Category Archives: Coaching

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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Leadership and Organizational Culture…How It’s Not Done

Bullying. Hazing. Harassment. Call it whatever one wishes, but the story out of the Miami Dolphins locker room is without question a glaring example of leadership failure. What has happened between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin is plastered throughout the media and there is no need to rehash the details, but there is certainly a need to look at the leadership aspect of the story.  Not just leadership at the top, but all the way through the organization, from the front office, to the head coach, to the position coaches and team captains, and even the players.  Leadership sets the culture, and clearly there is a massive problem.

I have never been an NFL player.  Played a good bit of team sports, been in a locker room or two, shared the banter, the laughs, the jokes, and traditions.  However, if there is one thing football players at all levels tend to love wrapping themselves in, it is the warrior culture.  This story has reminded me of the journey I, and the military in general, shared from the late 80’s to the later 90’s.  To say the military underwent changes in those ten years is an understatement; it was the pre and post Tailhook era.  It was a time when the entire military organization, and the Navy and Marine Corps in particular, underwent a very dynamic shift.  The pre era had its own culture of hazing, harassment, and various “isms”.  It was an interesting time to say the least.  It was needed…we can leave it at that.  As a junior officer, we were right there in the midst of leading that cultural shift.

If there is one thing that the military instilled in us as leaders, especially during that period of change, it is that we all are responsible for the culture of the organization.  We set the tone through our actions and our inactions.  It is a formal aspect of leadership as well as an informal, peer-to-peer, senior to subordinate, and institution wide issue.  We were all responsible for each other, how we are perceived, and the culture we fostered.  We had a responsibility as both leaders and as members of the team, to implement the changes.  We were also, above all else, responsible for those we led, our Sailors and Marines were the most prized, precious item in our charge.

What baffles me as a leader is that the Dolphins as an organization completely failed to provide the leadership needed for their players.  From the front office all the way down, their actions, and especially their inactions, created an environment that has certainly impacted their ability to perform as a team.  Martin left the team and Incognito is suspended.  That is just the obvious.  What other issues will hit them remain to be seen, but I highly doubt they will be performing at a high level.

From a leadership perspective, it all starts at the top.  The Dolphins organization has ownership, general managers, front office Presidents, Vice Presidents and who knows what other titled leaders.  They all to one degree or another set the culture.  The head coach is ultimately responsible for the players.  Did he know exactly what was going on?  Who knows, but he certainly created the leadership team of coaches below him and he set the overall tone for the team.  Should his junior leaders, his position coaches, have known?  Probably so, and I would argue absolutely the Offensive Line Coach should have, he worked with these guys every single day.  Did the player leadership know?  Well, Incognito was a Team Captain, so that answer is obvious.  But above all the other leadership failures, it is the peer-to-peer leadership that truly failed.  Not just as leaders, but as fellow players, the players that make up the Dolphins locker room allowed things to happen to their teammates that are just inexcusable.

The whole story is sad.  There is no other way I can comment than to use the phrase “leadership failure”. The entire culture of the organization, at least in Miami, is a mess.  In an attempt to look for a lesson in all of this, it is the lesson of poor leadership that keeps coming to mind.  Often times we are asked for positive leadership lessons, but sometimes the best lessons are found in failure.  The cultural fiasco that is the Dolphins locker room is a lesson on how not to lead.  That is about the best that can come of this ongoing story.

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The Lesson of Lane Kiffin’s…

…well firing.  While some rejoice, some wonder who will replace him, and others just revel in his public downfall, I found myself thinking of what we can learn.  Not about football, play calling, or recruiting, but about leadership, hiring and organizational behaviour.   Lane Kiffin came from a “football family” and had an incredibly rapid rise through the coaching ranks, becoming the youngest NFL head coach in history, as well as one of the youngest head coaches in college.  And with that rapid rise went an equally rapid rotation of coaching jobs…a series of quick changes and job transitions as a head coach.

So what have we learned:

Sustained Success.  When it comes to the whole hiring process, the basics still matter.  You need to meet people face-to-face.  Where folks went to school matters.  Candidates are a sum total of their experiences.  But above all, continuity matters.  “Sustained superior performance” is a phrase that really means something.  Someone who has been in a job for several years and has really impacted an organization, that is the true testament of their abilities.  Someone who has bounced around, “caught lightning in a bottle”, been a “flash in the pan”, or more simply a job-hopper, are living on luck and timing.  Much like Icarus, they fly too high too fast only to crash and burn.   Beware those who frequently change jobs.  They always have a great reason, but in the end the question has to be “have they really had a lasting, positive impact”.

The Non-Quantifiables Matter.  There are things that just cannot be measured, and leadership is one of them.  And in that same vein goes confidence.  Confidence of the organization in the leader is a very real issue.  It cannot be measured or quantified, but we know it when we see it, or do not see it.  Never overlook the non-quantifiables.  How a person acts, speaks, carries themself; their presence, their bearing, their communication, it all matters.  HR and Legal might not like it, but leadership is more art than science, and thus more about behavior than technical competence.

Decisions Demand Action.  Once a decision has been made, one must act.  Avoiding the inevitable helps no one.  If it is time for someone to go, make the call and move on.  It is better for them, it is better for you, and above all it is better for the organization.  An organization can withstand a degree of uncertainty during a leadership transition.  What it cannot withstand is an unending period of internal strife and division due to poor leadership, lingering doubt and general lack of confidence.

All of the above said, it might not all be Lane Kiffin’s fault.  The man obviously has great technical acumen and   did well earlier in his career.  Promoting the “hot runner” too far too fast is a common issue.  Folks who are doing well want to excel, and often that means moving up.  As leaders, we want to reward those folks via promotion and recognition.  However, as a leader one must recognize when someone is truly ready for that next step.  I really wonder if Lane Kiffin was ready to be a head coach.  Three times other folks thought he was, and all three of those times something went wrong.  It cannot be all his fault…they gave him the job.

Though I have no idea how technically competent Lane Kiffin is, or rather was, as a football coach, I do know he was not a good leader…you could just tell.  I am no student of the game, but even as a casual fan you could tell the team, the fans, and even the administration just did not have confidence in him.  Pat Haden as the Athletic Director at USC had to make a call, and credit to him, he made it.  When a leader has lost the team, the customers and the confidence of the organization’s leadership, it is time to turn the page.  Just be sure you hire the new leader for the right reasons.

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Leadership…Saban Style

“Will visit the leadership piece tomorrow, but…”

Dropped the ball on that one, well at least the tomorrow piece.   Ironic really, two of the traits brought up in Colin Cowherd’s interview of Coach Jim McElwain last week were follow-up and efficiency.  Though I am demonstrating follow-up, I am clearly lacking in efficiency.

On the topic of efficiency, it is the first 2 minutes of the interview where they discuss leadership.  Pleasantries and chit-chat aside, there is so much said about leadership in 90 seconds.  The topic centers around what Jim McElwain learned working for Nick Saban during his 4 years at Alabama.  The tact is more about the misconceptions of Nick Saban as a leader, things such as “workaholic”, “grinder”, “micromanager”, and how Coach Saban actually utilizes some of the classic tenants of effective leadership.

Work Hard.  Notice, it was not “work long”, “live at the office” or some other code phrase for putting the job ahead of everything else in the world.  Coach McElwain even said there is a misconception about Nick Saban as a “grinder” or someone who “works until 2:30 in the morning”.  Working hard is an ethic, it is a manner of conduct, it is an atmosphere that is fostered, and it is something a leader instills in an organization.  It is also something a leader looks for when hiring and building a team…people who have the desire and ethic of hard work.

Be Detailed.  Have a vision.  Have a plan.  Set a calendar.  Pay attention to all aspects of the organization; the large and little things all matter.  Above all, do not waste time.  So simple yet so critical.  A leader can have a great vision, but without detailed planning and execution a vision is nothing more than an idea of what could be, of hope.  The devil as they say, lies in the details.

Be Complete.  The misconception is micromanagement.  There is a massive difference in a leader being complete in what they do, in following-up, in reviewing lessons learned, and in holding people accountable.  Being complete is all about learning what everyone can do better, what is new in the industry and market, where efficiencies can be increased, of being professional.  Micromanagement is about fear, intimidation, and above all lack of trust.

Though the above three traits are classics of leadership, it was the timeless adage of leadership that really caught my ear:  Surround yourself with great people, set the vision, and then trust your people to be creative in their execution of the vision.  The leader does not, nor should not, do it all.  Vision, communication, efficiency, culture and trust.  Those are the things leaders do, and when they do them well, organizations thrive.

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