Project Aristotle is a prominent, modern-day research study of effective teams conducted by Google. The study involved hundreds of teams at Google in a quest to ‘build the perfect team’. Using the assessment of 250 attributes of 180 teams over five years, they concluded that the five key factors in peak performance of the best teams were essentially a function of their soft skills – the ‘good stuff’ which makes people feel valued. Safety. Trust. Clarity. Meaning. Impact.

Upon reflection of these well-travelled results, I found my mind back-tracking to the mid 1970’s at the University of Saskatchewan. In those days, I held the dual-position of Athletic Director and Head Basketball Coach of the Huskies. Early in my second season, a talented young man named Guy Vetrie arrived on campus from Laurentian University to become my Assistant Coach. One could readily see, from the get-go, that he was a special teacher, coach, and person.

Google’s recent findings don’t stand alone. MIT and Union College also analyzed 192 teams. Those with the highest collective competence and intelligence had greater social sensitivity. Specifically, team members were more empathetic. Likewise, the Hay Group (a global management consulting firm) says, “the effective use of soft disciplines makes people feel valued and rewarded. It gives them a clearer sense of high standards, and helps them feel more motivated.”

Guy Vetrie passed away on September 15, 2003. At age 51, his heart gave out while he was jogging on a trail on the University of Victoria campus. He was set to begin his 14th season as Head Coach of the Vikings, where his son Ryan was set to begin his rookie season. Over a stellar university coaching career that spanned 23 years, he amassed 543 wins, garnered six Canada West Conference coach of the year awards, and one National Championship in 1997.

The problem with all the research findings is that, for most leaders and managers, the ‘good stuff,’ or soft skills, that are found to be so vital for success are also often the hardest to master. Simply stated, people management is hard work. It takes time, energy, and, quite frankly, a shift in one’s mindset. It is more than challenging to lead a team in today’s VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) age of acceleration. But, without question, the jury is in. Their verdict has been rendered. A leader’s soft skills are absolutely vital in driving peak performance and authentic teamwork.

Soft skill management came naturally to Coach Vetrie. He was blessed with exceptional emotional intelligence. No one ever had to remind him that inspiring the individual began by taking the time to learn their story. He saw a team as 12 individuals, each of whom had aspirations, each of whom wanted to learn, live, play, and grow. Each of whom wanted to do good. As an apex leader, he made a continuous effort to get to know each player on the team one-by-one. Sometimes, his familiarity tactics happened in a restaurant over coffee, other times during a walk across campus. Sometimes in a car as he drove them home from practice, sometimes in their home – or in his, for a meal. Regardless of where or when, they happened. And, they happened before any teaching or coaching occurred on the court.

In support of Google’s findings, Robert Frank, economics professor at Cornell University, found that one of the most significant aspects of job happiness is how a person feels about his or her team or organization’s mission. In brief, the questions which underpin the individual’s happiness and commitment to the organization included, but are not limited to: Does the individual feel they’re making a difference in life’s big picture? Do they feel they’re making the world a better place? Do they feel they’ve had a hand in sculpting the team’s purpose?

Sculpting a player’s feelings of trust, caring, and being valued was a hallmark of Guy Vetrie’s coaching career. In fact, a healthy portion of his 543 wins came as a result of making mincemeat out of competitors led by mediocre leaders, who perpetuated internal corrosiveness by attempting to treat all those in their charge the same.

I saw Coach Vetrie for the last time in the fall of 1998, when our daughter was a first-year economics student at the University of Victoria. After watching his defending National Championship team play that evening, we got together for dinner with the Coach and his wife, Lil, at a downtown restaurant. After he extended a kind offer of ‘when-ever, where-ever needed’ support to our daughter, the conversation shifted to culture building and success.

In closing, I wish to share one of his more enlightening leadership insights:

“Any success my team has come by is a product of building a great team culture – one person at a time. Driving championship levels of player engagement, enablement, and energy is much more about my players seeing me (the coach) as genuine and them feeling I care for them, than any special offense, defence, or a transition game.”

Well, there you have it! Project Aristotle in a nutshell.


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