Bob Bowman has coached competitive swimmers for 28 years, but he’s best known for coaching Michael Phelps to a record 22 Olympic medals—18 of them gold. We spoke with Bowman to find out what advice he can offer leaders eager to get the best performance from their teams. Here are his four tips:
"You can’t have a cookie cutter approach," Bowman says. "I’ve been much more successful as a coach as I’ve added to my toolbox." When he first started, the only tool Bowman had in his toolbox was a hammer. Noting that many people don’t respond well to that approach, Bowman expanded his skills to work with a variety of athletes.
Some people respond to logic, others respond to motivation, while others just want to be left alone to do their job, Bowman notes. Coaches and leaders alike must tailor their approach to the individual employee. Learn what motivates them within the framework of a shared goal that everyone’s moving toward, Bowman says.
"Each business has a gold standard," Bowman says. It’s up to the leadership to decide what that standard is and how the organization gets there. Once the gold standard is set, everyone on the team needs to buy into it, he says. "We (the staff and athletes at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club where Bowman is CEO) try to be very process-oriented, performing up to a certain standard every day," Bowman says. "(You can only) control what you can control," he says.
In other words, don’t be too concerned with what your competitors are doing. "Be a little better today than you were yesterday. If you do that enough days, you’ve traveled a great distance," Bowman says.
Skills are developed through experience, Bowman says. His favorite saying is "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment." You’re free to make mistakes, just don’t make them twice. You learn from failures much more than successes. When things don’t go well, you have the opportunity to analyze what’s going on and make changes," he notes.
In the 18 years he’s worked with Phelps, Bowman acknowledges they "made tons of mistakes, and there are lots of frustrations you have to work through every day. (You have to) expect there are going to be challenges on a daily basis—the fun is overcoming them," Bowman says.
For example, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps won the 200 Butterfly, setting a world record with a time of 1:52.03. However, he was upset with his performance because he’d set an individual standard of 1:51 or better and didn’t reach it because his goggles had filled with water. While Phelps won the gold medal, Bowman believes Phelps would’ve been satisfied with the silver had he reached the goal he’d set. High performers operate according to their own standards and are satisfied when those standards are met, Bowman says.
It’s important for companies to remember that all successful businesses face challenges on a daily basis. "Any successful team or organization, if you could see behind the scenes, they’re dealing with the same problems," Bowman says. "The more successful you are, the more headaches that come with it. The stakes are higher."