Tag Archives: sports

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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Belief, Short Cuts and Remembering…Jens

Jens. To those that know, it is self-explanatory. To those that don’t, it means nothing.  One of the classic characters of professional cycling rode his last race Sunday, and the world of sport lost a huge personality.  He was the old man of the sport, the wily veteran, a Hardman as they say in cycling.  Jens was never the fastest, the strongest, the most gifted rider, but he was one of the toughest men to ever ride in the pro peloton.  The guy has spent all his adult life on a bike, and the last 10+ years entertaining fans across the globe both on the bike and in quotes.  “Shut Up Legs” is a go to phrase in the cycling world.

For all his one liners (there is even an app for that), all those days hauling teammates to victories, to the countless breakaways that failed, and even the handful that stuck, the crashes and chases, Jens has been a source of inspiration.  The physical achievements on the bike started it, but it has been the “wisdom of Jens” that has struck a lasting chord.  The 90 second clip he did in the spring of 2014 for Bicycling Magazine has stayed with me and it summarizes some of the timeless lessons of life, in that quirky way that is classic Jens, he said so much.

– Believe in yourself, have confidence beyond reason.  To really achieve you have to take the chance, and it is that risk, that fear of failure, that all too often is the insurmountable barrier.

– There are no short cuts.  Hard work, Dedication, Discipline and Self-Sacrifice.  There is no other way but to grind, to do what is painful and to keep doing it.  We are surrounded by the ideal of “work smarter not harder”, but in the end even smart work is work.  If you are going to do the work, do it and give it your all.

– Remember who got you to the top, you will see them all again on the way back down.  Life is so very much easier when you are nice.  Be nice to others and surround yourself with positive people.

Throughout his career Jens was renowned for going in the break.  Rarely in professional cycling does the breakaway ever survive.  However, sometimes it does.  Not often, but sometimes.  And therein rested one of the great Jens quotes: “If you go (with a break), you can either win or not win. If you don’t go for it, you definitely won’t win.”  Jordan and Gretzky spoke of how they could only score by taking the shots…they missed many more than they made.  You have to believe you will succeed.

Jens has literally made a career out of working hard.  It brought him wins on the road and countless contracts and sponsorship opportunities, the respect of his peers and teammates, and the adoration of fans around the world.  He is savvy enough that he will parley his reputation as a hard worker and source of great quotes into what is sure to be a very lucrative broadcasting and speaking career.

Above all else, Jens has always been nice.  It is that affable, self-deprecating humor and honesty that really sets him apart.  He made time for others, was positive and upbeat, and clearly enjoyed the time with fans.  Having seen it first hand more than once, the guy is absolutely mobbed before a race. He takes the time for pictures like the one below back in 2008 (I was manning the camera that day), for a quick chat, for an autograph and a smile.  And after a stage, you could always count on a Jens interview.  He might be smoked from the road, but he would give some sort of quote, a quick interview and usually some quirky comment about suffering and being too old.

As a fan, it will not be the same with Jens not in the peloton.  However, I am pretty confident we will see and hear a lot from him in the coming years.  The guy is tailor-made for color commentary.  Old Jensie has been one clever dude, taking a folksy, German, blue-collar, hard worker, affable character into an international brand.  That takes some smarts.  Well done, or as they say in cycling, chapeau!

Phil and Jens 08

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Tim Howard and How You Play the Game

It is another one of those timeless clichés, “it’s not if you win or lose, it is how you play the game”.  At this moment in time, no one personifies that more than Tim Howard.  Granted, his “fame” in mainstream American consciousness might be fleeting, but when you are trending on Twitter and have sparked some classic internet memes, you might just have some staying power. #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave has been awesome!  It was not the record-setting 16 stops in a World Cup match, rather it is how he played and what he has said post game that makes all the difference.

There is no question, even to this marginal at best soccer fan, that Tim Howard’s performance on the pitch was nothing short of amazing.  He was a pleasure to watch, both in his skill and his level of committment and passion.  The guy gave his all in every match, setting an example for his teammates and earning the respect of opponents and fans throughout the world.  The guy is a professional.  He plays fulltime in the English Premier League, even I know enough to recognize that he is a world-class athlete.  The EPL is the top of the football world, and Tim Howard has perfected his trade in that crucible.

In all his post game interviews and on the morning infotainment circuit, he has been a class act.  He has praised his teammates, coaches, and opponents.  He has shown a level of committment to the team that has been refreshing.  He is a worker, the type of guy who quite literally plays hurt.  He is about the greater good, the team, the sport.  Just as the San Antonio Spurs were the epitome of team and class last month, so it is Tim Howard this month.

Our culture has become so championship, “win at all costs”, “do whatever it takes” focused, that it has been refreshing to see someone at the top of their profession live up to that classic cliché.  The US Men’s Soccer team was eliminated, but what will be remembered is how Tim Howard played the game.  Not often we get a chance to see such a thing.  Hope that memory lasts a bit longer than a just the tweets.

 

 

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Being Really, Really Good…

…over the long haul.  It is brutally hard to do, and especially so in our world of immediate reward.  However there are some organizations that have proven to be at the very top of their industry.  Being good every now and again is one thing, but to do it more often than not for over 100 years, well that is the St. Louis Cardinals.

11 World Series Championships, 18 National League Pennants, 20 League MVP’s, 4 Triple Crown Winners, 3 Cy Young winners, 6 Rookie of the Year winners, countless Hall of Famers, and tops in league attendance for decades…all in a small market.  The only franchise with a more extensive history and record…the Yankees.

 A few years ago we looked at the Steelers, and with the NLCS starting tonight, it only seemed logical to spend a few minutes looking at the Cardinals.

Vision.  The organization has a history of excellence and remains committed to the pursuit of excellence…over the long haul.  To that end, the Cardinals under Branch Rickey pioneered the farm system,   were leaders in leveraging radio to expand their brand in the 1930’s, embracing integration in the 50’s and 60’s, playing “Whiteyball” in the AstroTurf era of the 80’s, to building power hitting teams in the 90’s “longball” era.  They see the trends, get ahead of the competition, adapt to the market, and lead change.  They evolve but do not lose sight of the core principles of excellence throughout the organization.

Winning Attitude.  Not necessarily just about winning, but certainly about always being committed to being the best possible team.   Winning is an attitude, just as the pursuit of excellence is an attitude.

Organization.  Though it is the team on the field, the reality is that there is a massive organization that enables the team to perform.  The talent scouts, the minor league system, the ball park, the trainers, the managers, coaches, front office and players, they are all part of the organization and they all matter.  It is about the sum of the parts, not the individual parts.

Leadership.  From the very top of the organization, to the field and into the locker room…leadership matters.  The Cardinals have maintained very steady ownership and leadership throughout their history.  As with any organization, things change, but a quick look at the organizational history reveals consistent leadership and ownership.

Culture and Consistency.  It is not about flash.  It is not about the individual.  It is all about the team.  The name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back (the Cardinals logo has barely changed in the last 100 years).  It is about the profession and the game.  The individual is subordinated to the team, to the sport and even the community.  The Cardinals have a long history of never allowing one person to become greater than the team.  Sometimes it was rough (Curt Flood), unpopular (trading Albert), but always it was done for the best of the team.

Clearly no organization is perfect, and both the Cardinals and Steelers have had their issues, but there is no denying they are both at the top of their industry.  Like any business, they have periods of great success as well as periods of struggle, but their overall trajectory has always been up.  Their achievements are undeniable, and a great part of their success rests with consistency.  They have a system, a culture, an organization and a leadership team that is consistent in message and vision.

They know who they are, they know what works for them, and they hold to their core values.  They do not chase the latest fad, the hot candidate, the latest leadership trend or pop culture phenomena.  Though they stand at the top of their respective industries, neither organization is known as spendthrifts.   In the end, both the Steelers and Cardinals reflect their towns, their fans, and their values.  Interesting really…Pittsburgh and St. Louis are sort of “old school, basic” cities…seems those ideas are fundamental to long-term success.

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Super Bowl, Super Irony and Super Clarity

Super Bowl week, a week of unrelenting media bombardment and hype. Stories of what might happen, what should happen, and commercials.  Blows my mind that as a society we get wound-up over the idea of how well something is going to be pitched to us for our consumption.  Then again, the commercials are sometimes more entertaining than the game.   Super Bowl Sunday has become a part of our national fabric.  And this year is no different, except for a story that broke on Tuesday regarding Performance Enhancing Drugs. Sort of makes me feel like it is cycling season. However, this time names like Alex Rodriguez and Ray Lewis, and a bunch of other “mainstream” athletes are tied to the story.

Here we sit on Friday, and not a word of the story.  It was a story for 24 hours, then it was simply swept away or ignored…48 hours later hardly a peep.  And the response from Ray Lewis to the media in New Orleans, well it sounded a lot like other comments we have heard from other high-profile athletes over the years.  It was all a bit ironic, the face of the sport, on the sports biggest stage, with a world-wide audience, denying, minimizing the story and ultimately turning the spot-light onto the accusers, their motivations and their credibility.  Love irony, just love it.

As we reach the end of the week, irony has brought clarity – the NFL is too big to fail.  Same goes for MLB.  A-Rod and Ray Lewis are marquee players, faces of their sport, and no one cares about what they did or did not do when it comes to PEDs.  It is so clear what is valued and what is not.  Marion Jones cheated and lied; she went to prison.  Lance cheated and is literally and figuratively only beginning to paying the price.  Ray Lewis, A-Rod, Bonds, Clemens, or any of the others in the NFL or MLB…not a dime.  Nothing.  It is another moment of clarity.

Now the real irony is the fact that one of the government’s reasons for going after Lance is because of the US Postal Service sponsorship of the cycling team.  The positive press the US Postal Service received for those years was absolutely massive.  It was a marketing coup and might represent one of the best advertising investments in the history of marketing, yet the government feels they were a victim of fraud.  The US Postal Service has had two other positive moments in its entire history before the cycling team, the Pony Express and “neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow”.  Gotta love irony.

Clearly, like everyone else in the country, I will be watching the Super Bowl Sunday.  Well, after I get back from my bike ride that is…

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Lance Armstrong and the American Way

Tis the season, time for summer fun, family vacations, the Tour de France, and the Olympics – and of course the always topical talk of doping in sports. Gotta love international sport. Where else can one combine lessons in geography, culture and biochemistry! It is interesting, or maybe ironic, but the only athletes to really suffer any professional sanction, criminal convictions or just plain condemnation are those who compete in international sport. Yes, there have been a few NFL and MLB players suspended, but nothing of any significance, and certainly not at the height of their careers. Marion Jones has went to jail, Ben Johnson surrendered his gold, countless cyclist and track athletes have been banned for years, if not life, and keeping with the spirit of the season, Lance is back in the news…again.

What I find ironic in the whole Lance story is that well, to use a phrase, he was just being the classic American.  No, not that every American cheats, far from it.  However, if there is something to the American Spirit, or American Way, it is to win…always.  If there is anything American’s do, it is to take things “to the next level”.  American’s push the boundaries, they strive to gain more, to overcome obstacles.  They leverage their optimism to go above and beyond the accepted norm.  They plan, they analyze, they grind, they take risks and they find a better way.

The country was founded on the idea of more is better.  The British had an interesting system of somewhat representative government and a capitalist economy.  The colonies took those ideas and ran with them.  If a little democracy and freedom was good – more is better – the Revolution was on!  The Japanese implement the Kaizen theories in business and manufacturing, America takes the ideas to the next level with Six Sigma, Lean, Just-In-Time and a host of other quality and efficiency programs.  America goes absolutely hog-wild when it comes to pushing limits; the old “taking it to the next level” thing.  It is just the American way – better, faster, more – win!

And so we comeback to sports and international competition.  Lance, for all that he might or might not have done, is a product of his environment – he is and was a reflection of the American Way – good or bad, he is what he is.  Cycling was a European sport.  Americans came to the game only recently, and when the first group of Americans broke into the sport, they did it as American Pioneers are want to do – they came in loud, rough and hard.  Those guys of Team 7-11 were a wild and tough bunch.  They won a little, and they intimidated a lot.  They were classic Yanks in a Euro show, and it did not go over well with the old guard.  Greg LeMond played by the Euro rules and won, but as a quasi Euro on a European team.  Now who knows exactly how it all went down, but doping in cycling, and sports in general, exploded in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In cycling specifically, was it because of the American threat to the “old guard” – no one will ever know, but the timing fits.  (Note:  There is an entire Cold War component to doping in sports, but why bother going down that path)

So there it is, Lance and the new American team see the field on which they are going to compete – drugs are there.  If they are going to win, which is the only way an American team knows how to complete, then they have to be smarter.  Did this mean they were also doping?  Who knows, but they certainly trained smarter, competed smarter, leveraged technology better and just flat-out raced smarter.  If they did dope, they certainly doped smarter.  Look at the test results – Lance nor any of his teammates were caught when everyone else on other teams were.  If nothing else, it is telling.

The American Way is an interesting thing…it is a winning attitude, it is a risk taking attitude.  It is a willingness to push boundaries, and a willingness to sacrifice to improve one’s situation.  It is certainly not a bad thing – look at the society it has created and the innovations it has spawned.  Yes, everyone can point to problems or short comings, but the overall track record of “The Grand Experiment” is amazing.  And Lance Armstrong is a product of that environment.  He attained amazing results and has done incredible things for himself and others.  Did he push the boundaries – absolutely.  Did he do some things that are at a minimum “on the edge” – almost certainly.  But then again, is not being on the edge just another piece of the American Way?

Not my place, nor frankly my concern, of who is “right or wrong” in this never-ending drama.  All I know is that I was entertained watching a guy race a bike. I still do find it entertaining to watch anyone race a bike frankly.  Lance made for great fun and conversation, plus lead to a story that has inspired a few folks, not to mention a foundation that has left the world a bit better than it was.  Plus yellow bracelets became a fashion trend – that is staggering when you think about it.  But above all, Lance has reminded me that there is something to the American Way – it can and does do so much good, but like all things, balance is key.

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