Tag Archives: coaching

NFL playoffs and Leadership…It Matters

The beauty of sports is it’s crystal clear definition of success. Games and matches are played, points are scored, finish lines crossed, a winner is determined. Moving into the heart of winter, there is no better illustrator than the NFL, the playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl. It is without question the most American of sports institutions. The hype, the media, the corporate money, the halftime show, the commercials, the pre-game shows, and even post-game shows. It is an absolute spectacle. Yet it is all about determining a winner. A champion. While coaching and leadership matters in all sports, there is something about football that seems to magnify the impact of leadership.

Tom Coughlin was the head coach who built the Jaguars. He lead an expansion franchise from concept to the most successful expansion team in league history. The Jaguars of the mid to late 90’s were a perennial contender, culminating in two AFC Championship game appearances. They were a standard of what a franchise could be, and at the center of it all was an old fashioned, hard-nosed, detail oriented, disciplinarian. It was a no-nonsense organization, and the results were clearly visible on the field.

As the cliche goes in sports, the window closed. The players aged, injuries took their toll, salary caps and retirements all changed the team. The leadership message grew stale, and Tom Coughlin was fired after 8 years in Jacksonville. The next 15 years would not be fun for the Jaguars.

After a year away from football, Tom Coughlin was hired by the New York Giants in 2004. His demeanor, approach, attention to detail and style were exactly the same. He immediately set the tone for the Giants. “Colonel Coughlin” had arrived and it was all business. The first few years were a rough transition, but the next several seasons saw the Giants earning multiple playoff berths as well as two Super Bowl titles. But with time, the message and leadership style of Tom Coughlin grew stale, and by the end of the 2015 season he “retired” from the Giants. It was a graceful exit, but everyone knew the truth; it was time for all parties to part ways.

Sunday the Jaguars will play in the AFC Championship game. It will be their first since 1999. Tom Couglin will not be coaching, but it is clear his return to Jacksonville last year as an executive leader has set the tone. He changed the morale of the organization. He instilled a sense of pride, professionalism, and winning. The Jags have went from “worst to first”.

While leadership alone will not make a winner, a lack of leadership can certainly ensure failure. The Jaguars are a team and organization of hundreds. But the right leadership has set the tone, and that has made all the difference, at least for this season. Unfortunately, they face the Patriots. Within the confines of the NFL, the Patriots are the gold standard when it comes to leadership, organizational culture, and winning. At the center of the Patriots stands Bill Belichick, who outwardly appears to be the same sort of gruff, “old school”, “my way or the highway” type of leader as Tom Coughlin. However, Belichick has been at the helm for 18 years with the Patriots.

Clearly, leaders set the tone, but those leaders who make lasting change are not tone deaf. Leaders have to evolve, adapt, temper their message, alter their presentation, all while never losing their followers and above all, without sacrificing the core message.

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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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The Very Real Costs of Bad Hires

It is one of the great “known unknowns”, to borrow one of the infamous Donald Rumsfeld lines, what does a bad hire really cost?  Hiring is an art and a science.  It is a unique combination of relationship building, a leap of faith, part quantitative and part gut feel, but it is also a process of vetting both the person and the role you want and need filled.  It requires a level of discipline and focus, commitment and patience that is difficult to maintain when there is a pressing gap in staffing and leadership.  However, succumbing to a false sense of urgency and allowing emotion to trump logic is the slippery slope that leads to bad hires, or at least hiring the wrong person for the wrong role.  In the end there is a cost to every mistake, and hiring brings real cost.

Fortunately the case of Charlie Weis is a shinning example of what one bad hire can cost an organization, or in his case several organizations.  Roughly $30 million in very real dollars.  That does not even begin to consider the opportunity costs, additional revenue streams, lost potential dollars, turnover, morale, the impact on other coaches, players, staff, programs and the myriad of other factors that one bad hire can have on an overall organization.  Charlie Weis, through no fault of his own, parlayed a brief period of success into not one, but two bad hiring decisions, bad contract negotiations, and above all illustrates the classic pitfall of “falling in love” with the hot candidate.

Notre Dame has been paying Charlie Weis since 2009 to not coach, and will continue to do so through 2016.  Kansas made the same mistake and is also paying him not to coach.  Incredible, yet not uncommon.  Guaranteed contracts are amazing things.  Most of us will not find ourselves in a position to be granting guaranteed contracts to public figures, but anyone who makes hiring decisions does find themselves responsible to organizations, coworkers, families and individuals where a bad hire does incur real costs.

Hiring is both an emotional and quantitative process.  Allowing emotion to trump data is a dangerous proposition, and when one finds themselves chasing what was, of feeling the pressure to make a splash, wanting to hire “the hot candidate”, or “really liking someone” owes it to everyone involved to take a moment and really reflect.  What is it the job demands, what are the day-to-day behaviors, the skills required, the outcomes desired and matrix of success, and only then decide if the person truly fits those needs.  Hiring managers should always heed the lesson of Charlie Weis.

In defense of Charlie Weis, while he might not be the best head coach, he just might be the greatest salesman…ever.  Convincing multiple organizations to pay you almost $30 million NOT to do something takes an incredible skill set, or at the very least one very savvy agent.

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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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Leadership and the NFL Coaching Carousel

The end of the season is my favorite part of the season, at least when it comes to sports. In particular, I love the end of the NFL season. This clearly puts me at odds with the majority of American sports fans. The NFL is far and away the most watched, followed and money-making business in sports. It is a monster in ratings and revenue. But to me, it is a wonderfully public reminder of the impact of leadership and organizational culture.

One of the greatest things about sports is the clarity of record. You look back on a season and the record is there for all to see…who won, who lost, who improved and who is falling behind.  And now in our ESPN, internet and talk radio world, we all are bombarded by the firings of head coaches.  It even has a name:  Black Monday.  It is almost comical in a way, there is a degree of consistency in which teams are in the playoff hunt, and which teams are firing their coaches.  Clearly, leadership matters, and sports illustrates that very clearly and publicly.

A few years ago we took a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers as a model for effective hiring and leadership.  This year that theme holds more true than ever.  The Steelers started the year 0-4.  At a time when most organizations could have panicked, the Steelers regrouped, focused on the fundamentals, stuck to their plan and continued to do what they do year after year.  They ended up finishing the season by going 8-4 and found themselves in the playoff picture by the end of the season.  No knee jerk reactions, no panic, no second guessing, no organizational crisis management, just solid leadership.

Then there are those teams where the coaching carousel never seems to stop spinning.  The Cleveland Browns just hired their 7th new coach in the last 15 years.  The Redskins are moving onto their 8th in the last 15 years.  The Lions just announced their 8th new coach in that very same time period.  And of course there are the Raiders – who knows where they are in the count.  Same goes for the Cowboys.  There is one other theme that runs through these organizations beyond just coaching turnover:  organizational culture.  The leadership issue is not just with the coaches, it literally starts with ownership and has permeated the entire organization.  Knee jerk reactions, micro management, fear mongering and meddling owners have left the franchises an absolute mess.

Call it old school business, but there is certainly something to be said for stability.  Good organizations foster, attract, and above all develop good leaders.  People evolve, they move on, they advance, they change jobs for a host of reasons, but a strong organizational culture weathers the changes and continues to succeed.  Players and employees come and go, and there are good and bad seasons.  “Stuff happens” as the saying goes, but good leadership and a strong organizational culture make all the difference.

Attracting, hiring and retaining talent, and especially leadership talent, is a relentless pursuit.  The best talent in the world cannot overcome poor leadership.  Just look to the NFL, the worst teams get the first draft picks, yet the problems persist.

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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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