a trusted tech team at Central. As a result, his employees function self-sufficiently and know how to keep working toward goals and deadlines, even when unexpected roadblocks occur.
“By filling your players with enough context that they know how to respond in different situations like these, you’re creating a team that feels empowered to win,” he says.
Although there’s a tendency in tech to want to minimize making wrong decisions, Korte explains adding too much red tape or asking for too many checkpoints can harm a team’s progress.
“There’s a tendency to want to put more controls around decision-making to avoid going down the wrong route. It’s the equivalent of ‘You better check with the coach before you make that play,’” he says. “But in the midst of a game, you can’t look over to the sideline and ask the coach what you should do.”
Instead, he explains, Central aims to limit controls or bureaucracy, focusing instead on building teams that have ownership of their choices and can function as the nimble and agile groups they need to be.
#4: How to Respond to Failure
When they do fail, Korte uses the opportunity to remind his employees that even the best teams don’t win every game.
“There’s no way you can always make the right decision, so instead, it becomes a matter of how you respond to it,” he says.
“Teach the leaders under you to be quick and decisive when they have to make a move; if that choice ends up being wrong, use it as a coaching moment. Show your team that it’s okay to make a mistake. You only really lose when you don’t own a mistake, learn from it, and get better at the game as a result.” – Matt Korte, Chief Technology Officer at Central Insurance
#5: How to Respond to Pressure
One of the best lessons Korte recalls learning about leadership from sports coaches in action was how to respond to high-pressure situations. Specifically, he remembers watching Brian Kelly—head football coach at Notre Dame—guide his team through some high-stakes moments by reminding them to put the pressure they’re feeling into perspective.
“His message to the team was basically they could buckle under pressure or view the pressure as a privilege,” Korte says.
“Typically, when there’s pressure on a group, it means there are a lot of eyes on you. And people have those eyes on you because you’re accomplishing something important. When there’s pressure and you’re trying to do something important, the coach will send the best players out onto the field. So instead of succumbing to that pressure and looking at it as a burden, take pride in the fact you’re being put into the game.”
This mindset shift can be the difference between a team that rises to a challenging moment and one that falls short. Remind your team their involvement in a high-pressure project means you have confidence in their abilities and they’ll be able to achieve whatever task or objective you set for them.
#6: How to View Accountability
The key to creating a winning culture—whether on the field or in the office—comes down to accountability.
“Accountability typically has a negative connotation in the business world, but to me, it’s not a negative thing. It means you care, you’re after a common goal,” Korte says.
Sports teams reach championship caliber when the individual members within them hold one another accountable. If one teammate doesn’t show up for practice or is late to workouts, it’s important the other team members call out that behavior to instill an understanding they care about his well-being and individual contribution to their success.
“They know what he’s capable of, and they want to create a winning team,” Korte says. “So they hold him accountable.”
Similarly, Korte aims to use accountability to help establish the trusted tech team at Central. “We want to build more of that winning culture, where we’re holding one another accountable peer-to-peer.”
When team members believe in one another, know what each person is capable of, and help one another to reach their full potential, they can accomplish more than just one-off wins. They can create an organization that’s strong, dynamic, and built to last.
“As a leader, you need to set the stage for how you view accountability and hold yourself to that standard. Then, you can hold everyone to that standard and compete at a high level of functionality,” he says.
Building a Championship-Caliber Team at Central
Beyond individual strategies and lessons, Korte explains building a team that wins starts with building a winning culture.
“Asking yourself ‘what does winning look like for us?’ isn’t enough when building that unique culture from the ground up,” he says. “You have to ask yourself hard questions like ‘How do I want my team to function?’ ‘How do I want them to interact with each other, with coaches, with other teams?’ How do I want us to feel when we win?’ Once you start asking those questions, you can decide what kind of coach you need to be for your team to operate that way.”
One example of this in practice is Central’s tech leaders’ approach to accountability. Recognizing that it’s not a one-way street, Korte explains that “the players at Central hold the coaches accountable too. We have to put them in the best position to succeed, but also make sure we’re coaching and getting better every single day.” This commitment to feedback and transparency has helped define the tech team’s winning culture within the organization.
Central’s recruitment strategies have evolved as a result of this commitment. “We promise to surround our players with a team that makes them want to do better and they can learn from,” Korte says. “So when we’re recruiting and looking for people to join our teams, we always keep that goal in mind.”
Join Central’s Trusted Tech Team
As Korte explains, building a championship-level tech organization comes down to bringing the right individuals onto our team. Whether you’re a coach or a player, we encourage you to explore our open tech job opportunities to see if there’s a good fit for you within our organization.