Tag Archives: NFL

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 Cause Célèbre Curse

Colin Kaepernick, from a business perspective, is not worth the risk.  It has nothing to do with his political views, his kneeling, his public comments or personal beliefs, nor his athletic abilities or skills.  Rather it has everything to do with his being a cause célèbre.  The more support he generates, the more celebrities who publicly plead his case, the more organizations and movements that march, the more stories and media coverage, the less hirable he becomes.  This has nothing to do with athletic ability, nor does it have anything to do with politics or race.  Rather, it has everything to do with business.

The emotion and “noise” surrounding Kaepernick is currently being directed at the NFL, its commissioner, its teams and team ownership.  With 32 teams and a very public commissioner, in raw numbers, each team simply has to shoulder 3% of the heat.  However, the team that hires him would then take-on all the baggage he brings.  All the noise, the emotion, the attention, the vitriol, the passionate supporters, the messaging, the questions, the disruptions.  All of it, all the time.  Thus, Colin Kaepernick cannot be hired by any NFL team.

The only thing harder than hiring someone is firing someone.  While it sounds harsh, it is  reality.  While it might be tempting to hire Colin Kaepernick, especially as injuries mount over the course of an NFL season, and he is someone with a very rare skill set – NFL quarterbacks are not easily found – he simply brings too much baggage.  And if an organization decided to accept all that hiring him entailed, the idea of not playing him and potentially having to fire him – it is simply not viable.  It is a sad irony, the more people, and his fellow players, try to support and help Colin Kaepernick find work, the less hirable he becomes.

 

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Peyton and Being Likable

All it takes is a catchy jingle and you have a pop culture phenomena.  Well done Nationwide Insurance…”Nationwide is on your side” easily becomes “being likable makes all the difference”.  People like what they relate to, what makes them feel comfortable.  There is no question, Peyton Manning has hummed his way into the American consciousness as “a good guy”.  Of course it does not hurt that he is widely regarded as the face of his sport, one of the all-time greats, and is standing at the threshold of a storybook ending to his career.  Peyton winning Super Bowl 50 – it is the stuff of legend.

It has been called many things, with the current flavor being Emotional Intelligence or EQ.  Then there are the more traditional “cultural fit”, interpersonal skills, or empathy.  In its simplest form, being likable, a nice person, is one of the most valued traits in all of hiring.  Never, not once in all the years and the literally thousands of hiring conversations we have been privy to, has the phrase “you know, we do not like them; heck they are a real jerk, but we will hire them anyway” ever been used.  Not one time.  Countless times we have heard the inverse.  Being likable brings an enormous degree of benefit of the doubt, of a higher forgiveness factor, of being given a chance, or two, or three.  It is a classic idiom of sales, “people do business with people they like”.  Throughout his career, from college to the NFL, Peyton Manning has ensured he remains at the top of the likable list.

There is no greater illustrator of the “likability factor” than Tom Brady.  It was one of the stories of 2015, Deflategate.  The Patriots, their coaches and Tom Brady have a long history of pushing the edges, testing the lines, but also of grinding, studying, preparing, and of winning…a lot.  Tom Brady, despite all the wins, all the championships, the spotless record, the incredible story of afterthought to champion, of a relentless work ethic, of being the consummate leader and professional, remains unlikable.  He is not like everyone else, his life is not like ours, he is apparently aloof, cold and distant.  Tom and Peyton literally have the same job, live a life wildly removed from the vast majority of us, yet one is perceived completely differently based on “likability”.

An athlete, the face of their sport, considered by many to be the best of a generation, dominating the competition, setting new records, a marketers dream, giving back to the community and charities, the personification of the comeback, overcoming career ending medical challenges, returning to form and dominating.  It is a timeless story.  And when doubts and dispersion are cast, as always happens in our society, when the “too good to be true” flag is waived, being likable will save the day.

It is comically sad.   Peyton and HGH – 100% benefit of the doubt.  Disparage the source of the story, proclaim innocence, threaten lawsuits, be folksy, be hurt, be staunch yet wounded.  Peyton is righteous.  He is likable.  Looks like Peyton learned the lesson of Lance Armstrong…being nice will get you the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes that is all that matters in the court of public opinion.

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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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Peyton Manning and Picking the Right Job

Like a lot of folks, was not able to escape the Peyton Manning touchdown record hype Sunday night.  And like the total pro that he is, Peyton delivered.  Breaking and then setting a new record in front of a national television audience.  Not a bad nights work.  Peyton Manning…always a professional, never any issues in public or private, by all accounts an all around good guy, not to mention a pretty inspiring story, returning to the top of his game after major surgery.  All of that said, Peyton Manning has reminded us of another lesson that goes largely unnoticed, but is of immense value to anyone who is trying to manage their career, choose wisely.

Peyton has been smart enough to choose where he works not based on money, but rather where he will have the best circumstances for success. He picks his work place based on culture, organization, leadership, coworkers, and environment.  When it is stripped down to the core, Peyton Manning sets himself up to succeed.  That is wisdom.  Sure, he makes a ton of dough wherever he has chosen to play, but he has never absolutely maximized his earning potential, at least in the realm of football.  There is no question he could demand and get top dollar from any team, yet he has never parlayed his success into a bidding war.  He realizes, and this is easy to do when making millions, that success will generate more income beyond just the “starting salary”.

It is a common theme in business, income maximization.  We fully support capitalism and are all about everyone making as much as possible.  That said, it is often the top reason we hear when someone is debating making a career change, or when they are debating offers.  However, where the disconnect comes in is when compensation drives the decision on what job to take, what company to join, what industry to be in, or what offer to accept or decline.  It is certainly important, but it is not the only issue.  Sure, it is easy to look at Peyton Manning and think “but he is making millions”.  Move the decimal point to the left and the issues become the same for him as they are for any of us.

One maxim we have realized over the years in this business, compensation rises in direct proportion to success.  People that are really good at their jobs tend to make, well more than their peers.  And success is directly proportional to happiness.  People that are happy with their job, their company, their industry, their teammates, leadership, corporate culture and environment, are almost always the most successful.  Find the place where you are set up to succeed, and the money will follow.

Peyton Manning has enjoyed an enormous amount of success on the football field.  That success has made him a wealthy man.  His income has been made on the field, but it has also been significantly enhanced by off field ventures.  Peyton’s wisdom is in how he has set himself up for success.  He chose his university, stayed with the Colts for years, and ultimately chose the Broncos because each of those organizations offered him the best chances for success.  And with that success has come a ton of money, both on and off the field.  Smart dude that Peyton Manning.

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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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