To Be A High-Performance CEO, Be Like A High-Performance Athlete. Some Tips.

Even high achievers can be guided to perform better and more consistently, says World Series Champion Performance Coach Dana Cavalea, a man with a proven track record helping top athletes and executives to up their games. Author of Habits of a Champion: Nobody Becomes a Champion by Accident, Cavalea began coaching CEOs in 2014, after spending 12 years with the Yankees franchise, working with star players like Derek Jeter as the team’s director of performance enhancement.

In the following conversation, Cavalea, who will be a keynote speaker at Chief Executive’s CEO Talent Summit in September, outlines some simple practices that can yield huge performance improvements for business leaders and their teams—but only if they stick with it. “People underestimate the power of consistency to yield results,” he says. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve said that habits common to the star athletes you worked with—the Derek Jeters—apply in business. What are some examples?

The biggest ones are consistency, discipline and conviction. When you have those three working together, discipline, consistency, and conviction, you become a force to be reckoned with. You’re not looking for a public applause, you’re doing what needs to get done because you know that it needs to get done in order to produce the outcome you need.

In sports, there’s always an active stat line that says, “Hey, in real time, this is who you are. These are what the numbers say you are.” So, players spend a lot of time coming up with routines and habits that allow them to have more predictable outcomes, which will determine and create more consistency in their overall stat line and how they go about playing the game. And whenever players, professional athletes struggle, they go back to that routine and double down on it.

Players like Derek Jeter, for example, have routines set up throughout the day that give them confidence in themselves, and being disciplined and consistent with those routines allows them to have more predictable outcomes. So, when we work with leaders, it’s about coming up with a schedule that works with who they are and one in which they can be disciplined and consistent with over time because if you’re consistent and disciplined with a routine that’s built for you specifically, you will develop such a deep belief in what you’re doing, a level of conviction, that will yield that positive outcome you’re working toward.

How do you work that into a schedule that’s already jam-packed? Business leaders are not athletes whose day jobs are, essentially, to train.

We study where are you currently spending your time. I call it time mapping. Business leaders can’t afford unaccounted-for time because any time that’s being wasted could be used for recovery, for family, for personal health and development. We have to know what we’re doing with our time. I actually build out schedules for my clients based on those same goalposts in the ground that they’ve been brought up with. When do we wake up? When do we go to bed? When do we have breakfast? When do we have a lunch? When do we have dinner? Okay, that’s set now. Let’s fill in everything in between.

What people don’t know about professional athletes is that their days are mapped out on a board. From the minute they report to the field, they are just moving from station to station all day and that actually keeps them very relaxed and comfortable. A lot of the athletes I coached initially said, “Hey, I don’t like structure. I don’t want to feel boxed in.” But they soon learn that without structure, you become dangerous to yourself because the clock is running and you’re not maximizing what you’re doing.

By adding some structure, routines and habits based on setting up their day appropriately, they will achieve things that they haven’t achieved before. It’s the same when talking about CEOs, executives and leaders who are already high performers. This is how we get them to their next level. And it actually brings a sense of calm, peace and stress-free living to executives who adopt this because they’re playing offense again in their lives, as opposed to being in a defensive posture where they’re reacting to everything. People who own their schedules own their lives.

With so many companies under pressure right now, having furloughed staffers or sent them to work from home, motivating people and keeping them engaged is particularly challenging. What are you telling your clients they need to work harder at or do differently?

Number one, become more visible and have those conversations with everyone on your team, even your lowest-level employee. You want to make sure that everyone knows that they’re still on the team and your company is still playing the game.

A CMO I was working with recently told me, “Hey, I haven’t heard from my boss in a couple of weeks; I don’t know what to think.” Lack of contact spooks people, and they start to run with their own narrative, which gets to very dangerous. Those narratives are often very negative, based on fear and scarcity and what-ifs. When we don’t have an answer, we make one up, such as, “He must be looking for somebody else,” or “the company must be in trouble financially and he doesn’t want to face me.”

Always remember that teams are made up of individuals. If you’re only addressing your team as a whole, there will still be people who are not getting the answers that they need to make them feel good. And if they don’t feel good, they will not perform well. As a leader, you need to make people feel comfortable and supported.

That’s hard for a lot of CEOs because they’re so focused on [survival] right now. But you’re going to need these people to help you recover, grow and the build. So, you always want to be reminding your people of where it is that you’re going, what you’re doing.

You’ve said that the Yankees were a team that was buoyed by a selflessness, an environment where everyone pitched in and helped pick each other up. What do you think created that kind of team culture?

At the beginning of each season we would all gather in the clubhouse and go around the room and talk with every person, from the players to the massage therapist, the strength coach, the equipment guy, about what we are here to do this year. We would get on the same page and everybody became a part of that mission, vision, and goal. And because everybody was a part of it, they bought into it.

Most leaders don’t take that down to the lower levels. But those are the people that can cause hell within a culture. Those are the ones who when they’re not happy just stop doing what they’re supposed to do. So, it’s important to meet and talk about what it is that we collectively are going to go out and do this year.

Then everyone’s involved and can be held accountable for what we talked about at the start of the year. And it’s got to get gritty, into details. And it has to go deeper than just numbers. I know numbers are really important, but each person has to translate it into their role.

I always ask, what does winning mean to you? If my answer of what winning looks like to me is different than your answer, if we’re not on the same page, how can we expect victory? We can’t. So, we have to ask, what does winning mean to you? What does winning mean to me? And how do we align that to the big goal? Because at the end of the year, I want to win and you want to win. I want to know that when the team wins, we both win by our definitions.

Jennifer Pellet

As editor-at-large at Chief Executive magazine, Jennifer Pellet writes feature stories and CEO roundtable coverage and also edits various sections of the publication.

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Jennifer Pellet

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