Tag Archives: college football

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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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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GameDay on Leadership

Most Saturday mornings in the fall, College GameDay is on in the background as we go through the usual morning rituals.  It is not a “sit and watch” sort of thing, but it is a streaming commentary that provides an easy way to stay somewhat connected to all that is college football, pop culture and even current events.  The stories, the drama, the games, the rankings, the conversations around playoffs, suspensions and above all, the passion of the fans.  But what I have really noted this year, College Football has to be the greatest, most visible, easily comprehensible to the masses, case study in why leadership truly matters.

Though college football tends to be a fairly consistent parade of the same schools at the top, there is a pretty noticeable trend of how programs tend to rise and fall based on coaching changes.  Part of it is recruiting.  Part of it is organizational skills and management, and some of it has to do with hiring.  But what is abundantly clear, leadership is the core issue.  The great “coaches” are great leaders.  They attract the best talent, hire the best staffs, and they build the best, most efficient organizations.  Thankfully, in our highly scheduled and information saturated worlds, the simplicity of wins and losses makes for a quick and easy way to quantify the results of good leadership.

On the downside, take Michigan, Texas and Florida.  They all have the talent, the facilities, donors, boosters and the support of the school, yet the wrong coach…down they go, and quickly.  Yet, great leadership also has an immediate impact in the positive direction.  Texas A&M, Stanford and Oregon, have all found the right coach, or coaches.  They have taken average teams with inherent disadvantages to the heights of college football.  Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are clearly the best examples of what a difference good leadership can make for a program.  Each has resurrected floundering programs, quickly having major success at more than one school.  Nick Saban has been incredibly successful at both LSU and Alabama, while Urban Meyer was instrumental in taking Florida to multiple championships, and has rapidly turned Ohio State back into a perennial power.

Leaders get the right folks in the right roles, then let them perform. The best coaches have the best staffs  They are NOT afraid to hire good people. It takes a strong leader to hire a talented subordinate, or to take a risk when hiring.  There has been no better example of that adage than Nick Saban’s hiring of Lane Kiffin as his Offensive Coordinator.  Kiffin had issues as a head coach, has a fair bit of baggage, but clearly knows what he is doing when it comes to running an offense.  He might not be the best head coach, but he is certainly really good at what he does.  Saban hired him, has let him run the offense, and thus far the results speak volumes.

Just as Lane Kiffin is a “technical expert” when it comes to offense, it was clear from his tenures at Tennessee and USC, that he was not a head coach and leader.  Technical expertise does not always equate to good leadership.  Charlie Weis was just fired, again, from another head coaching job.  He might be great with an offense, but he is clearly no leader.  Will Muschamp at Florida, a defensive “genius” is standing by to be fired, as are several other technical experts who became head coaches.  It is such a common pitfall. Good salesman – make him the sales manager. Disaster.  Technical skills are not leadership skills.

Sure, College Football is just a game, and extrapolating leadership maxims from head coaches is a dicey proposition, but there are some themes that hold true.  It is tough to argue when the results are binary…someone wins, some loses.  Everything is leadership. The rest matters, but without the proper leader, it is abundantly clear, the team just does not jell and the organization founders.

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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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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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Recruiting…Saban Style

Heard an excellent interview earlier today.  It lasted less than 7 minutes and captured so many great insights into leadership and recruiting.  Granted, it was sports talk radio, but the lessons for business are absolutely clear, timely and completely translatable.  It was Colin Cowherd interviewing Colorado State coach Jim McElwain.  Not too impressive to the average person, however the conversation centered on McElwain’s 4 years working with Nick Saban at Alabama during a stretch when they won 2 National Championships.  Regardless of what one feels about sports, college football or Alabama, there is no question Nick Saban is one of the best leaders, recruiters and coaches in any field.

Paraphrasing of course, but these were the main themes when it comes to recruiting:

Recruit to the Position.  Know what the role you are recruiting for is, what that role requires, then hold to those requirements.  It is a timeless issue in recruiting and the war for talent, people wanting “the best person” for the job, yet having no real handle on what the job is, what it entails, what skills are required, what behaviors it demands, how success is defined, and what role emotional intelligence plays.  When a client starts off by saying “let me tell you a bit about the role”, it is a pretty good indicator that the search will go well.  However, when it starts with “here is what we want”, it raises concerns.  Know what the position requires, then go find the player.

Get them BEFORE they peak.  It was the best line in the interview, “don’t want the kid who peaks his sophomore year of high school…we all knew that kid”.  Harsh, but true, and frankly the most common pitfall we have seen over the years, companies wanting to go after the person who is already at the height of their profession.  Yes, you want the folks who are really good, but you want them to have runway.  It is about what they will do, about how the person can continue to grow, improve, learn and develop.  If they have hit their ceiling, then the best you can hope for is more of the same.  Do not hire someone for what they have done, hire them for what they will do for you in the future.  The competition is always working to get better…they will catch and pass those who have plateaued regardless of how good they were.

Have an extensive process that involves multiple people.  Do not “fall in love” with a candidate too early and avoid the myopic notion that only one person can truly evaluate talent.  Make the interview process extensive and evaluate equally throughout the process.  Candidates should get better throughout the interview process.  If they start strong and fade, that is a warning sign.  If you identify flaws relative to the position requirements, make the call and move on to other candidates.  But above all, have multiple people involved, and allow them to give their input.

It is a great interview, and it clearly shows two keys to organizational success – leadership and recruiting.  Will visit the leadership piece tomorrow, but for now the lesson is recruiting.  Granted, they were talking in the world of college football, but the evaluation of talent is universal.  Know what you need, find those who can do what you need when you need it, and then have a team of folks you trust evaluate the talent.  Simple really, and clearly one of the reasons Nick Saban is at the top of his field.

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