Carrots in Cleats

Chester Elton

Recognition is a Game Plan for Any Goal.

Readers often send us inspiring stories of managers who take over troubled workplaces in various fields and turn them around using The Carrot Principle.

But this field was a first.

Until a few weeks ago, Ted Priestly was the head soccer coach for the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

"The River Hawks were my team for twelve years," says Ted. "When we started, the program had been very bad for a very long time. This was a team with a lot of potential, and a lot of players who expected more out of themselves and the program than they were receiving - but they didn't really have a plan."

Ted knew he needed to inspire a team that, quite frankly, resembled many companies today - organizations with good potential but minimal returns.

"We challenged the players with a lot of hard work and higher expectations," says Ted. "The first couple of years it was a bit of a climb to get away from the old way things had been done - getting away from the lower expectations. The guys really, to their credit, bought into the plan and made the program their own."

Coach Priestly is humble about his unique approaches to leadership - and his stealth methods of building camaraderie. He can feed us the "Aw-Schucks" innocence ploy all he wants, but the University of Mass Lowell soccer team did a lot of things that most of the other programs don't do - or won't do. Their recruiting visits are just one example. When a high school player stops by, he gets to visit with the entire team - not just an assigned player. It's as if an entire community is recruiting each new member. In business, we call what Ted does "onboarding." But few businesses understand it to this degree, or appreciate the power of having an entire team seeking out and recruiting new star players to strengthen their roster.

That kind of talent and Ted's brand of leadership lifted this once struggling program to the Division II NCAA tournament four times in the last six years, including making it to the Final Four on two occasions. All of that moved UMass Lowell into one of the most respected programs in the country. What was his secret sauce on the field?

"We're big on recognition," says Coach. "It's funny. I was in an airport on a layover and I had 15 minutes. I popped into one of the Walden Books. I was really looking for something that spoke to me in a language I hadn't yet heard. There it was - The Carrot Principle. I bought it on the spot and started reading it on the flight. We can always evolve as coaches, and certainly as people. The Basic Four from the book (Goal-setting, Communication, Trust and Accountability) are things that were always important to me. But also, I had carrot phobias. I was afraid that I would reward too much, that the players would come to expect it. I was scared that it would devalue the reward and the praise. I'd made the mistake early on as a coach saying, 'They don't need a pat on the back. They don't need recognition.' But I realized that as a coach, I like a pat on the back too. I like motivation. I like recognition. I found it especially interesting what you said in the book, 'High achievers are recognition sponges.' They are."

So the Coach began recognizing those high achievers more, as well as setting clear goals and praising progress with those who were still learning their craft. And the ideas paid off. Last season the team went 13-4-4, winning its conference title and two games in the NCAA tournament before dropping a heartbreak in double overtime that would have taken them back to the Final Four.

"We had a great season," says Ted. "But it's not just about wins and losses, it's about how well you connect with your players. Any manager, if nothing else, needs to ensure that the person on the other end feels special, feels appreciated, and feels important to the success of the group."

Ted has found that recognition creates unity. And it accelerates performance on all levels.

And that recognition came back to him. At the end of each season the River Hawks hold a banquet to recognize the departing seniors for their service to the program and their specific accomplishments. "One by one the seniors would come up and speak about their experience and thank me. I sat up there at the banquet just crying - I'll cry reading a phone book - but that was the best reward that I got. Like I said, we all need some recognition sometimes."

Ironically, last week, Coach Ted Priestly was recognized in another way he wasn't expecting. He was recruited to be the Head Coach at Holy Cross, a Division I soccer powerhouse. Even though he hadn't been looking for a new job, his success was evident for all to see.

"I'm not kidding or exaggerating when I say The Carrot Principle helped us have the season that we did last year - and because of this season Holy Cross called. Thank you again!" And as a constant reminder of the need to appreciate, Ted is going to outfit his Holy Cross goalkeepers in orange next season.

Well, that makes it our turn to say, "Aw-Schucks." Thank you, Coach Priestly. We're just honored to hear that carrots are feeding champions - regardless of the field.

Chestor Elton, co-author of The Carrot Principle.
Adrian Gostick, co-author of The Carrot Pricinciple.
Copyright 2009. All Rights Reserved.

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