NFDA’s The Director: How building strong individuals produces winning teams

How building strong individuals produces winning teams.

Published by National Funeral Directors Association.

Every March, NCAA conferences around the country compete to determine the best teams and individuals to battle it out in the national championship. The month is affec-tionately referred to as March Madness. When you read “March Madness,” you think of basketball, of course. But have you heard of the other March Madness? To me, March Madness is all about wrestling!

Wrestling is one of the most emotionally, men-tally and physically challenging sports. The Bible describes how angels and devils wrestled in eternal wars. Conjuring images of Greek and Roman gods, wrestling is also one of the Olympics’ oldest events. Basketball? Please. Let me take you to a wrestling tournament, and I’ll show you champions.

My son, Ansen, ignited my love of wrestling. As a kid, Ansen was very athletic and outgoing. He en-joyed sports but was quite small for his age, and his stature was about two to three years behind his peers. He didn’t care! Ansen would get right in and mix it up with the other kids, like the cartoon character Scrappy-Doo.

But despite Ansen’s eagerness, the challenges he would face in many mainstream sports were clear. And then a family friend invited him to a wrestling camp, where he would wrestle kids his own size and skill level. Ansen went to the camp, and the moment he stepped onto the mat, I knew wrestling would be his sport. 

That was nearly eight years ago, and since then, Ansen has wrestled in hundreds of matches. He has gone head-to-head with state champions and was a National Amateur Champion after just two years. As I write this article, he is preparing for the 2021 National High School Championships.

Now, I could go on and on about my pride in my son’s accomplishments, but more importantly, wrestling has taught me the value of building strong individuals to produce winning teams. And that applies to building a strong funeral home team as well. Let me share some of the lessons I’ve learned and applied over the years.

As individuals, wrestlers compete for teams, which are integral to their identities. Team culture and pride are a big part of that. How does your team identify with your funeral home or organization? What culture is being fostered? Does your team show pride in their work and/or location? Answers to questions like these will help to define your team identity.

Many of us want to be part of something bigger than ourselves and know that our contributions matter. Here are a few more questions to consider when developing a team identity: Do you have a slogan or logo that inspires unity and guides your team’s identity? How about a standard for dress or a uniform color that identifies your brand? How do you handle team members who bring down the rest of the team?

A wrestling team is organized by weight class. Each wrestler competes with another based on his or her weight, which levels the playing field. It would be irresponsible and would violate the rules for a coach to pit a 125-pound wrestler against a 195-pound-er. Likewise, each funeral home team member has different talents and skills. Good coaches discover the individual strengths and abilities of their team members and match them with the best opportunities for success.

For example, a staff member who is great at man-aging crematory logistics would not necessarily be the best person to oversee the firm’s accounting processes. Identify your heavy-weight and lower-weight team members – each weight class contributes to the team’s success.

One of the more difficult lessons to learn in wrestling is, “You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you earn.” There are no participation awards in wrestling. If a wrestler doesn’t show up to a match in top condition – mentally, physically and emotionally – their likelihood for success is minimal.

Wrestlers spend hours and hours conditioning their bodies and minds to perform at peak levels. To build muscle memory, they drill the same moves over and over again. They stretch, lift weights and push their endurance all for the opportunity to stand with their hand raised at the end of a match. This process is equally important for the success of your funeral home team. Here are a couple drill ideas for your team. 

Role-play: Practice different arrangement scenarios with your team in a safe environment. Rehearse answering questions such as, “How do we communicate the value of our brand and the value of funeral service?” Pair a new team member with veteran arrangers to demonstrate best practices. All team members need to be coached. How often does your receptionist receive training on successful phone techniques? It doesn’t matter if they’ve answered the phone for 30 years, there’s always room for improvement.

Take advantage of industry resources: Our industry provides many opportunities for team members to learn about better tools and embrace new experiences. Conventions, webinars and symposiums are all excellent places to learn from industry experts. A good coach will make sure his or her team is well conditioned, and industry events provide the perfect place to practice the drills necessary to ensure that when team members meet with families, they are ready and able to meet their needs.

To quote Olympic ice hockey coach Herb Brooks, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” In wrestling, winning opportunities present them-selves in three two-minute periods. Each period starts and ends with the blow of a whistle. What a wrestler does between whistles determines how great his or her moment will be; it’s the culmination of all of their drills, conditioning and sacrifice. From whistle to whistle, nothing else matters. 

Winning funeral homes and winning team members are given the same opportunity for greatness. As in wrestling, they have a short window of time in which to do their best. Their whistle-to-whistle moment is from the time they meet with a family to the conclusion of the services. Here are a couple ways to make the most of these opportunities.

No distractions: Team members meeting with families should not be distracted by other funeral home operations. Some distractions may seem minor, such as a phone call or brief interruption for “a quick signature” related to another case. But to the family in the room, that seemingly minor distraction could result in major disappointment. Your team member should be 100% focused on the wants and needs of that family at that moment. Wrestling is a one-on-one event; so is funeral directing.

Materials and options: In creating memorable celebrations of life, a family may not always know what they want or what is available. However, they do know their loved one and the moments of their loved one’s life that made them great. Take time to ask questions so you can come to know that per-son, too. Then present the products and service options that best reflect the life lived.

Good coaches don’t teach wrestlers only one or two moves; they teach a series of moves in a sequence that results in wins. Provide your team with the materials needed and train them how to use them so they can create great moments for the families they serve.

Wrestlers doesn’t lose – they either win or they learn. Sometimes though, the learning part really sucks, as it means taking personal inventory of what happened and why you fell short of your goal. A good coach will not tear down a defeated wrestler. A good coach will briefly say what was done well in the match, identify what did not go well and then focus on improvement. 

When a funeral home team member makes a mistake with a family or misses an opportunity to win, don’t tear them down – help them learn. Here are a few easy steps to follow to help build up a defeated team member.

Set aside time to meet one-on-one to debrief: Ask questions, don’t accuse. Try to under-stand the team mem-ber’s perspective.

Identify the relevant policy, procedure or complaint: Be specific as to the opportunity missed or what was done improperly.

Set goals to correct the action: Goals could include one-on-one training, role-playing with another team member or participating in up-coming professional training.

Sometimes a firm’s learning moment is not attributed to a single team member but to the whole team. In our world of Google, Yelp and other online review platforms, it’s increasingly challenging to balance good and bad reviews. But how should a coach respond to a bad online review? How he or she responds reveals what kind of coach they are and the type of firm they represent. While it’s tempting to fire back and make excuses, don’t do it. Learn from it. Acknowledge the review and the experience, express remorse when necessary and then outline the corrective steps you’ll take as a result.

When comparing the rewards of wrestling with the effort exerted, it doesn’t seem to add up. Having your hand raised at the end of a match and standing on a podium to receive a medal don’t sound spectacular. Then why do it? Because those simple moments are significant acknowledgment of an extremely difficult achievement. They are moments when time stands still and both wrestler and spectator reflect on the work and dedication that produced the win.

How can you celebrate your team’s victories? Every member wants to feel acknowledged and appreciated; they want to feel like a winner. As a coach trying to build a winning team, identify the areas in which you want your team to win. It could be financial, as in achieving the highest contract percentage in a given period, or it could be qualitative, as in receiving the best customer reviews. Whatever it is, first ensure that the path to victory is attainable. Set expectations, clearly outline the guidelines for a win and highlight the value of the incentive or reward. Most importantly, celebrate. Our profession promotes the value of gathering and celebrating a life lived. We should apply the same philosophy within our organizations and on behalf of our team members. A wrestler’s best chance of winning the next match is immediately after the last win. So it is with your team, too. Celebrate each victory and create incentives for the next one.

Other sports are played. Wrestling, a sport of perpetual motion, isn’t played; you wrestle – nothing more, nothing less. A wrestler is on both offense and defense. A wrestler never sits on the bench, and a multimillion-dollar professional contract doesn’t await. The Olympics are the pinnacle achievement of wrestling, an achievement few athletes accomplish. 

Then why? Why be a wrestler? The answer is the same as it is for funeral service – because of the love of the activity and the passion to do it well.

Like wrestling, funeral directing is an identity, a way of life. It’s what it takes to win in funeral service, just as it does in wrestling. There is no big payday or fanfare at the end of a funeral service yet our profession is full of dedicated individuals who want to win on behalf of the families they serve.

Finally, should you attend a wrestling tournament and wonder if Ansen is wrestling, look into the stands and listen. If he is, I will be the crazy guy screaming. I am my son’s number-one fan. I know the potential within him, and my greatest joy is see-ing him recognize his potential and watching him take advantage of opportunities to win. I hope you feel the same about your team members. Be their number-one fan, their loudest cheerleader. Build them into strong individuals who want to win for your team.

Jason Widing is vice president of business development for Foundation Partners Group.

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