Sports, Leadership and Coaching

CoachCast by IECL
CoachCast by IECL
Sports, Leadership and Coaching

Guest Bio

Andy Johnson


Andy’s coaching practice began during his time in the early 2000’s. As a professional rugby player before moving into a physical education officer role with London Fire Brigade, he brings an interesting background instead of experiences. This provided Andy with early experience to coach executives, senior leaders, managers, athletes and team members in organisations both in the UK and Australia across industries including financial services, resources, infrastructure, marketing, legal, non-for-profit, professional sports, local government and health sectors.

Andy is the Director of Total Focus where he works with athletes and sporting organisations to understand the relationship between mindset and results in order to increase consistency and performance.

Andy has previously worked on the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games and spent over five years in learning and capability consulting roles with Suncorp Group. 


If you look at the executives, there’s lot of talk around longevity, when you get to the top of the pyramid or to the top of the ladder, there’s virtually no support for them. 

What education or what support could be put into play to appreciate what they go through so that they can maintain that level of performance and they can recharge. I don’t think you’re ever going to have two CEOs and you might sub one out. But I think there are some pieces that could be put into play. 

Within the organizational world and the corporate world, one big piece I intend to celebrate is  the successes. And I’ve seen teams that I’ve worked with and individuals, they do spend time to celebrate and actually learn. And that’s something that I haven’t observed greatly in organizations. You get to the end of the financial year and you go out for one night and then you’re back in the following day and new targets are set. 



Renee Holder: From your past, what do you see are the parallels between organizational and sports coaching with having a foot in each of those camps?

Andy Johnson: I think probably more so in current time, the focus on bringing a coaching approach. So, and what I mean in terms of what we would call a coaching approach, and the ability to ask questions. It’s moved away from sort of, I suppose coaches having more of a let’s go with an aggressive approach and doing far more telling. It’s moved from my observation and my involvement to far more of a questioning and more of having that growth mindset piece is definitely becoming more and more favourable.

Renee Holder:  And how have you benefited from that varied experience, in this particular, how do you see it’s benefited you and your coaching practice?

Andy Johnson: I think, if I look at me and as an individual, my coaching practice, when you play sport at that level and you’re around sport, it’s highly reflective. There’s a lot of feedback and there’s a lot of practice. You spend a huge amount of time training and refining certain aspects of how you play. Excuse me. And I think and if I look at my coaching practice over the years, it’s been continually honing those skills, developing those skills, prep, practicing it, taking on board feedback and being quite comfortable to not get it right every time, if that makes sense. Because things don’t always go well when you’re playing sport and you’re working with athletes. You have a game plan. It’s like with a coaching session, you may have a intention for the session, but when the whistle’s blown and or when you asked the first question to the counterpart, you’ve got no idea what’s coming. It’s the ability to sort of coach and or play in the moment, I think.

Renee Holder:  That gets me a bit curious about what you think executives could learn from athletes. Can you share some insights around that?

Andy Johnson: Yeah. One insight that I picked up from a prominent well-known New South Wales and Australian former rugby league player, was he, when I heard him speak and it really, In sport you train every day to perform once a week, right? Whereas in the corporate world they’re performing every day but often get no training at all. I think that the executive coaching component can form part of that training. Now it allows them to have someone outside of the environment there in to speak with, to connect with and challenge them. So it can form part of the actual training piece.

Andy Johnson: Because I think just to reflect on the development and the lack of it that actually occurs with the senior executives who are in extremely high, high pressure roles is it’s quite interesting when you spend time, because they often I find the executives want to know what’s happening in the sporting world and also vice versa. I think there’s a real place for executive coaching to play probably a greater role than it does in allowing them to grow and develop all of their skills.

Renee Holder:  That makes me wonder too about the sustainability of it. Because athletes are expected to perform at high levels, at their peak and executives these days are also in increasingly complex environments expected to do the same. So again, how can one inform the other in terms of being able to maintain those peak levels of performance?

Andy Johnson: I think there’s an appreciation for the… or there’s a lack of appreciation for the impact from a stress level on the executives that are at that level. And I remember and you mentioned the time that I spent at Suncorp, that some of the executives I worked with there opened up on the choices they put into place of how they actually unwind. There weren’t healthy choices, right?  I think there’s a big place in that to look at professional athletes. How how are they supported? From physios and psychologists, strength and conditioning and all that in terms of they’re really looked after so they can perform because they’re an asset. They are entity to a certain degree.

Andy Johnson: So if you look at the executive’s and there’s lots of talk around longevity, when you get to the top of the pyramid or to the top of the ladder, there’s virtually no support for them. I can’t imagine there’ll be an ice bath in the corner of an office somewhere, but what education or what support could be put in play to appreciate what they go through so that they can maintain that level of performance and they can recharge. I don’t think you’re ever going to have two CEOs and you might sub one out. But I think there are some pieces that could be put into play.

Renee Holder: And what differences have you seen, you sort of talked a little bit about what age could learn from one another and some of the similarities but what do you see as being distinctly different between say the sporting field and the executive? They ran the boardroom.

Andy Johnson: Physical contact is often frowned upon in the boardroom. All joking aside. I think there’s… Both are very goal-orientated. Both are whether they’re chasing the wind or the pole, they’re chasing a sale or they want to look at the figures and how they report in their figures for the investors and that sort of piece. I think there’s a link there. Did you asked if there was a link or there was differences?

Renee Holder: Differences.

Andy Johnson: Differences. I apologize. So there’s a link there, but I think how they connect with that is quite different. I think within the organizational world and the corporate world, one big piece of me is I intend to celebrate the successes. And I’ve seen teams that I’ve worked with and individuals, they do spend time to celebrate and actually learn. And that’s something that I haven’t observed greatly in organizations. You get to the end of the financial year and you go out for one night and then you’re back in the following day and new targets are set.

Andy Johnson: I also in sport you have a coach as in you have a coach, we have a manager of that team who makes choices, makes selection. There’s a bit of a policy in play and they may often move people around and their role is to coach. They’re not on the pitch as well. They’re not involved in the game. But you’ll find that in organization there’s a team leader or there’s the executive or the CEO. They’re expected to lead and coach, but they also have a role to play. They’re kind of wearing multiple hats. And that’s potentially one difference where they could learn from each other to sort of really isolate some of those roles if they want to lift performance. How do they step back a bit and be able to actually almost see up in the stands and as they view what’s happening.

Andy Johnson: The other sort of, I suppose main one popped into my head there, there’s a lot of data, a lot of, and I just said the word data and analysis over everything, but in sport it’s very much geared towards performance of individuals and teams. Whereas in the organizational and corporate sense, it’s more related to… it’s not so individually focused. So yes, I might complete my performance review in that sort of sense. But do you really spend time understanding me as an individual and what I need and allow me to individually grow and what’s my place in the team. And I think occasionally then you have… I could go on if you want to go on.

Renee Holder:  Yeah, please do.

Andy Johnson: I think if you look at a sporting team, and I’ve worked with, well I played rugby, but I’ve worked with netball and I’ve worked with other athletes, they have those on the field captains. And we may have team leaders but we don’t, I don’t know how… There’s a, I think they could play out in possibly a stronger role or more of an influential role of how they bring that team together. How they sort of connect with each other. And some of the most successful teams that I focus on, that I’ve worked with in the sporting sense, they’re extremely well looked after in terms of everything. Everything is taken care of them in terms of financial advice, family, if they’ve moved to the area, just all those really finer details so they haven’t got to worry about those so they can really focus on field performance.

Andy Johnson: And I think sometimes in the corporate world, in the executive space there’s not as strong a focus on that. You might come in and have an induction and be given a new pen, but I think there’s a lot more that could be done to welcome people into the environment, to that team, to that organization because you want them to slot in to be able to perform. If you really focused and you went down, there’s quite a lot that is quite vastly different. And there are pros and cons of them both. But there’s, I think the ball being piece and the individual piece in terms of support is something that I believe organizations and CEOs would benefit from both individually and within their own organizational space.

Renee Holder: So all that considered, which one do you prefer working in?

Andy Johnson: I like variety. I find it more challenging for me to work in the corporate space. I think being a coach you can, going in is fantastic because you’re there to do a purpose. You’re not involved. I don’t think I could go and work in that environment again full-time. I like being able to come in and to sort of coach people and to do my piece and then step out. I think the sporting world is a bit more honest and a bit more brutal. I think corporate… And that doesn’t mean in terms of aggression or language. They’re very much focused on having conversations and sort of taking that part out of it. But I think they’re a little bit more brutally honest because every weekend, they either win or they lose or otherwise. They get that continual recognition and they continue working on something. Sometimes in the organizational sense things can be hidden. They can be swept under the carpet. So I’m going to sit on the fence with the answer to your question there.

Renee Holder:  Okay. And I’m curious to know, because your professional rugby playing career, let’s face it, it was a while ago now, Andy, but I’m sure it impacts how you show up as a coach today. Could you talk to that a little bit for our listeners? Because many of our listeners are coaches and they’re looking at what sets them apart from others, their signature presence, the sorts of things that we often talk about. And I wonder how that shows up for you.

Andy Johnson: I think I’m very comfortable in uncomfortable situations. When I… It was 20 years ago just to put a figure on it, put a number on it, when I was a professional. I played in environment with world champions and people that had been very successful at that point and then previously, and you’ve got to be able to hold your own. I was quite an immature 20-year-old in every sense.  I had to really work hard in terms of bringing a lot of physical presence. I wasn’t the biggest kid, so I had to really work on that. And I think what I learned from that is I can… you learn to be adaptable for the different environments that you step into because I played rugby in all corners of the world in some hostile environments and some wonderful environments.

Andy Johnson: And when you step into coaching, it allows you to, I think it’s allowed me to be comfortable to coach people in a variety of organizations at a variety of levels and be comfortable in who I am and how I can hold that space. But then how I can up my game if you want. I think when you break sport down, we used to break it down into sometimes you had 10 minute increments. And you talk around getting into the game, which meant catching your ball or calling the right calls or putting in a big hit. When I get into coaching, I like to make sure that I’m fully warmed up, if that makes sense. And then how do I get into it? How do I ask a couple of questions? How do I connect with the person that I’m sitting in front of? But then being aware when the session’s moving on, then you might move. I don’t take a half-time break, but when you move past a certain point, how do you ask that next challenging question.

Andy Johnson: So I haven’t thought about it in that way before, but I think the main piece is that it’s allowed me to be very comfortable in some challenging environments and really hold my space because when you’re playing sport and they might be two minutes left on the clock and you’ve got to line out and I’ve got to make the right call and make the right play. It’s knowing when to ask that particular challenging question or when to step back a little bit and that sort of pace. Occasionally, I wear shorts and pull my socks up.

Renee Holder:  When you think back to 20 years ago and some of those coaches that you worked with back then, are there particular styles or characteristics that stick with you and potentially you see could have translated quite well into the corporate life?

Andy Johnson: One of them, yes. And one of them no, but I think they came into my life exactly the right time. So when I was 17 and I was going up through the representative level, the particular coach I had at the time, and people may not know what I mean, but he was a pretty rough East London character covered in what I would call traditional tattoos. So now the tattoos are quite trendy, but I mean love, hate on the knuckles and everything else. But yeah, as a 17-year-old, 16, 17-year-old as I was then, he really set, he set a real standard of intensive how you behaved. What we called him and we had to come and say hello when we came into the game and we had to say goodbye before we left and really set a high work ethic. So I think that could translate.

Andy Johnson: His choice of language and how he chose to motivate people I think was perfect for me at that age. But probably that wouldn’t work in the corporate space. But without him, I wouldn’t have got the professional contract that I got. A couple of years later down the line when I moved to a different club, the coach there had a completely different approach. I never heard the guy swear in four years. There’s a real team ethos. We all got invited to his house for Sunday lunch at some point. He invited us into his family and every… And then I remember this pretty vividly, but every single pre-match he had motivational speech if you like. He never mentioned rugby in any of them in four years. He would connect with other sports or something that was happening in the media that related to performance or how you challenge yourself.

Andy Johnson: So really challenged their thinking to you to look at what we were doing from a different sort of different area. And he was far more conversational. Looking back now, he had a firm ball of a coaching approach as we would call it, to how he coached us as rugby players. He has had a very successful career in the corporate sense, I’m sorry, in the corporate space. So, but yeah, they both came into my life at exactly the right time.

Renee Holder:  And I’m sure there’s a few clients and counterparts you’ve worked with. You said that you came into their life at just the right time. What was it that drew you to coaching?

Andy Johnson: When I was working in the London Fire Brigade, I think by accident, so I wasn’t operational, right. I was the first non-operational trainer they ever employed. But by accident because I wore the same uniform, so I wore the badge. And part of the team that I worked in worked with firefighters that were deemed unfit for duty, so they’d fell their medical. And they would rather come and speak to us in the team that I was in than go and speak to the people in the white coats. I just found it quite natural to sit and talk to people. And I was the youngest person in my team by 14 years. I was having one-on-one conversations with guys that were, they were my dad’s age. And they seem to connect with me and they seem to open up and really share a lot of personal stuff and I found it natural and I enjoyed it.

Andy Johnson: When I moved to Australia and I worked in a few other smaller organizations, it was something that I found quite natural. I also, before I moved here, I had a speech impediment throughout my entire life and it came back quite aggressively when I was in my early 20s to the point where I couldn’t actually, I wasn’t confident enough to order a train ticket. I had some really bizarre experiences in some train stations in London where I couldn’t get two words out. But my job at the time involved public speaking. I worked with a hymn therapist. I thought he was going to do the whole look at the watch thing, but he just literally spoke to me and just made me close my eyes and go into a meditative state and sort of connect with it.

Andy Johnson: And my speech impediments still comes back if I’m tired or there’s certain words that I struggled to get at times, but it’s never been an issue for 15 odd years. And I looked to that and I thought how powerful that was. Just I only had two sessions with him because he was very expensive. But I’ve found when I looked at what he was doing and I looked at what I was doing when I was working with these firefighters, I kind of thought that’s what I want to do. But I didn’t know what that was. So that’s, through a housemate when I first came here, I got invited to one of our showcase events, which is when I met Chip and the team and did the finger and thumb thing for the first time. And then I just kind of pursued it from there and I made it part of my role at Suncorp before I did my level one, two and three pretty quickly so.

Renee Holder:  So some of our listeners won’t know what the finger and thumb thing is. Without giving too much away, could you talk about the, I suppose the essence of that activity?

Andy Johnson: The essence behind it is quite often we know how to do something so we actually know how to do it. So for sticking your thumb in the air, we know how to do that, but then actually doing it sometimes so it’s that knowing-doing gap. So knowing how to ask questions, right? We all ask questions. We will ask questions the entire time. But when you come into coaching, it’s being able to ask open questions and really powerful questions. It’s that gap between knowing something and then actually doing it to that next level. So that’s where the finger and thumb thing is without giving too much away.

Renee Holder:  You better leave a bit of mystery there. Now a really generic open question and take this wherever you like. Where do you see coaching going? And you could answer this in the context of sort of general organizational coaching, the work you’re doing now and where you see that going or maybe that connection again between sport and corporate.

Andy Johnson: Okay. One sentence I see coaching going in the space of really informing leaders. So it being a capability that is now that becomes part of leader profiles is quite a common term. So how does a leader bring a coaching approach to how they lead. But excuse me, but I also see… I don’t imagine it’s too far away that it becomes regulated. I think it’s becoming an increased understanding of the variety of governing bodies that are out there, if that’s the correct term. So the ICF and the ACC?

Renee Holder:  ICAMCC

Andy Johnson: And all those. Because I’m already becoming, I’m already noticing that I’m meeting people that have been coaches but haven’t got any qualifications because people are asking to see their qualifications. It will become more regulated because I think there’s an increased understanding of what it is and the benefits of it. So my view of the future is that people will become more comfortable saying they have a coach and I think there’ll be a stronger influence of coaches in organizations potentially on I think not on a being employed internally, but maybe you’re having longer contracts and working and really having a partnership. That’s where I would see it going in that sort of corporate space, if you like.

Andy Johnson: I think in the sporting sense, what I’m seeing and what I think I continue to see is what we call a coaching approach to sports coaching. So far more conversational, far more of asking questions especially when you, I think if you living in Brisbane now and having a family that are well connected to the Brisbane Broncos and that sort of piece, there’s a lot of talk around their coach Anthony Seibold. And if you watch any of the games and they have a camera in the changing room at half time, he came under some criticism because he splits the actual squad if you like, into little groups and they have a conversation around what’s working, what’s not working.

Andy Johnson: And it’s really putting the really empowering athletes because as a coach you can’t jump on the field and do it for them. So I think there’s that coaching approach and understanding the benefits of player and athlete development from a mindset point of view. I think there’s quite a big little piece there that will play out. I also think coaching will become more available at a lower level. I think in some organizations it tends to be once you get to a certain level and above. But I think they’re starting to understand the benefits for yeah, the people they are happy and they are comfortable and they like working as a team member. But they also benefit from having some coaching. There’s quite a large opportunity there.

Renee Holder: So as a final question, we’re coming towards the end of our conversation today. Could you share the sort of work you’re enjoying most at the moment? What are you doing that you’re really passionate about?

Andy Johnson: In both spaces? Okay. With us at IECL and GrowthOps, I like the variety in my role, which confuses people because I have a long job title, but no one really knows what it means and we tend to change it occasionally. I enjoy meeting people that have no experience of coaching and they want to understand what it is to benefit them from having coaching but also from them as a leader or as a manager or as an employee. I think it’s… I enjoy when you get a surprise, so you have someone comes back in when they’re doing one of the public programs or the corporate program and they share with you the impact making one or two changes has had on their home life because you’re dealing with humans as a whole. So they’ll be focused on how they are at work. It affects how they are outside of work.

Andy Johnson: I enjoy hearing those sorts of stories and knowing that you’re making a bit of a difference. In Brisbane and the Queensland market and I’ve had the pleasure over the past year of going to some different places, couple of names of the towns that I’ve been to, areas I can’t really, I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing them correctly, but you’re working with leaders in industry that have had nothing. They’ve never really experienced. No one’s ever sat them down and had a conversation about them or given them the opportunity in a 60-minute coaching session to really talk. And it’s quite fascinating. I would love if we were allowed and here’s my wish for you, if we could put a video camera on the doors of some of our training rooms to capture how people arrive because their faces are often quite frowned and then try and see, watch how they leave. And it’s that little difference that I enjoy whether it’s in a one-on-one or whether it’s in an entertainment environment.

Andy Johnson: I also, from a sporting sense, I enjoy being able to work with a variety of athletes who are at different phases of their career and taking that same approach. Because it’s starting to increase their self-awareness and asking questions of them and how does it impact their performance and getting the opportunity to work at a bit of a higher level. And I think there’s a… you’ve got to really have the trust there because my experiences is that there’s a level of uncertainty that in terms of what are you doing and what’s the impact and what does that take away and what does that add? So it’s just, it’s working with, I think this is when I sound old now, when the younger generation that’s coming through. I think their needs are vastly different in both areas.

Andy Johnson: It’s being able to connect with them and then educate other people around how do you lift performance, how do you maintain performance, how do you ask questions that really opened people up and sort of challenge their thinking. And I’ve never touched wood, finished a coaching session or any program that I’ve been involved with. No one’s ever told me they haven’t liked it. Some people they don’t always connect with you as an individual, but no one said they don’t like you or didn’t get anything from it. When you can work with those people and you’re allowing people to grow and you’re challenging their thinking, that’s the work that I liked doing. I like doing variety of things. So, yeah.

Renee Holder: And we like you doing a variety of things too, Andy. So thank you. It’s been a really interesting conversation today and I’m sure our listeners have enjoyed hearing your insights around those parallels and some of the distinctions between the sporting world and the corporate world. A little bit about your long ago professional career and I think some learnings in there for coaches, but also for leaders too. Yeah. So thank you. Really, really fascinating conversation and great to hear some of the work you’re doing and the things you’re passionate about. So thank you, Andy. We’ll put it out there.

Andy Johnson: Pleasure. Thank you.

Caitlin Manning
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