I fell in love with running in high school. It became my stress relief, helped me pay for college, and landed my first teaching job. I credit all of this to my high school running coach.
The first day of track practice, Coach Kimsey had us run a few warmup laps and then intervals. After practice, he called me over and said, “You’re fast, but you can be even faster. At practice tomorrow, I want you to run with these.”
He handed me two aluminum batons; the kind used in a relay. I was a freshman from a broken home living with the 5th family in two years. I already felt like I was on the outside looking in. Now he wanted me to run carrying two batons?
While I stared down at the ground, he explained his request. “You cross your arms when you run. You’ve probably done it your whole life. It’s inefficient, affects your gait, and slows you down. The batons will force you to run without crossing your arms.”
I shook my head and didn’t look up.
“It’s simple. I think you have a future in running, and it can take you far, but it’s your decision. Deal with the batons for a few weeks or stay mediocre.”
I ran with the batons, and I never forgot this lesson. When I became a leader and needed to compel employees to change, I used the same principles Coach Kimsey used with me:
- Address problems as soon as you see them. Whether personnel issues are big or small, they’re no fun to deal with, but the longer we wait, the higher the stakes become and the harder it will be for the employee to change. When we procrastinate, we contribute to the problem.
- Correct employees privately. Calling out mistakes or areas of improvement in public has one purpose: to shame your employee and elevate yourself. This behavior is never appropriate or effective. Leaders should practice private correction and public praise.
- Stick to one issue. What if my coach had said, “Run with batons to keep your arms from crossing. Oh, and don’t look back when you run. And breathe in through your nose and out your mouth. And shorten your stride when you run uphill.” That would have overwhelmed me! Instead of getting one thing right, I would have gotten four things wrong. Prioritize issues and address them one at a time.
- Explain how the change benefits the employee. As human beings, we all want the answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?” Leaders have experience. We know that certain actions and behaviors lead to specific results. Take time to explain the possibilities waiting for the employee on the other side of change. This shifts the employee’s perspective and increases buy-in.
- Focus on the bigger picture. Immediate changes often lead to lasting rewards. I needed to go to college to have a chance at making it in life. Hearing that running could help make that happen was a compelling reason for me to listen to my coach. If employees know that making a change now can improve their future chances for a raise, promotion, or being trusted with high-impact projects—they’re much more likely to get on board.
- Clarify that the employee owns the decision to change. After we clarify what needs to change, we put the ball back in their court. They have to own the change, and whatever happens because of their actions or inactions. We provide clarity and support, but they take it from there.
These conversations aren’t easy, but the results are worth it. Checklists aside, employees will sense if you have their best interest at heart, and that can make all the difference.