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Corporate lessons from football coaching

Lisa Larson
Lisa Larson is the Founder and President of Larson & Partners, LLC. When she is not helping companies optimize the business results delivered from their IT projects, she can be found watching football.

The first football game I ever saw was the 1970 Super Bowl between the Vikings and the Chiefs. Five years old, I at my parents' friends house, I took a break from playing with the other kids and went into the living room to see what all the shouting was about. It was one of those "idiot savant" moments when I just understood exactly how the game worked without being able to articulate it. I was hooked!

I had the incredible honor of working for the late great Bo Schembechler during my four years as an undergraduate at Michigan and through him I learned about all aspects of the game. So hooked am I on football, I endured a not-so-great 20-year marriage because my now-ex-husband was a great football coach. I have been on the sidelines in one form or another -- recruiting assistant, water girl, ardent fan -- most of my life.

I have also been in corporate America for the past 15 years. I am a consultant primarily focused on program management and have worked for several software companies on their delivery services. I have been a part of several infamous organizations (AT&T, MicroStrategy, Freddie Mac) and observed the drastic decline of courageous, moral leadership and any sense of accountability -- even though the consequences to the financial markets and society as a whole have become increasingly dire.

A proven, successful leadership model is critical to healing corporate America. My experience in both corporate America and on the football sidelines has convinced me that coaching football is the best leadership model in existence. Insights from football, then, might be just what business leaders need to hear. Here are the key lessons:

Football coaches are influencers only -- they cannot actually execute the plays themselves. Their job is to lead, instruct and create goodwill for their program.

Head coaches MUST assemble a trusted staff of assistants. Prep time for each game is very limited, and there are too many tasks involved for a head coach to micro-manage and attempt to be a lone ranger. The coaching staff as a whole must be completely aligned and crystal clear on the execution plan.

The head coach is the single "throat to choke." If a team does not win to the satisfaction of the athletic director, it is the head coach who is fired. The new coach is under no obligation to keep the previous coaches' staff and the relationship of trust required makes it likely he won't. But it is the head coach who is ultimately accountable and publicly hired and fired. The head coach is also fully accountable for hiring the right staff and firing underperforming staff members.

Performance measurement in football is simple: wins and losses. All financial rewards stem from that one measure of success -- ticket sales, TV contracts, alumni donations, etc.

Football coaches and their teams cannot "fake it" -- their results are demonstrated before a live audience every week. They do not have TPS reports and hundreds of green status reports and talking heads who use big words to cover up the fact that nothing is getting done.

Roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined. Coaches must know who is calling the offensive and defensive plays during a game (hello Redskins), who coaches each position, etc. Players must know where they are on the depth chart, what the plays and signals are each week, and exactly what their responsibilities are for each play. It is so clear that when a mistake is made, the television commentator can call out the position coach and replay the mistake immediately.

The team supersedes the individual in football. In order to win, every player must contribute to the success of the team -- even the scout team that simulates the opponent during practice is critical to winning. A great quarterback can't throw the ball to himself and one great linebacker cannot defend the whole field. As Coach Schembechler used to say, "The team, the team, the team."

If the strategy is not working, then the coach must acknowledge that fact and make adjustments to try and bring about a better result. No one understands the old adage that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different outcome" better than a football coach.

I believe this is a leadership model that can be successfully applied in corporate America. It requires a higher standard of accountability. It requires the creation of high performing teams who are incented and compensated as a team -- no more failed individual executives taking home huge severance packages. It requires simplifying corporate functions that we have made SO overly complex that we cannot even measure their outcomes. And it requires boards of directors and other stakeholders who will act as fans and athletic directors.

By Lisa Larson

 |  November 6, 2009; 6:43 AM ET |  Category:  Leadership development Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Certainly, there are things that can be learnt from football coaches; however leadership is another ball game. I work in this industry and to me; it's far more than just team-playing. It's the leader who has to lead powerfully and who has to know what they are doing. It doesn't matter how committed employees are, it is the leader and management who must make the decisions that will lead the organization to success.

When they do that with confidence, clarity, respect, passion and many other things then and generally only then, will the employees want to be part of the team.

It is essential that leaders are provided with one to one support because they need to be able to discuss their issues, problems in order to be able to circumvent them. This is often not provided and often, leaders are just expected to know what to do. That’d be like driving a car in a top level car race without knowing how to drive.

Posted by: IBCoaching | November 10, 2009 4:22 AM

Schembechler was an uncommon man. He lived by his principles and 'let the chips fall where they may'. Anyone behaving that way in today's corporate America will get marginalized very quickly.

The problem today is that society has changed dramatically. Politicians and the captains of industry spend most of every waking moment establishing systems to prevent them from taking any responsibility for their actions. There are individual exceptions to be sure. But hardly enough to make a difference.

Best example -- the knuckle head running the Michigan football program currently.

Posted by: RichardinPasadena | November 6, 2009 8:25 PM

Look to football coaches for leadership? Lord how far we have fallen.

Posted by: slim2 | November 6, 2009 8:06 PM

Look to football coaches for leadership? Lord how far we have fallen.

Posted by: slim2 | November 6, 2009 8:04 PM

Mr. Zelaya said early on Friday that the accord failed after Mr. Micheletti moved to form a new government without him, Reuters reported. Mr. Zelaya had declined to name any members to the cabinet, Mr. Micheletti said, so he was going ahead without them. “We’ve completed the process of forming a unity government,” Mr. Micheletti said in a televised speech quoted by Reuters. “It represents a wide spectrum despite the fact that Mr. Zelaya did not send a list of representatives.”

Here's more leadership coaching; xref: 'list' is also another of whose favorite words.

Posted by: randomsample | November 6, 2009 4:24 PM

volley2.ind 104: ?>*:\ ...//2009:11:06:02?!:57:__*Longitude:__*Latitude:__* [exterior sound]
#147 of 147: William Hale (hinging0) Fri 06 Nov 2009 (01:20 PM)

Barack, you are an excellent quarterback.
Corner back here.

HRC, you are a coach, and a quarter back yourself,

Larry, you are a coach, but somewhat without portfolio officially

Joe, you are a coach and a reliable player, though with Joe Namath,
'issues', from way back.

Who is so used [exterior sound] to being a Howard Cosell, or
Secretary General proving by showing the record... who may not be up to
speed on not only visualizing peace on the field, but visualizing the
coaching staff, Athletic Administration, etc. Baysian herd of
'overhead' to have that peaceful result on the field.

So, this article was useful to that degree and even had two quotes who
has posted over the years: re: "doing the same thing over and over and
expecting different results," and well, one of your favorite words,
like your use of the word, 'host', or..., Barack, is 'results', HRC.

A vote on Sunday would xref: "No one gets married on Sunday," but it
appears current turbulance has folks staying buckled up in their seats,
so... thanks.

PS, Yes, there was some 'resume' aspect to the first half of the
article, but isn't that also an important part of what coaches and
peers are supposed to care about? vs. simply "calling 'em as you see

Posted by: randomsample | November 6, 2009 4:21 PM

I would also add that sports teams have it right when it comes to salaries and bonuses. Do your job well, you can probably keep it. Be spectacular, you can command an amazing, Yankees-style salary.

Teams also offer performance-based bonuses--more pay if the team makes it to post-season play.

But corporate America expects bonuses--they are even built into contracts--and CEOs continue to receive salaries that make CC Sabathia's look modest, even as they lay off employees to compensate for dropping stock values and demand taxpayer bailouts. The utility players, so to speak, pay for the stars' screw-ups.

I don't think the Yankees have it wrong--they have it right! Last I looked, professional sports teams (except for the PHX Coyotes) aren't looking for anyone to bail them out.

Posted by: ItshotinPHX | November 6, 2009 3:34 PM

Was there anything to be learned from this article? After attempting to legitimize your expertise by using Bo's picture on the front page and then citing your proven experience through most of the article you said nothing that isn't obvious to everyone.

Posted by: jhakken | November 6, 2009 3:21 PM

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