Corporate lessons from football coaching
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.
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