How to give a ‘Pep’​ talk to your startup team

Liverpool FC’s quest to end a 30-year wait to reclaim the domestic English football crown may gave taken a defining step forward on Sunday, Jürgen Klopp’s side beat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City to give them a nine-point advantage over the reigning champions at the top of the table.

It means a Liverpool side that has lost only one of their past 51 league games would need to lose at least three of their next 26 to let City back in. It is not inconceivable, as Liverpool had a ten-point lead over Pep’s side last season after twenty games played, yet City prevailed. This season, however, Liverpool seem propelled by an unstoppable momentum. Of course City will still have plenty to say, as they have in Pep Guardiola a leader who can inspire like no other, with a track record of winning, intelligent football and a defining leadership philosophy.

Guardiola joined FC Barcelona as a junior aged thirteen. He was quick to work his way into the senior team where he played for ten years. He was the depiction of the way Barcelona played – a highly creative, hard-working player with precise passing. Playing under Johan Cruyff, his role model and who gave Guardiola his debut at the Camp Nou in 1990, his technical finesse, tactical awareness and ability to read the game have made him one of the elite managers in sport. His philosophy is keeping the ball and retaining possession, an evangelist for pace and pressing and width to create chances with quick ball movement.

Guardiola has also gained fame for implementing unorthodox tactics and surprising changes in matches. This inherent hunger and desire for improvement is a consequence of his education at Barcelona’s soccer academy, La Masia, the original building where its young students resided, demonstrating the value of a systematic talent pathway. Guardiola posits that the academy’s ‘language of learning’, originally developed by Cruyff, comprises three interlinked areas:

* ‘The Core Idea’ is to dominate possession of the ball.

* ‘Language’, as employed by Guardiola in this context, is to reinforce understanding and mastery of basic concepts.

* ‘People’ must be completely open to learning and make improvements where necessary. They must have complete faith in the process.

Guardiola has taken these three pillars into his leadership philosophy, seen in the figure of the innovative, obsessive and all-conquering Guardiola on the touchline and in his media interviews. Hs approach is rooted in his players’ ability to comprehend and give expression to his ever-evolving playing philosophy.

Pep talks. He speaks calmly, intently, focused, extolling the group for being the champions. He name checks the best performers on the team and suggests ways for everyone else to adopt the same mentality. He tells stories. He asks questions. Guardiola has an intimate, intensive style of communication. He has worked hard to perfect this because he knows success depends on it. Indeed, the ability to deliver an energising ‘Pep talk’ that spurs individuals and a team to better performance is a prerequisite for any startup leader.

According to the science, most winning ‘Pep talks’ include three key elements: direction giving, expressions of empathy, and meaning making. The most extensive research in this field – dubbed motivating language theory – comes from Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, at Texas International University who have studied it for nearly three decades. Their findings are backed by studies from sports psychologists and military historians. And all the evidence suggests that once leaders understand these three elements, they can learn to use them more skilfully. Let’s look at the three elements:

* Pep talks are base on information about precisely how to do the task at hand by, for example, giving easily understandable instructions, good definitions of tasks, and detail on how performance will be evaluated.

* Empathetic language shows concern for the performer as a human being. It can include praise, encouragement, gratitude, and acknowledgment of the challenge.

Meaning-making language explains why a task is important. This involves linking the organisation’s purpose to listeners’ goals, often, including the use of stories, about people who’ve succeeded, or about how the work has made a real difference to the lives of others.

Research from other fields offers additional insight into what gives the best pep talks their power. Military pep talks also use the three elements in varying proportions, even if the terminology is different.

Stanley McChrystal, a retired general who oversaw special operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, echoes this view. During the last 30 minutes or so before a mission, it was more about building the confidence and the commitment to each other. He says he tended to start with direction giving (Here’s what I’m asking you to do) but quickly shifted to meaning making (Here’s why it’s important) and empathy (Here’s why I know you can do it and Think about what you’ve done together before), and then ended with a recap (Now let’s go and do it).

So, how does Pep capture these three tenets, add in his own wit, intelligence and personality to create his ‘Pep’ talks, and provide a basis for your own pep talk to your startup team?? Here are my thoughts.

Be passionate in the way you communicate Communication an essential tool, Guardiola has to communicate to his City team in several languages but all his conversations are full of passion. Sometimes when oral communication isn’t enough he encourages his team with gestures, hugs and pats on the back. Pep tailors his approach to whatever is needed in the moment, but he demonstrates his passion through his animated communication style.

Question everything Pep never stops asking questions – directed not only at others but also at himself. I’m sure he can be indecisive like us all, and he can change his mind during a game as he analyses different options. We learn from this that success comes about much more from doubts, than it does from certainties.

Never feel satisfied Pep has won over twenty trophies since 2008 with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. He celebrates winning as much as anyone, and the result is important, but he is more interested in how it came about, understanding the process. He has always been a leader, but he is a rarity in the fact that he is a leader and a coach, because to be a great leader you need to know what leadership is yet in order to be a great coach you need to understand leadership.

You can be what you know but you can only teach what you understand, and Guardiola truly understands leadership which is why he has had so much success both as a player and more so as a coach. I would argue that his leadership career has only just started because despite all his success he is still only forty eight years old.

Define the essence of the team Organisations are aware of the need to identify and promote the fundamental reason for their existence – their ‘Why?’. This is the ‘core idea’ set down at La Masia that Guardiola carries as the fundamental underpinning to his philosophy. By establishing an objective greater than winning, no matter the victory on the pitch, Pep never lets the players forget that they are part of a legacy that is much greater than they are. This helps manage the ego of the individuals and further motivates the team because they realise that being the best is not enough, what matters is leaving a legacy.

It’s all about the culture When Guardiola was given the coaching role at Barcelona he had just finished a successful season with the Barcelona B team. His first decision as first team coach was that several first team players, including its two main stars Ronaldinho and Deco, had no future at the club. They moved on and several young players from the successful B team moved up.

Guardiola realises that in order for a team to be successful it needs to have a winning culture, a brotherhood of team members that are all winning to put the needs of the team ahead of the desires of the individual, and anyone not wanting to buy into the culture has no future with that team.

Understand the team as individuals Every effective leader knows that you have to have strong relationships with each and every member of the team, yet few understand how to establish relationships with very different people. Guardiola is known for understanding the ambitions, emotions and personality of each player and adapts his communication approach accordingly. You can clearly see the strong personal relationships – and mutual respect – he has with each team member.

Don’t criticise, add value. When things are not going well it’s difficult not to allow your emotions to overtake you and influence your decision-making. Successful leaders know that you can’t lose sight of the objective. When things go bad your focus needs to remain on want needs to happen to correct performance and the diagnosis of how and why the situation happened and what can happen later.

When asked about this kind of situation Guardiola replied We’d never start telling them off. If the game’s going badly you only earn credibility by correcting what they’re doing rather than shouting about it. Paradoxically, people feel psychologically safer when leaders are clear about what acts are blameworthy – and there must be consequences – but if someone is punished, tell those directly and indirectly affected what happened and why it warranted them taking responsibility.

Optimism is key As Friedrich Nietzsche said, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, after all, isn’t it the lack of fear of failure, a willingness to stumble during a quest, that gives the motivation to spur us onto success against all odds in the first place? As Pep found yesterday, whilst we want to be positive and optimistic, there are times when life doesn’t go according to plan and we get disappointed. The challenge is to ensure that the impacts of our disappointments are minimal whilst still acknowledging the let-down and not living in denial.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress, great words that for me capture the essence of pep talks for any startup leader, and indeed, a Pep talk.

As he holds the team meeting this Monday morning, he’ll no doubt have prepared a Pep talk, filled with direction giving, expressions of empathy, and meaning making. By defining the essence of the team, creating an objective greater than victory, establishing a winning culture and understanding each member’s personal ambitions I am sure Pep will have the players out of the doldrums and their mindset refocused.

So reflect on Pep’s philosophy and communication style, you too can lead a successful team in your startup, no matter if you’ve just suffered a setback, and give pep talks with the same passion and purpose as Pep Guardiola.

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