Tag Archives: Nick Saban

Saban or Swinney – “Process” or “Family”

The game.  The moment.  The “field of competition”.  There is nothing as clarifying as the culminating event, the defining moment, that line of demarcation between winning and losing.  Sports is such a great provider of those clearly defined outcomes, and nothing more so than the penultimate “championship game”.  Monday evening again provided one of those moments.  Clemson did not just win the game, they absolutely dominated Alabama.  It has been an interesting four years watching those two programs compete for the National Championship in college football, each having won two.  What makes it all the more interesting is that by definition, the teams to some degree change on an annual basis.  While there is some player continuity on a year to year basis, but after a few years the players completely turnover.  The only true consistent is the head coach.  Unlike their NFL counterparts, the head football coach in college create the programs, the cultures and the environments.

What has become clear is that Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney stand at the pinnacle of their profession.  While Nick Saban has clearly been at the forefront of the college coaching world for well over a decade, the last four years has seen a clear emergence of Dabo Swinney as a truly special coach.  While both share a unique position at the top of their profession, each man clearly has a different leadership style.

Nick Saban is renowned for his focus, his process, his relentless attention to detail, for creating a system that has turned Alabama football into a true dynasty.  A factory producing championships, coveted coaches/coordinators and a host of NFL players.  To a degree his style is coldly professional, results oriented, absolutely committed to excellence, and very clear in that everyone plays a part to ensure the greater team goal is achieved.

Dabo Swinney has created an entirely different culture at Clemson.  His style is open, warm, focused on creating an environment resembling a family, where having fun, maximizing the goals of the individual, and above all instilling a sense of love and passion for the game and for teammates is paramount.  The result has seen Clemson clearly rise to the top, winning two of the last four National Championships while also producing a host of NFL players.  Dabo Swinney’s style has created an environment which from the outside appears to be the antithesis of the Alabama “factory system”.

Thus far, both leadership styles work, just as various leadership styles work in all aspects of life.  The interesting piece is that upon closer examination, Coach Saban and Coach Swinney teach us that their respective styles are not all-inclusive.  There are clearly aspects of each style within the other program.  Early in the season Dabo Swinney made a quarterback change.  He replaced the well liked and respected senior Kelly Bryant with the freshman Trevor Lawrence.  While love, faith and family feel are hallmarks of Dabo Swinney’s leadership style, quantifiable facts and commitment to the overall goal have to take precedence.  He made the hard but right decision.  He made the change, and the rest as the cliché goes, is history.  Conversely, for all the portraits of Coach Saban as detached, cold and strictly process driven, snippets leak out of him taking players water skiing, of he and the staff playing hoops over lunch, of a warmth and personal relationship side to the process driven leader.

Both styles work, but neither works in totality.  Each draws upon the other in various degrees, at different times, and for different reasons.  While consistency and tone are critical components of successful leadership, there will come a time when flexibility and  adaptability are critical traits for the leader and their team.

The leadership style, the feel and culture, the environment and tone are different, Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney absolutely share a relentless work ethic.  They are consummate professionals who are committed to their profession, their universities, their players, their coaches and the attainment of the ultimate goal.  While they might have a different approach, style is nothing without sweat equity.  Leaders have to put in the work.

 

 

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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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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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