This is a story about two of my favorite subjects: hockey and humans.
First, hockey. If you haven’t noticed, the New Jersey Devils are the hottest team in sports, with a 20-2-2 record in the last 24 games. The flip side, unfortunately for Devils fans, is that for the first half of the season, they were the worst team in hockey, losing 14 of their first 20 games, due, in some part, to the fact they started the season with a rookie coach, John MacLean. Whatever was (or wasn’t) happening in team meetings, in the locker room or on the bench, resulted in a lack of teamwork, a lack of focus, a lack of wins on the ice. There were 20 guys playing hard, but not playing together. On December 23, MacLean was replaced with the legendary Jacques Lemaire, who has more Stanley Cup rings (11) than he does fingers. In two weeks time, Lemaire’s coaching style—a belief in teamwork above all, but also someone who has an amazing ability to connect and teach rookies and veterans alike—starting paying off. In early January, the Devils were 28 points from the 8th place playoff spot; today they are seven points from the playoffs. If they make it in–which is still a longshot–I feel really bad for the #1 seed, because the Devils will win.

Credit: NY

So here’s the human part of the story. Using the Devils as a metaphor, depending on your place on the org chart, this is also a story about teamwork and coaching and how to either grow your career or to give back to the career you have. In our highly collaborative industry, every day you have the opportunity to be either a coach or to learn from a coach. If you’re in the first couple years of your career, do yourself a favor and find people inside (and outside) your company that you respect, who are generous with their time, people who win, and stay as close to them as possible. Ask them questions, ask them for honest critique of your work, and then, listen to their advice. Given the speed of changes in our industry, you may have more Facebook friends than your supervisor, but that doesn’t mean you know more about marketing, business, competition or life. A good mentor can help you solve a tough assignment, get your career to the next level, and not unimportantly, help you avoid the pitfalls of office life. I speak from experience. I was fortunate at the start of my career to work for incredibly generous creatives. I’m talking about writers and art directors with some of the most famous ads in the history of advertising on their walls, men and women so talented that they didn’t have to know my name, let alone ask me what I was working on and could they take a look. But that’s what they did. They were patient, they were encouraging, their doors were always open, and if a junior worked hard, got a little better on each assignment and began to show a little talent, they could help move your career. They would tell senior management about the new guy with the rough, but fresh, ideas. They would offer to partner with you on an assignment. They would challenge you to get better, and if you did, they would actually listen to your ideas, value your input, and make sure the bosses knew about it. My experience as a young creative was so positive, a large part of my creative philosophy has been to return that experience whenever I can, to help open doors and more than that, ask junior staffers for their very real input. And that’s the point for senior staffers. If you have a little gray in your beard, chances are you have the opportunity to be a great coach. You can spot in two seconds what a junior is doing wrong, and you can make a difference, whether on an individual assignment or helping someone with . So make a point to do it. Share your knowledge, challenge people to grow, keep your door open. As a creative director, my job isn’t to come up with the best idea on every project, but to make sure the best idea gets to the client, regardless of who comes up with it. Cast a wide net and ask anyone with a passion for a particular assignment, regardless if they have a window office or not, to help out. Invite more people into your office. Help them build relationships with supervisors, with clients, with vendors. Want more fun? Spin the tables and ask them to critique your latest idea. You’ll be amazed at how blind you can be to your own thinking. At the very least, around the coffee machine, ask a junior staffer, “So, how’s everything going?” I bet you’ll be able to offer an insight on whatever they blurt out.    

Watching what Lemaire has done in the last two months has reminded me of the importance of coaching. The players are the same. The equipment is the same. But the results couldn’t be more different. It’s not magic. It’s all about teaching, and a lot about culture. A culture of communication, of openness, of working together. If you’re on the young side of your career, find your mentor. If you’re senior, give back. And for all involved, whatever you do, keep your head up when crossing the blue line.