Successful Players, Coaches, and Managers Focus on Communication, Transitions, and Collaboration
Bob "Hoff" Hoffman, former player, coach, and VP at AARP
After leaving my practice as a trial attorney, I had the good fortune of working for over two decades in an executive position with an organization that is a well respected and trusted national leader. Which one? Here are some hints:
It is the world’s largest nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization;
It has 38 million members;
It was started by a retired teacher in her kitchen in California and celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2018;
It publishes the largest circulation magazine in the country;
It is annually listed as one of the most powerful advocacy and lobbying groups in the United States;
It has 2,500 employees and 50,000 volunteers working in a national office in Washington DC, as well as in state offices in every state in the country; and
It is a national leader in social change, and is dedicated to empowering people to choose how they live and age.
The answer to all of these hints is AARP. The organization was originally named the American Association of Retired Persons, but in 1999 it officially changed its name to simply "AARP" to reflect that over half its members are not retired. The motto now is “real possibilities.”
I was fortunate to serve as a Vice President of AARP for 25 years, until my retirement a few years ago. In that capacity, I was responsible for the coordination of activities between the national office in Washington DC with 53 state and local offices. At the same time that I was focusing on this successful career, I was also fully engaged in the intriguing world of soccer. My passion included such soccer activities as: Playing in an adult men’s soccer league for 20 years, from age 48 – 68 as both striker and goalie; Coaching many youth soccer teams; Serving as a Board member and Commissioner of a large local soccer league; Parenting two sons on winning Virginia state cup soccer teams and NCAA Division One collegiate soccer; and Cheering on DC United as a season ticket holder since the inception of Major League Soccer in 1996.
As I look back on my fulfilling professional career, as well as my memorable soccer experiences, I have observed that there are numerous life lessons that apply in both endeavors. Here are a few of the commonalities that I found most poignant:
On the Soccer Field
For the first 10 years of my adult soccer playing career I was a striker. For the next ten years I served as the team goalie. As a soccer player I was confronted with similar communications challenges that I had faced with my professional work. As a striker, I needed to have the verbal and nonverbal communication connection with other players (especially midfielders) who were helping/assisting to put me in a position to score goals. In my role as goalie, I was in constant communication with other players (especially defenders) about positioning, timing, strategy, corner kicks, etc. And one thing became apparent –clarity of the communication among team members was often the major cause of victory or defeat.
In my role as supervisor or employee mentor at AARP, I have often been asked to share keys to succeed within the organization. I always start with the skill of communication. My experience has been that the better the communication skills of the employee, the better the performance result – and the better chance for advancement in the organization. These opportunities arise in many forms, such as –phone and written communications; social media; internal meetings; working with other national and community groups; organizations; exchanges with colleagues, with supervisors, and with other team members. While seeking a balanced approach, I always found that in business and sport, it is better to err on the side of over-communicating rather than under-communicating.
Transitions and Change
On the Soccer Field
One of the many beauties of soccer is that it is a game in a perpetual state of transition and change. With every pass, with every penalty, with every free kick, with every goal, with every moment, the game is changing. This is not a place to find success if you are not ready for transition. The soccer players that thrive are ones that are not focused on the past or the future – they are focused on the present. This allows them to see every possibility, every opportunity, every chance to make the right play – and quickly. When a foul is called they are not over complaining they are strategizing about the free kick. When an opposing team scores a goal, they are ready to redouble their efforts to attack as soon as possible. When a game plan is going awry they readjust and take new initiative. In other words, they are flexible to deal with change. They are able to thrive in times of transition. I wish there had been more of these kinds of soccer players on my AARP teams.
Experiencing times of change and transition is a huge challenge for everyone. This was most clearly evidenced at AARP during our periodic challenges of reorganization. These reorganizations, that would occur every four or five years, were conducted with an intent to have the organization change and evolve to keep up with the new needs and realities of the organization and its members. After experiencing numerous of these transitions, it became clear to all that good team dynamics must be employed, or the results can be disastrous. AARP would attempt many tactics to assure that these times of change would be conducted with transparency fairness and constant communications. No matter what the technique, or how many change agent consultants were hired, there is negative fallout that inevitable arrives with change. Those employees who succeeded were flexible in their outlook and constantly aware of potential new opportunities that were arising. Others remained unhappy, focused on complaining, feeling paranoid, and were unable to see any upside – such as the new openings that could be knocking at their door. Change and transition had paralyzed their creativity, flexibility and opportunity.
Teamwork and Collaboration
On the Soccer Field
A team needs a captain, but it must always be remembered that it takes eleven players at full throttle to be able to win games and championships. Teams that I have played on that reached their potential, were ones with leaders who lead by example, with all players working diligently and creatively toward the same results. I enjoy and respect players who would just as soon make a good assist as score a goal. And players that support a teammate who has drifted out of position. And forwards who will come back to support defenders when necessary. In other words, teamwork infused with collaboration is a winning formula that leads to success both in business and on the pitch.
Working at AARP often meant working on a series of teams. On some teams I was the team leader, and on other teams I was a group member. On all teams, I needed to practice the necessary skills of engaged collaboration and constructive teamwork. Mediocre (or worse) team dynamics is often the Achilles heel in many organizations. A well functioning team thrives on collaboration and team success, and will produce highly effective results. A dysfunctional team lacks collaboration that will inevitably lead to very poor outcomes. In fact, I have even seen teams with the best of intentions end up in a state of chaos. It takes time and focused energy to establish good team dynamics, and a group of good team players. A group needs an effective team leader. One of the key roles of a good team leader is to establish positive team dynamics among all team members. It also requires effective team members. Everyone knows their role and success is based on full collaboration. Some of the most basic characteristics of successful teams at AARP included Inspirational leadership; clarity of roles and expectations; sharing of information; support among team members; as well as shared vision and responsibility.
Bob “Hoff” Hoffman recently retired after 25 years as an attorney and Vice President at AARP. He has been actively engaged as a soccer player, coach, and soccer league administrator. He is also a craft collector and is the designer/owner of the world’s largest collection of 500 custom made harmonica case holders. This unique collection can be seen on You Tube at Hoff the Harmonica Case Man.