In the era of the “Great Resignation,” employee retention is a huge challenge. As in other industries, my clients in the manufacturing world express the same lament: “We can’t find and keep the people necessary for us to be successful.” As an employer, what can you do to recruit talent, encourage people to stay, and motivate them to apply themselves fully to help your company succeed?

The answer lies in coaching and team sports. When executives, managers, supervisors, and other organization leaders see themselves as coaches, not “bosses,” good things happen. What is it about team sports that makes a difference? What distinguishes a coach from a “boss?” What lessons can employers learn?

A client in the manufacturing industry has made a “Culture Commitment,” which is posted in all facilities. It lists the following traits of leader-as-coach:

  • Acts more like a coach and mentor than a traditional command and control “boss”
  • Combines humility, courage and discipline
  • Leads by listening vs. telling
  • When it comes to job expectations, responsibility and accountability, treats people fairly and consistently
  • Demonstrates genuine interest in employees’ ideas, contributions, growth and development

Another client has committed to the following leadership behaviors:

  • Ensures that everyone on the team shares the same goals and empowers others to use their abilities to achieve goals best
  • Actively listens to employees in order to engage and learn from them
  • Generously shares credit and recognition, and accepts responsibility when things go wrong
  • Doesn’t hesitate to confront others, yet does so with a solution-oriented vs. blame-oriented mindset

Essentially, these companies have replaced traditional “Command and Control” management with a coaching approach. What are the essential elements?

Clear shared goals – We’re in this together

In team sports, the overall goal is clear – win. Everyone shares the same goal. Coaches and team leaders make it their mission to ensure understanding of and commitment to the same goals.

In most companies, however, employees either lack a clear understanding of the goals or aren’t inspired by them. “Is my only purpose to make money for the owners — of which I’m not one?”
Another key difference: In the workplace, a boss can win while an employee loses. “You may suffer, but I keep my same pay, benefits and status.” In sports, however, this doesn’t happen. Coach and players either win together or lose together. Collectively, they must synergize to ensure team success.

Measure only what matters

Coaches don’t waste time measuring meaningless metrics. (See performance review discussion below.) They continually identify and measure only the metrics that matter. This includes stepping stone goals — the various steps, markers and signposts along the way to the final goal being achieved.


Managers tend to take positive employee actions for granted. They adopt what’s been described as “Leave alone. Zap!” leadership. The boss remains silent until the employee does something wrong. Then, it’s zap!

By contrast, a good coach continually looks to maximize team members’ strengths. This includes being flexible and adapting as needed. When his NFL career began, Karl Mecklenburg was a marginal player in danger of being cut and out of the league. Yet things changed after his coach suggested he switch positions and play linebacker — a position he’d never played in his life. What followed? Six Pro Bowl selections, three Super Bowl appearances, and his induction into the Denver Broncos Ring of Honor and Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.

Are you a coach continually seeking to identify your employees’ greatest strengths and ways to maximize them? Or are you a “Leave alone; zap!” manager?

Accountability at all levels

On good sports teams, accountability starts at the individual level. Every player feels obligated to help the team win. Accountability also extends from team member to team member — a willingness to call out a teammate if needed for the betterment of the team. Finally, the coach represents ultimate accountability.

By contrast, in most companies, accountability tends to be top-down. It’s transactional: “Follow the rules and keep your job – or else.”

A related problem I see: Avoidance. Most managers wait until things become intolerable before confronting a problematic employee or situation. At that point, the likelihood of a win-win resolution is highly remote.

In sports, there’s no margin for letting things fester. If you’re underperforming, your coach will proactively let you know what the gap is between what’s needed and where you are. There’s no hesitation and no ambiguity. Make the adjustment now.

Celebrate successes

As I mentioned, company leaders tend to take the positives for granted. They continually miss opportunities for bonding with their employees and encouraging continuous improvement.
Good coaches don’t miss the opportunity to celebrate success and reinforce the actions and behaviors that lead to it. As behavioral scientists have determined, direct recognition of behavior worth repeating is a powerful inducement to producing more of the same. Good coaches know this. Unfortunately, most managers don’t.

Systems alignment

Creating a coaching culture requires assessing organization systems. Do they support the desired behaviors, or do they undermine them? If you’re serious about creating and maintaining a coaching culture, you’ll assess each company policy, practice or procedure to determine whether it promotes a collaborative, “we’re in this together” culture.

A client of mine manufactured and sold sophisticated food processing systems. It had two sales departments: Systems and Parts. A fully loaded system could sell for well into the six figures. Parts alone could sell for well into the five figures.

The CFO hatched an idea to promote competition between the departments by creating an incentive pay zero-sum contest. The more money Systems received from the incentive pool, the less there was for Parts, and vice versa.

As for increased competition, the CFO got his wish. However, there were unintended consequences. The two sales divisions stopped communicating with each other, which resulted in lost business opportunities. Tensions grew. When the Systems sales manager accused the Parts sales manager of conspiring with a competitor to cut Systems out of a project, the confrontation turned violent.

A contrasting example comes from drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline. The company had used a traditional commission-based formula for its salespeople. Essentially, the more product you sold, the more money you made. Company leaders learned that this individualistic incentive system had negative consequences, including undermining trust within the company as well as with the doctors who were the primary customers for its prescription drugs. It overhauled the compensation system to heavily weight group performance versus individual performance and to include trust assessments of the MDs. A few salespeople left because of the change. However, most stayed, and by all measurements, the change was successful.

Another example is the aluminum giant Alcoa. As reported in the book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” in the late 1980s, the company had fallen on hard times, including 15,000 employees out on strike. Its board of directors chose former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill to be CEO and turn things around.

O’Neill focused first, not on profits, but on worker safety. He overhauled Alcoa’s systems for dealing with workplace injury prevention and response, including O’Neill giving his home telephone number to all of Alcoa’s tens of thousands of employees for reporting purposes. Over time, not only did the workplace become much safer, changes led to greater efficiency, productivity, innovation and profitability.

O’Neill liked to share the story of an hourly worker who called him at home. The employee had an idea to improve productivity and quality by moving the aluminum siding fabrication process and the pigmentation process closer together. O’Neill dispatched his chief engineer to investigate, who concurred with the worker’s recommendation. Within a year, profits on sales of this product doubled. Over time, this innovation had a positive seven-figure impact on Alcoa’s bottom line.

Like a great coach, O’Neill continually looked for and listened to ideas that would help his team win.

Enlist HR

In my view, the Human Resources profession often has an overly zealous focus on compliance and claim prevention, which undermines both “human” and “resource.” As a former labor and employment law attorney, I can tell you that the best way to avoid employee legal trouble is not checking compliance boxes; it’s creating a positive workplace culture. Here’s how HR can shift from a compliance to culture paradigm:

  • Recruiting and hiring: Too often, recruiting and hiring are not about attracting and selecting the people best positioned to succeed in the actual job. They’re about finding the “safest” choice. As a result, the opportunity to attract and retain the best talent is lost.
  • Onboarding: Too often, onboarding is a dry, cold exercise. Boxes are checked – the “at will” disclaimer, the anti-harassment policy, the forms to fill out, and the rules to follow. Instead, the focus should be on welcoming, orienting and encouraging success.
  • Job descriptions: I’ve seen job descriptions that went on for seven pages. Ugh! A good coach doesn’t try to specify a player’s every possible behavior or action. He or she leaves room for the player to develop and adapt as needed to maximize each player’s strengths.
  • Performance reviews: A good coach provides ongoing, JIT (Just in time) feedback and feedforward (improvement suggestions). The coach does not wait for the annual review to unload. The coach-player relationship centers on day-to-day interactions and focuses on what will best help the player succeed.
  • Health issues: Employees with health challenges are usually suffering both physically and mentally. What they need is compassion, not a cold, harsh box-checking exercise. A good coach truly cares about his/her players’ well-being and empathizes when they face adversity.
  • Discipline and discharge: Traditional “progressive” discipline tends to be demoralizing, dehumanizing and poisonous rather than reparative for workplace relationships. And discharge often comes without dignity. In sports, players can and do get cut. However, there’s no “First, Second, Third Warning” nonsense. The focus remains on what is needed in the player’s position for the team to succeed. If the player falls short, the question becomes, “What adjustments must the player make?” If the player is unable or unwilling to make those adjustments, he or she is replaced by another player without blame or recrimination. It’s simply a matter of doing what’s necessary for the team to win.


There’s an ocean of upside if company leaders replace traditional notions of management with a coaching paradigm. Instead of telling and dictating, listen and learn. Instead of judging, criticizing and dwelling on problems, probe for and encourage solutions. And instead of being a me-oriented “I’m the boss” figure, be an “I’m the coach committed to our overall success” leader.


Jathan is an internationally published author, organization development consultant, college professor, and Master Coach/Practice Leader. In a prior career, he spent 25 years as an employee relations attorney. He then shifted gears to the consulting world, where he was named one of the Top 100 Speakers on Leadership by Inc. magazine. He is also a successful writer with multiple published books and writes the column “Putting Humanity into HR Compliance” for the Society for Human Resource.