Will Your Team Run Through Walls for You?

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By Mario Pistilli, FACHE, CRA

There is a common saying in football that a sign of a good coach is if his players “will run through a wall for him.” This means that a good coach inspires his players to make any sacrifices for the good of the team. I will share an example from my coaching experience that illustrates this point.

If any of you have teenagers, you know how hard it is to get them out of bed in the morning, and to get them motivated to do anything after school. Our high school started classes at 7:10 AM, yet our players were at school by 5:00 AM every day for an hour and a half of training, and then they were in class until 3:05 PM. After that, they practiced from 4:00 PM until 6:30 PM, and then they went home to eat, do their homework, and sleep, and repeated the cycle the next day. To make it more difficult, every Saturday morning they had to meet for team breakfast at 7:00 AM, followed by film study and therapy from 8:00 AM to 11:00 AM. Despite all of this, they never missed practice and were never late – and it was not because of fear of punishment. So how did they do it? The same exact way that you can be successful in motivating your work teams.

We found several keys to motivating our players that allowed us to build winning teams:

  • Make sure the goal is crystal clear to everyone. We set up very concrete goals of what we were practicing for, such as to reduce offensive penalties by two in the next game, or to eliminate false start penalties. Our goals were not general; they were concrete and achievable. In healthcare, we often have the general goal of providing great care, but we need to break that up into understandable and measurable goals.
  • Make sure everyone understands why those goals are important. In healthcare, a leader should be educated on the economic issues facing institutions, and how the department’s goals are helping the strategic plan of the institution. Make sure your team understands that reaching the strategic goals of the organization is essential for survival, and without their contribution, we cannot succeed long term. On our football teams, we made sure everyone was clear that reaching the goals would lead us to success.
  • Tie your actions back to your goals. For every decision or dilemma you are faced with, ask yourselves if doing this will help you reach your goal. For example, if your goal is to improve patient satisfaction, then when evaluating processes or solving issues, ask the question, “Will doing this get us closer to improving patient satisfaction?” One example that has stuck with me was the British Olympic Rowing team that had not won a gold medal since 1912, until they finally won in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. How did they do it? By asking one essential question when faced with any decision: “Will this make the boat go faster? If yes, then we do it. If not, then we do not.” This simple philosophy of tying all actions back to the goal is a perfect example of this concept.
  • Make sure each individual realizes that they personally are relied on, and are essential for success. We made sure that on our teams, every single player, from third string to star, understood how they contributed and helped us to win. In healthcare, it is easy to both ignore your superstars by taking them for granted and to discount your team members that may need some extra guidance, because you have accepted less than their best. Put energy and focus on highlighting the value of every member of your team.

There are so many lessons that I took from coaching football that have applied to healthcare leadership. Please join me at the AHRA Annual Meeting on Wednesday, July 25, at 8:30 AM, for my breakout session “From the Football Field to the Office,” to learn more about the concepts above, and many more techniques to play offense and defense at work, along with  a special team concept on how to be a leader that your team wants to follow. You will come away with concrete ideas to become a better leader and to build high performing, winning teams, told through stories and visuals.


Mario Pistilli, FACHE, CRA, MBA, is the director of imaging at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and a member of the AHRA Editorial Review Board and Rapid Review Committee. He can be reached at mpistilli@chla.usc.edu.

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