Musings #8: Coaching Teams

Aug 01, 2020 5 MIN

Musings #8: Coaching Teams

In Musings, we looked at a range of topics on how we can push to perform at a peak as an individual – practicing deep workdeveloping gritgiving and leadingovercoming failure, and making better decisions. And thanks for all the wonderful stories on how it has been helpful, and the feedback for improvement. One feedback was to dive deeper into topics, and that is what we will do this month. Let us look at how we can mold ourselves to bring out the best in teams. In the sports world, that’s what coaches do.

As a kid, I still remember grinding it out on the cricket field with 5 hours of practice every day at Santhome High School (the best team in Chennai at that time). We had a head coach who was extremely good at pushing each of us to our limits. Later, when I finished graduate school in the US, my first job ever was at Intel, which was at its peak in 1997 under Andy Grove. Little did I know that I was being coached in the best management principles carefully crafted and implemented by the impeccable mind of Andy Grove. He beautifully documented his best practices in the 1983 classic “High Output Management,” which I would recommend every one of us to study carefully.

In our Musing on Giving, we learned about Bill Campbell – a football coach turned management guru. Bill touched more than 80 high caliber leaders in his coaching career (including Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Sundar Pichai, Sheryl Sandberg, and Al Gore – to name a few). Eric Schmidt captures his coaching techniques in the Trillion Dollar Coach. (Fun fact – I highlighted 120+ passages from this book – normally I average 20-30).

After eight years at Intel moving to the VC and startup world, felt poles apart. Intel was all about teams and achieving peak performance as a team. But, VC firms are small outfits. The first VC firm I worked for had less than 15 people. And most of the startups we invest in initially have less than ten people. I still remember investing in TaxiForSure when the team was two founders and two employees, or Swiggy, when they were less than ten people. I have realized that some management principles that I took for granted, thanks to Andy, are not that obvious to the startup world. Over the next few weeks, let us take a closer look at some of the best management practices that leaders can follow to maximize chances for peak team performance. Like many things in life, the quality of our input processes will determine the eventual outcome.

When Jobs returned to Apple as CEO in 1997, after Apple had purchased his company NeXT, Bill saw that Steve had changed. “He had always been charismatic, passionate, and brilliant. But when he returned, I watched him become a great manager. He was detailed in everything. Product of course, but also in the way he ran the finance organization, the sales organization, what he did with operations and logistics. I learned from that. Steve couldn’t be a good leader until he became a good manager.” – Bill Campbell

Even the best leaders need to work on mastering the techniques to be a good manager-coach. We cannot always control the outcome, but let us learn from these great leaders how to improve our input processes to maximize chances of success. The first thing that we need to understand is the concept of leverage.

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As the above equation from Andy explains, as a manager, our success or failure depends on our direct team’s output as well as other teams that are adjacent/dependant on this core team. As an example, if you are Head of Products, your output not only depends on the output of your product team but also on the output of adjacent groups, such as Engineering and Marketing. How often do we think about taking a special effort to work with our teams to make them super successful? And besides, how often do we think about making our neighboring organizations excel? In some cases, we could end up as a negative influence on a neighboring org when misaligned and need to watch out for this.

There are many aspects of taking our teams’ output to a higher level; we will discuss two today. The first element of helping our team perform at its peak is ensuring that the goals are crystal clear and with scope to evolve, especially in times such as now. And the second aspect is to ensure that we get the most value out of meetings. We will discuss these in the Highlights and Spotlight sections.


Having clear, measurable goals is vital to help teams perform at peak. To enable this, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are among the best methodologies that Andy talks about in this two-minute black and white clipOKRs align the company towards a common Objective and brings focus and transparency towards that objective through Key Results. OKRs have become mainstream among many organizations as a critical way to set aspirational objectives and measurable key results after John Doerr’s book “Measure What Matters” came out in 2018. There are now tools that can enable you to manage your OKR process better. I had the pleasure of chatting with Vetri Vellore, CEO of one such popular tool, in this podcast in which we went into details of how to implement OKRs successfully.


If we audit our calendars (which I do regularly), we will find that more than 60-70% of our time goes into meetings. But, most of us do not think of how to make these meetings effective. Andy and Bill, both go to great lengths to highlight how to make the meetings most productive. There are three kinds of meetings that are important, in the context of most organizations, big and small:

  • One-on-ones: This is an important tool for any leader to greatly influence the success of his team. But, many leaders do not use this or do not put in the effort to do it well. Some best practices here.
  • Staff meetings: This is where the manager meets with all her direct reports. For example, a CEO meeting with the entire executive management team. It is a critical, regularly recurring meeting and best to have a set agenda that accomplishes stated objectives under the able guidance of the manager, and critical decisions made.
  • Operations Review: This is for teams from different departments and different levels to share information and learn from each other. Usually, a specific team will come and update other parts of the company with a set schedule. For example, marketing presenting their plan to the entire startup.


Andy Grove is also famous for his book on “Strategic inflection points” – any tectonic changes in landscapes and how they create opportunities. We are living through one such big change all over the world at this time. Let us listen and learn from Andy’s talk at MIT Sloan in 1996 on the topic – this is a classic:


“To be a great manager, you have to be a great coach. After all, the higher you climb, the more your success depends on making other people successful. By definition, that’s what coaches do.” – Trillion Dollar Coach

I hope we take time to fine-tune our processes to develop ourselves as better coaches irrespective of our roles so that we nurture the teams we manage to help them reach peak performance as a unit.