Coaching our Staff for Success
by Waterloo Regional Police Service
Superintendent Gary Askin
Have you ever wondered what makes a National Hockey League coach successful? Several years ago a friend of mine decided to find that out and spent a few days job shadowing an NHL coach. His purpose was to examine the coach’s leadership style and to determine what made him a successful coach. When he told me about his experience it struck me that our own community must be full of leaders that we can learn from.
Learning outside of formal police institutions and within our own community has many benefits. It meets our organizational goals and values as they pertain to staff development, partnerships, teamwork, and excellence, while injecting a police presence into the community. I decided to put this into action.
Some say growth only occurs while operating outside your comfort zone, so with this in mind I decided to select a local leader with whom I’ve had no previous connection. I wanted to determine what challenges they faced, what leadership skills they utilized, and whether those skills were transferable to policing.
Before moving onto New Jersey, Peter Deboer was the coach of the Kitchener Rangers Ontario Hockey League team. Peter was one of the most successful coaches in the OHL and now ranks fifth in wins among all coaches. He has won the Memorial Cup, a gold medal with the Team Canada Juniors and has been named coach of the year twice. He is recognized as one of the OHL’s elite and is now coaching the Devils in the playoffs.
Armed with 200 interview-style questions and a digital recorder I met Peter at the Kitchener Rangers head office. From the moment I walked into his office Peter was gracious and receptive. We spent several hours talking about his career, motivation, development, and the challenges he has faced as a coach.
Here are some of the highlights of what I gained from this meeting.
There is an expectation that a junior A player should be self motivated and give a 100 percent effort at all times. After all, the lure of a pro contract should be motivating enough, shouldn’t it?
We expect our professional police officers to be the same. They’re well-educated, well-paid pillars of the community. But I found out the reality was players and police officers are just people adapting to a role that we have given them. It’s up to us to create that environment which promotes motivation and a desire for growth and development.
Peter and his staff seized every opportunity to find inspirational and motivational stories to present to their players. He provided me with books, articles and DVDs on leadership and coaching. He and his staff frequently refer to these concepts to motivate and develop their young players.
One DVD was Can: The story of Dick and Rick Hoyt. The father pushed, carried and biked his disabled son through four grueling Iron Man competitions, Boston Marathons (24 at last count), and over 212 triathlons. He carried his son on his back while mountain climbing and would pull him in a dingy while swimming the 2.5-mile leg of a triathlon. The story of the Hoyt’s can bring the toughest player to tears and always provides a jolt of reality that gives his young players perspective.
He showed me press clippings of a former OHL superstar now struggling in the NHL. This player would not conform to the team’s vision or philosophy.
“This guy was a 130 point man in our league. Now he’s a healthy scratch from his NHL team. If it can happen to him what are your chances?” he asks his players.
He uses this to illustrate that every member must strive for continuous improvement while adhering to the team philosophy. As police leaders we should provide education and sound reasoning for our organizational direction. In order to maximize team performance and realize success we must secure that “buy in” to a common vision.
Peter feels his leadership success starts with respect and consideration of his players’ personal needs. The players are called in for frequent one-on-one session where they discuss everything from their goals and abilities to educational and personal issues. Peter has recognized that his players need to know that he cares about them individually and understands what their goals are. He feels that “the team” concept is pushed so hard in our era that we often lose site of what’s important to the individual.
Peter is acutely aware that at some point in the season he will be asking his players to make a sacrifice on behalf of the team. It’s not a matter of if but when. If the players know that he cares about them individually he feels they are much more amenable to making sacrifices for the team. He describes this as one of his biggest challenges.
These words resonated within me as I began to question whether I was too focused on the team and not enough on the individuals who make up the team. I constantly ask my staff to make sacrifices, work late, come in early, change their shifts, etc. Was I spending enough time looking after their personal needs? Most of my energy is directed towards pushing the team goals, objectives and building a strong core of team members. Our officers make sacrifices for us on a daily basis. This was a timely reminder for me not to lose sight of the fact that the team only exists when you have a group of content, dedicated, and trusted members who recognize that you care about them personally.
Peter described team chemistry as the biggest intangible. “Every year its success or failure and it’s the toughest thing to control as you don’t always know what you’re bringing into the dressing room.”
Peter’s experience has taught him that the selection of the right leader or team captain is imperative for successful team chemistry.
Care and consideration is required to build our police teams. Everyone needs to understand their role and how they contribute to organizational success.
“The team will take on the characteristics of their leader.”
Peter described Mike Richards’ tenure as team captain. Richards was selected because he represented everything Peter Deboer and the Kitchener Rangers organization stood for. Richards was a hard-working, honest player who could always be counted on to do the right thing.
Peter elaborated: “The dressing room was in cruise control when Mike was the captain… Everyone fell in line. They had to. There was no other choice. You can’t win any other way.”
The Philadelphia Flyers would appear to agree as Richards was named the assistant captain in only his second year in the NHL.. Richards is now leading the LA Kings to much success in the 2012 playoffs.
As our organization was in the middle of the promotional process it reminded me just how important the selection of our leaders is. Our leaders should exude the qualities and values that our Police Service stands for. It only makes sense to promote the candidates who are already demonstrating leadership.
The Kitchener Rangers are owned by the City of Kitchener. Like the police, Peter feels he owes a duty of responsibility towards his community. He learned the importance of customer service from a former NHL executive and returns calls to the many community members who call him to complain, advise and congratulate him on his successes.
“Return phone calls. It doesn’t matter if it’s the popcorn lady. If someone takes the time to phone you should find a way to return the call. In my old job my boss made me do it and I’m glad he did.”
Peter described handling discipline matters as his greatest challenge. “The toughest things are always the discipline issues especially when they’re your best players.”
Peter acknowledged that discipline issues have huge ramifications for the player and the community team. Players who jeopardize their reputations can result in thousands of dollars in lost contract negotiations, organizational embarrassment, and a loss of faith in the team’s leadership.
“If I don’t deal with it (discipline issues), I’d lose the dressing room.” Peter would never punish someone who doesn’t know the rules so he “throws a ton of paper at them” so they know the policies of the organization. This eliminates excuses as the players know what the team’s expectations are.
When asked what mistakes he has made, Peter related a story where he selected a captain for another team who didn’t exhibit leadership traits. He and his staff were hoping that these leadership skills would develop. They didn’t.
“You’re not going to make someone fall in line by rewarding them.”
Discipline in the policing world is no different. We use discipline to correct errant behaviour, deter misconduct, and reassure the community. Unfortunately today’s officer is bombarded with policies, procedure, legislation, and laws which govern their acts. Officers should not have to worry about being sanctioned for carrying out their duties in good faith. We need to ensure that they are apprised of all the legislation that governs their job. It reminded me of the need for continuous monitoring and education tempered with a level understanding that aims to resolve and correct rather than punish.
The similarities between building a hockey team and a police service are numerous.
In addition to leadership, motivation, personal attention, team chemistry and discipline I also discovered that we share many other organizational similarities. The Rangers even have their own version of Intelligence-led policing. Prior to each game player’s get a list of their opponents’ weaknesses and tendencies. They adopt an analytical approach and use technology to critique and review their systems and processes. Where we identify vulnerabilities and gear our operations to prevent crime, the Rangers do it to prevent goals.
There are many other similarities that challenge both police and hockey teams. Succession planning, recruiting, partnerships, media relations and technology also test our organizational capacity and are used as a measuring stick when determining our organization’s successes.
The time I spent with Peter Deboer was a real eye-opener for me. While I wasn’t surprised to learn that he was such a skilled leader and coach, I was surprised that so much of what he had to say about hockey could be adapted to leadership in policing. I have taken away a lot that I can use to develop my own leadership skills. The time spent was also a healthy reminder that our community is filled with leaders we can learn from who face similar challenges to policing. We don’t need to work in isolation.
It’s up to us to seek out these individuals and tap into the abundance of talent and leadership that is right in our own back yard.
Gary Askin is a Superintendent with the Waterloo Regional Police Service. He is a 32 year member assigned to the Strategic and Tactical Services Division overseeing Drugs, Intelligence and the Tactical team