Category Archives: Coaching

To Ensure Failure, Just Use Your Words

It is Pavlovian, hearing the old alma mater mentioned in the news still perks up the ears.  Unfortunately, like the news that typically comes from the State of Illinois, hearing the University of Illinois mentioned tends not to be followed by positive, uplifting stories.  Then add that this bit of news was broadcast during a sports segment, well one tends to “brace for impact – this will not be good”.  Sadly, what was shared was not just frustrating as an alumni, it was absolutely infuriating on a professional and personal level.

Leaders, regardless of role, scope or circumstance, have a responsibility to those they lead.  It is a professional and personal responsibility to help the organization and individuals meet and exceed their potential.  To do what is right for others, to inspire, to provide a vision, a plan and the resources to obtain that which they collectively wish to achieve.  Leadership is the core of politics, of business, of athletics, and of all things that require group effort.  And effective leaders must communicate.  They must speak as a leader.  Sadly, the quote that came from the University of Illinois Athletic Department and it’s Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk was a case study in failure:

“Obviously, it’s not ideal but for now, I don’t think it’ll put a dagger in the heart of the program,” Kowalczyk said.

Foremost, a leader must speak with confidence.  If the leader has no faith, no confidence in the decision and course of action, it is a given that no one else will.  To preface your statement with “it is not ideal but…” is synonymous with “this is going to be miserable but…”.  While acceptable when describing a lifeboat relative to the Titanic, it is not effective when speaking of a newly hired, or in this case contract extended, leader or coach.  Kowalczyk quite literally undermined the very foundation of trust, confidence and support Coach Cubit requires to have any chance of success in leading the football program.  When a leader denies their support to those they are responsible to lead, they have ensured the ultimate failure of the team.  All the financial resources, material, logistics and marketing cannot offset the damage done when moral support and confidence is denied to a subordinate.  Especially so in a public forum.

As if the first disclaimer was not damaging enough, to then set the bar just above “putting a dagger in the heart of the program” with the awe-inspiring caveat of “I don’t think” is worse than actually admitting defeat.  A leader must have the courage of their convictions.  A leader is not just there to deliver the positive message, they also must deliver the bad.  And when delivering bad, clarity and ownership are of critical importance.  Waffling and trying to “sugar coat” the bad news is worse than the actual bad news.  Kowalczyk set the standard for acceptable performance with his statement.  The only thing Coach Cubit, and by extension his players and staff, are expected to do is not “kill the program”.  For the staff and the players, there is absolutely no reason to do anything more than the minimum.  No one enjoys being a part of an organization who’s only goal is to do the minimum.  No one enjoys “working to lose”.

Lastly, Leadership 101 – know the names of your people…and use them.  It seems so trivial, so basic, so obvious, but taking the time to learn someone’s name  means you care.  A leader must care about those they lead.  If the leader does not care, if names are not important, then it is absolutely assured the subordinates notice, and that lack of personal caring will be reciprocated.  If your subordinates are simply an “it” to you, then you are nothing more than an “it” to them.

Much like the State of Illinois, the University of Illinois is going through a period of difficulty and challenge.  There is a leadership void in the university, with the “interim” title either in use or having been used over the last 12 months at the President, Chancellor, Athletic Director and Head Football Coach levels.  It is not a positive scenario for anyone, and is clearly a crucible in which strong leadership is required.  Administration and Management are not the same as Leadership.  While Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk might be a fine director, manager and administrator, he clearly could use some help on the leadership side, and especially so when it comes to speaking as a leader.

Not to be one to just throw stones, might a suggestion for Director Kowalczyk’s, or any leaders, statements take the format of stating clearly the situation, then state the vision, and lastly support those implementing the plan to attain that vision.  For example:

“It has been a trying season, yet through this period Coach Cubit has been a steady hand on the tiller, earning the respect of his players and the University.  We all are committed to moving forward and achieving success on the grid iron and in the classroom, and Coach Cubit is the man to lead this program and our student athletes.”

While not perfect, it is certainly better than “yea, it’s not what anyone wanted, but he will do for now…shoot, it really cannot get much worse”.

In the end, all the millions of dollars in revenue, all the alumni passions, all the administrator’s and coaches careers aside, it is about a group of students who joined a team.  They deserve better.

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Kaepernick and the Importance of “All The Other Things”

Yesterday’s hero is tomorrow’s bum.  It is a sad fact of life, regardless of industry, sport, volunteer organization or community group.  Rarely does one person succeed or fail alone, however it is far easier to lay the blame on one individual than to take a hard look at an entire organization.  Colin Kaepernick was able to reap the glory and the rewards as an NFL quarterback when he was the face of the 49ers in their Super Bowl and NFC Champion teams.  Less than two years removed from such heights, he is paying the price as the franchise struggles, finding himself benched.  How quickly things change.

Colin Kaepernick’s fall from grace parallels the 49ers slide from the top echelon of the NFL.  As with most things in life, there is plenty of blame to go around, and the truth tends to lie somewhere in the middle.  It is highly doubtful that Kaepernick suddenly forgot how to play the game, that his talent suddenly evaporated.  Conversely, the organization did not suddenly implode.  The other players did not suddenly forget how to block, run, catch and defend.  However, this story is a great reminder that there is a lot more to career decisions than just money.

There tends to be 5 criteria or “buckets” that enter into the decision-making process regarding jobs and/or job changes:

  • What is the job?  What is it you will be doing?
  • Who will you be working for and with?
  • The culture/environment/dynamic of the organization, industry and team
  • Are you set-up for success? Do you have the resources, support, etc.
  • What is the compensation and how are you paid?

There is actually a rank order to that list, and while the middle three can change in relative importance, the first and last items are and should remain where they are, first and last.  What you will be doing trumps all else, and compensation only matters if the previous four items are in alignment.  While most folks agree with the 5 items, many disagree with the relative order.  Most folks place compensation above all else, and that is where most problems start.

Looking at the above list relative to Colin Kaepernick, it is easy to see how the first item did not change – he was a quarterback and his job did not change.  Did he fail to develop his professional skills?  Did the competition improve their game? In both cases, probably yes, but in the end, he did not suddenly forget how to be a quarterback.

Who he is working for and with changed dramatically.  Jim Harbaugh left as head coach, and with him went the entire coaching staff.  The individual players who make up the team also went through massive change.  While the job did not change, his leadership, his coaches, his coordinators, and his co-workers all changed.  That is an enormous issue.

With leadership change comes cultural and organizational change.  Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is bad, but it does change.  By all accounts, the 49ers were a well run, professional, no-nonsense organization before.  Now, well they seem to be struggling to find an identity; they are not the organization they were when they were winning.

Change the members of the team, change the leadership, and change the culture, and the result is you change the very things that enable one to succeed.  Talent, hard work, dedication, and passion can only get one so far.  To borrow a phrase, to one degree or another, it actually does “take a village”.  For Kaepernick, the talent around him on the field, on the sidelines, in-game planning and preparation, the culture of the locker room, in the front office, everything changed.  Apparently not for the better.  Regardless, it is not a scenario where one is set-up for success.

In less than 2 seasons, he and the team have become a glaring illustration of how there is much more to the debate than just compensation.  Kaepernick, based on his earlier success, was able to secure a lucrative contract.  Good for him.  It is not healthy to begrudge someone getting paid.  However, his level of compensation impacted what the organization had available to pay others.  The team around him slipped in talent level.  There was a conflict in leadership, and his coaching staff changed.  The culture around him and the general work environment changed, and the support and tools to succeed went away.

When debating that next promotion, that great new job with the great pay, the new bonus potential, the corner office, the sweet benefits, the next contract, stop and think about Colin Kaepernick.  Pro Bowler, Super Bowl playing, NFC Championship winning quarterback, huge new contract, to the bench in less than 2 years.  Sure, he gets some of the blame, but just as his success was not a one man show, neither is his failure.  Take a hard look at that offer, make sure what the job is, who you will be working for and with, do you have the resources, is the corporate culture good, and then worry about the money.

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Change and the “Too Long” Syndrome

Clichés*.  Though it is in vogue to see clichés as “silly”, I for one have always found them refreshing.  In our politically correct world, clichés are actually one of the few ways we are allowed to tell the truth without fear of offending.  “Change is never easy” is a classic, and it is one we hear and use frequently in our business.  Changing jobs, roles and careers.  Relocating.  Changes in family status, economic status, relationship status, or a host of other areas, change is, as the saying goes, “never easy”. Clichés exist because they are true.

Have had the good fortune to reconnect with quite a few old friends, long time business partners, and just a lot of folks who I had not seen in a while. Just been one of those months. And as always happens, the conversation always turns to the classic “how have things been” question.  Typically there is a “since…” lingering at the end of that question.  Since the move, since starting the new job, since whatever life event.  Not always, but certainly more often than not, the conversation ultimately includes the phrase “too long”.  It is absolutely amazing, the majority of the time, once the change has come, folks wish it had happened earlier.

Started jotting down some of the phrases we hear quite often when it comes to change:

– “I waited too long”

– “should have done it x years earlier”

– “I stayed too long”

– “it was long overdue”

– “so much happier”

– “was so comfortable with what I knew”

– “never realized how unhappy”

– “grown complacent”

– “in such a better place”

– “so much better off”

Change is never easy.  It is the question of unknowns, of “what ifs”, of starting over, of friction, of uncertainty, of “walking away from a good thing”, of “the devil you know vs. the devil you don’t know”.  It is scary.  It is emotionally draining.  It is challenging.  It is often physically hard.  It might be financially costly.  Change can come by choice, or it can be forced on you.  It can be expected or totally unexpected.  Regardless of what it is, how it comes, what it entails, or otherwise involves, it is never easy.

It is always great to see old friends, to renew old acquaintances, to just enjoy the company of others.  But it is absolutely reassuring to know that much more often than any of us realize, change brings about good.  New opportunities, new relationships, renewed purpose, energy and yes even fun.  It is cliché, but change is not something to fear, rather it is something to be embraced.  Easier said than done, but it has been nice to have that reminder.

* not sure the final count, but I know I used a lot…

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Belief, Short Cuts and Remembering…Jens

Jens. To those that know, it is self-explanatory. To those that don’t, it means nothing.  One of the classic characters of professional cycling rode his last race Sunday, and the world of sport lost a huge personality.  He was the old man of the sport, the wily veteran, a Hardman as they say in cycling.  Jens was never the fastest, the strongest, the most gifted rider, but he was one of the toughest men to ever ride in the pro peloton.  The guy has spent all his adult life on a bike, and the last 10+ years entertaining fans across the globe both on the bike and in quotes.  “Shut Up Legs” is a go to phrase in the cycling world.

For all his one liners (there is even an app for that), all those days hauling teammates to victories, to the countless breakaways that failed, and even the handful that stuck, the crashes and chases, Jens has been a source of inspiration.  The physical achievements on the bike started it, but it has been the “wisdom of Jens” that has struck a lasting chord.  The 90 second clip he did in the spring of 2014 for Bicycling Magazine has stayed with me and it summarizes some of the timeless lessons of life, in that quirky way that is classic Jens, he said so much.

– Believe in yourself, have confidence beyond reason.  To really achieve you have to take the chance, and it is that risk, that fear of failure, that all too often is the insurmountable barrier.

– There are no short cuts.  Hard work, Dedication, Discipline and Self-Sacrifice.  There is no other way but to grind, to do what is painful and to keep doing it.  We are surrounded by the ideal of “work smarter not harder”, but in the end even smart work is work.  If you are going to do the work, do it and give it your all.

– Remember who got you to the top, you will see them all again on the way back down.  Life is so very much easier when you are nice.  Be nice to others and surround yourself with positive people.

Throughout his career Jens was renowned for going in the break.  Rarely in professional cycling does the breakaway ever survive.  However, sometimes it does.  Not often, but sometimes.  And therein rested one of the great Jens quotes: “If you go (with a break), you can either win or not win. If you don’t go for it, you definitely won’t win.”  Jordan and Gretzky spoke of how they could only score by taking the shots…they missed many more than they made.  You have to believe you will succeed.

Jens has literally made a career out of working hard.  It brought him wins on the road and countless contracts and sponsorship opportunities, the respect of his peers and teammates, and the adoration of fans around the world.  He is savvy enough that he will parley his reputation as a hard worker and source of great quotes into what is sure to be a very lucrative broadcasting and speaking career.

Above all else, Jens has always been nice.  It is that affable, self-deprecating humor and honesty that really sets him apart.  He made time for others, was positive and upbeat, and clearly enjoyed the time with fans.  Having seen it first hand more than once, the guy is absolutely mobbed before a race. He takes the time for pictures like the one below back in 2008 (I was manning the camera that day), for a quick chat, for an autograph and a smile.  And after a stage, you could always count on a Jens interview.  He might be smoked from the road, but he would give some sort of quote, a quick interview and usually some quirky comment about suffering and being too old.

As a fan, it will not be the same with Jens not in the peloton.  However, I am pretty confident we will see and hear a lot from him in the coming years.  The guy is tailor-made for color commentary.  Old Jensie has been one clever dude, taking a folksy, German, blue-collar, hard worker, affable character into an international brand.  That takes some smarts.  Well done, or as they say in cycling, chapeau!

Phil and Jens 08

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The Tourney – Hiring, Rules and the Value of Having a Sir Charles

The Tournament has become one of those events that has become a cultural phenomena.  No need to say “which tournament”, it is just The Tournament.  It goes beyond college sports and basketball, it permeates the public consciousness.  Pools and brackets become the thing of water-cooler conversation and office bulletin boards.  It produces drama, stories, heroes and goats, as well as some timeless moments and memories.  And this year the tournament was brought to us on every possible delivery medium the media has at their disposal, and we gobbled it up.  And in this festival of March Madness, I found myself thinking of 3 particular people:   Billy Donovan, John Calipari and Charles Barkley.

Find them on the rise, give them the opportunity, support them, pay them well, and let them do their job.  That is the model for really successful, long-term hiring.  In college basketball, or any sport, one would be hard pressed to find a better example than Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators.  Two National Championships, 5 Final Four Appearances, multiple conference titles and a winning tradition for 16 years and counting.  All of this at a “football school”.  Billy Donovan was hired as the Gators head coach and given a 6 year contract at the age of 30.  Was it a risky hire, yes.  But it was a calculated risk.  Billy Donovan had a very clear record of having studied and learned from some of the best in the business, a relentless work ethic, and an ability to relate to players, administrators, alumni and boosters.  Billy Donovan is a great example of taking the long view in hiring – find the right person, regardless of age or experience, support them and then let them do their job.

John Calipari has proven himself yet again to be the master of the “one and done” model.  His Kentucky team was again a collection of phenomenally talented freshman, arguably the finest collection of future professional players on any one team in the tournament.  John Calipari takes a fair bit of heat for his overt recruiting of those young men who clearly state they have no interest in being a “student athlete”.  His recruiting pitch is in effect “I will get you ready to go pro”.  Like many, I was initially put off by his approach and embracing of the “one and done” mentality.  However, what I have come to realize is that John Calipari is simply playing by the rules.  John Calipari did not make the rules, but he has become the best at playing within those rules.  He gets more of the best players to play for him than anyone else.  That is amazing recruiting.  He is also clearly an impressive coach.  He is able to take a collection of individuals and turn them within a 30 game season into one of the best teams in the country.  That is great coaching.  Someone like John Calipari should not be judged for abiding by the rules.  Don’t fault the person for being good at their job.

Mentors. Counselors. Coaches. Trusted Advisors. Advocates. Regardless of the title, we all benefit from having a core group of those “who have gone before”, who can share their wisdom, some hard-earned lessons, and above all be that voice of reason and honesty when we need it most. We all need a Charles Barkley in our life. Sir Charles is a unique character, and to a degree is maybe playing to the part, but make no mistake he is one savvy dude. And above all, he tells it like it is. What little I saw and heard of the various broadcasts, you could count on Charles being very honest in his assessments. If a kid did not play well, he said it. If the stars failed to live up to the hype, he said it. No sugar-coating. No hyperbole. No positive spin or feel good comments; just raw, unfiltered, and technically based feedback on performance. We could all benefit from someone like Charles…especially if they are as colorful as Sir Charles.

I do not watch a lot of college basketball, but what I do watch tends to be in March.  The Tournament is just a special event…it is fun to have on in the background.  It also reminds us of some great fundamental lessons in business:  hire well, do not begrudge others success, and have someone in your circle that will be honest.

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A Super Reminder…Passion and PMA

It is that classic American of spectacles, Super Bowl Sunday.  The game, the pageantry, the parties and the food.  Only in America.  Everything about it is bigger, louder, flashier and fattier.  This year was no different.  From the Peyton hype, the NYC centric weather debates, to the Richard Sherman loud mouth or genius arguments, it was a constant stream of media hype, gobbled up by the American public and washed down with Bud Lights by the millions.  The big screen HDTV was invented for just such an occasion.

Other than being reminded of the all too often SEC drubbing of Big Ten/ND teams in BCS bowls, watching the Seahawks out run, hit, swagger, flash and fun the Broncos, I found myself reminded of why I have often viewed Pete Carroll as a great example of leadership.  It was 5 years ago this month I wrote about the then USC head coach and an interview he gave on 60 Minutes.  What struck me then was his passion.  Nothing has changed in those 5 years (maybe my writing has become more concise).  The guy is still as passionate as ever, and that message resonates as strongly as ever.  The results speak for themselves.

It is clear Pete Carroll loves, absolutely loves, what he does.  He loves coaching, he loves his players, he loves the game, the competition, and certainly winning.  The guy has a blast, you can just tell.  He is one of the oldest people in his profession, yet appears and acts as one of the youngest.  His energy and enthusiasm is infectious.  In a profession typified by hyper stressed coaches glaring and screaming, Pete Carroll seems to be having an absolute ball.  Yes his players make mistakes, yes discipline is not absolute, but the lapses are made up for ten fold…mostly.

And for all his fun-loving, good time nature, he is very open about the fact that competition is the driving factor.  Anyone can take anyone’s job.  Every practice, every play, every training session and meeting, it is absolutely about competing and winning.  He holds people to account.  If you are the best at what you do, you play.  If you are complacent, you sit.  It is not mean-spirited, but it is reality.  You play like you practice.

A great many things go into success.  Though passion and a positive mental attitude alone are never enough, things sure are easier with them.  Plus, the pursuit of success tends to just be a whole lot more fun when one wants to be there and is enjoying what they are doing.  It has become cliché, “the NFL is a grind”, but from here, Pete Carroll seems to do it differently, and everyone seems happier and more successful.

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The Promotion Principal – Go With the “Tell”

Peter. Dilbert. Katie, Putt’s Law.  All well-known Principals when it comes to promotion. Well, maybe not the Katie Principle. Regardless, all good satire is based in reality, and these principals and theories of promotion and advancement point out the all too common mistake of placing the wrong person, in the wrong role, for the wrong reasons.  Hiring, promotions and advancement should be based on what the person can do at the next level, not what they have been doing at the current level.

When one looks at some the best college football head coaches, the Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops types, the one’s who have enjoyed long-term, lasting success, there is a common theme. Yes they are smart “football” guys, but much more importantly, they are great leaders and organizers, salesman and relationship managers. If these guys were not at the top of their profession in coaching, they would be running multimillion dollar businesses. Let’s face it, they are running multimillion dollar businesses.  With every one of those guys, you can just tell, they are just that sharp, they have the “it factor”. They are smart, articulate, level-headed, passionate, committed, driven, focused, impressive and above all, natural leaders.

And the universities that hire folks like that, folks who you can just tell “have it”, continue to have success when change comes.  Look no further than Stanford – David Shaw is as sharp as they come; bright, articulate, polished, driven, focused, and clearly a leader.  No surprise Stanford knew how to replace Jim Harbaugh when he went to the NFL.  They are Stanford after all.  Know your organization and culture, what the role you are hiring for requires, and then find someone who fits the role and the organization.

Then there is the classic mistake of assuming someone who was good at one level is ready to make that jump to the next level.  It is the pitfall of head coach hiring:  promoting the assistant coach or coordinator.  Look no further than the Florida Gators and their ongoing struggles with Will Muschamp.  Muschamp was a very highly respected Defensive Coordinator while at Texas when he took over for Urban Meyer at Florida.  Watching him as a head coach at Florida, well you can just tell he is not in the right role.  Being emotional, fiery, and other such things is great as the number two person in an organization, but it is not what one needs in a head coach.  Ed Orgeron at USC is another great example – the perfect Defensive Coordinator, and a phenomenal person to serve as in interim head coach to lead the Trojans through a turbulent transition period, but not a long-term head coach.  Again, you could just tell.

Contrary to Human Resources, Legal and the general PC nature of our world, there are things that just cannot be quantified.  The more senior the role, the greater the scope, the larger the strategic impact, leadership and interpersonal skills become paramount.  The “it factor”, the polish and poise, the organizational skills, the management and leadership skills, the ability to plan and prioritize, and above all, the emotional maturity all trump technical skills or job experience.  More often than not, when it comes to great hiring, if you truly know what you need, you will just be able to tell who is the right fit.  Go with the tell.

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