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Stroke of Inspiration: Former Dartmouth Crew Coach Translates Lessons to Business World

Whit Mitchell of Hanover, N.H., poses on a rowing machine at the Friends of Dartmouth Rowing Boathouse in Hanover, N.H., on Feb. 11, 2014. Mitchell recently published a memoir about the business contacts made and lessons learned first as a membe, then as a coach on the Dartmouth Rowing Team. 
Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Whit Mitchell of Hanover, N.H., poses on a rowing machine at the Friends of Dartmouth Rowing Boathouse in Hanover, N.H., on Feb. 11, 2014. Mitchell recently published a memoir about the business contacts made and lessons learned first as a membe, then as a coach on the Dartmouth Rowing Team. Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

Hanover — On a chilly morning last week, Whit Mitchell was spending a part of his tightly planned day in the office, a well-lighted, albeit slightly cluttered, space in the back of a converted house on the corner of Maple and School streets.

He is dressed casually, fit looking and finishing up a conversation with a client on the telephone before settling down to talk about his new book, Working in Sync, and his approach to helping business executives be better leaders and build cohesive, productive teams of employees.

In a few hours, he’ll head off to Maine on business, then the next day to upstate New York to work with a group of executives from the world’s largest wine producer, Constellation Brands.

Cardboard boxes filled with copies of the book are stacked on a table that takes up most of one wall. Behind the desk, a photograph of Mitchell and his son Whitter with the Stanley Cup hangs beside neatly ordered bookshelves. His golden Lab and running mate, Kyla, sleeps quietly on the floor.

Mitchell said the idea for the book came out of a 2011 gathering at the Canoe Club restaurant with 11 of the 18 members of the 1986 Dartmouth College freshmen crew, a team he coached. He brims with enthusiasm, punctuated with humor and a George Clooneyesque smile as he tells the story.

The crew members, who now are in careers that range from being entrepreneurs, software engineers and venture capitalists to surgeons and philanthropists, were back in town to attend their 25th Dartmouth College reunion.

“They were coming back from all over the world — Africa, Asia — and we got together the night before their reunion. They are all very successful guys, and they told stories for five hours. Each of these guys during the evening said, ‘You know, coach, I learned more about life and myself in that year of freshmen crew than I did in four years at Dartmouth. Here’s what I’m doing in my professional life, and I attribute some of my success to what I learned in the sport of rowing.’ I felt pretty good about that,” Mitchell said.

Not long after, Mitchell met with a publisher who had been introduced by a friend. She liked the idea of the book and suggested interviewing each of the crew members about what they’d learned in the sport of rowing and integrating that with how they’ve applied it to their professional lives.

A year or so later, Mitchell, who is 59 and a four-decade resident of Hanover, had finished the book. It tells not only the 11 stories of the crew members, but also includes postscripts from Mitchell on applying the sport’s principals as useful tools for others.

“In the book, there’s a guy who’s one of the top engineers at Google; there’s a guy who is one of the top venture capitalist in the world; there are three surgeons; there’s the guy who was the CFO of KickStart helping people in Africa and the list goes on and on. They were telling me these stories at the Canoe Club, and my jaw was dropping.”

Since the book was published a few months ago, more than 2,000 copies have been sold, and Mitchell has been making keynote addresses delivering its story to companies and organizations. And he’s been applying the stories in his executive coaching.

“We have 11 different themes of leadership, and I suggest to other executives that here’s some tips that you might want to apply in your own team that will help you be a better leader and your team get better based on these analogies from sport and these guys’ stories.”

Mitchell, a University of New Hampshire graduate with a degree in exercise physiology, was the head coach of the rowing club team at UNH, an assistant rowing coach at the Coast Guard Academy and the freshmen coach at Dartmouth.

He has spent much of the last 30 years working with Fortune 500 companies, regional corporations and small businesses building leadership through experiential training and team building. He started the FLIP community fitness program at Dartmouth and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and he worked with the hospital for 10 years in a program to test Dartmouth, Olympic and other elite athletes and measure their performances.

As an undergraduate at UNH, where he became the rowing coach by default, he started applying the lessons he’d learned during physiology classes in the morning to the crew workouts in the afternoon, “and they started getting faster and faster and beating other teams.”

The crew’s improvement caught the notice of the Coast Guard coach, who hired him as an assistant after he graduated. A year later, he started working with the Dartmouth freshmen team.

What he learned from coaching crew has become the foundation of his company, Working in Sync International.

“I have something that I call inner-circle coaching that I learned from Marshall Goldsmith (a professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, best-selling author and a nationally recognized leadership coach). We had the good fortune of working with Marshall at the Tuck School for eight or nine years, and he introduced me to a behavioral coaching model.”

Inner-circle coaching works like this: Mitchell asks clients to come up with four to seven people who will be involved in the coaching work. The team helps the client make better decisions and challenges the executive. Team members give open and honest feedback on the behavioral changes that would have the greatest impact on performance, he said.

“I can improve the bottom line by helping leaders change behavior. We hire for skill, and we fire for behavior. I work with leaders in identifying behavior problems and changing that behavior to help impact the people who work with them.

“And I work with the four to seven people to help them also change their behavior.”

The coaching is simple to explain, and because it’s a two-way model where the inner circle “influencers” are also making changes as well as the executive, “the results have been very rewarding for the people and the organizations. It comes from Marshall’s work at Tuck,” he said.

Mitchell’s business is focused on three things: executive leadership, team building and keynote presentations.

“I do executive coaching that’s with a team. I work with teams because of my coaching in rowing. I help the teams get past the barriers that get in their way. I help them do three things: connecting, knowing and winning.

“Connecting is with the clients and the people they work with; knowing is themselves and winning is with superior performance.”

In the book, Sam Kinney, the co-founder of FreeMarkets, noted that the leading cause of executive failure is lack of self-awareness.

“So when I work with people, I want to give them as much information as possible about themselves, their behaviors and their values, so we close off any blind spots by knowing who they are from other peoples’ perspectives.”

Since the book came out, Mitchell has been devoting more of his time to keynote presentations at corporations and such organizations as hospitals and medical institutions.

“People love to hear about athletes and how athletic learning can be transferred into leadership skills in their organizations.”

And the Stanley Cup photo? Three years ago, he worked with the Boston Bruins, spending two days in the Vermont countryside, working on team building. That was the year the team won the Cup, and gave credit to the Vermont experience during its presentation.

“That was a highlight for me,” Mitchell said, as he and Kyla headed out for a running snowshoe before his trip to Maine.

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.