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Lisa Larson
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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.

Stanley Cup: Post-season leadership

Congratulations to the Washington Capitals for a dream season and a good run at the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the aftermath of their loss in a close Game 7 to Montreal, the armchair goalies and sports pundits were out in full force with opinions about what the Capitals should have done to win.

But anyone with real sports experience understands that the run up to a championship in any sport is like a second season: extremely demanding, with everything on the line in every contest. Winning in that mode is a different beast.

Winning when the pressure is turned up requires developing a very strong identity during the regular season and staying true to those values and instincts during post-season play. Knowing what risks to take when and how to mitigate those risks is critical to making the split-second decisions required. Strong business leaders would do well to cultivate this and build a foundation to handle unforeseen challenges.

Let's take the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints as an example. They developed a strong fan base and identity during their regular season run -- the "Who Dat" underdog team from Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. When they won the NFC Championship and made it to the Super Bowl, suddenly they were surrounded by media attention, as well as attention from coaches and analysts with plenty of advice.

Coach Sean Payton had to block out the noise, focus on his key strategies, and execute well under pressure. In the big game, he went for a fourth-down conversion in the second quarter and was not successful. But he came right back and opened the second half with an onside kick -- a HUGE risk -- that paid off handsomely for the Saints. Coach Payton used every minute of practice and each regular season game and film session to build a team that was ready to lay it all on the line and perform during the physically and mentally challenging post season. If he had just put those plays in for the Super Bowl itself, the team would not have been prepared to execute well.

Now let's take a business example: Ikea. Ikea realized that an economic downturn is a time to shine for your customers and distance yourself from your competitors. They planned ahead of time for a downturn in sales (not a crisis, but a downturn) and chose to use that trigger to invest MORE in their retail stores and service and lower their prices. At the beginning of 2000 during an upturn in the market, they went through a whole series of economic scenarios with their Board of Directors to be ready to take action during the next downturn.

"The lesson of planning for the downturn is that you are prepared when a downturn occurs and you can set your plans in motion, having the Board with you and having had the discussion with your management. You don't lose time. The benefit is you don't react to the circumstances; rather you are proactively managing it in a good way," writes Anders Dahlvig, Group President and CEO, Ikea Services.

When everything is on the line, like in a Super Bowl game or a drastic economic change, leaders don't have time to second guess their decisions. In sports, coaches invest a great deal of time analyzing film of their team and their opposition and creating game plans based on scenarios that are likely to take place on the field. Ikea demonstrated that the same strategy can benefit business leaders.

While the Capitals did not win out the series and make it to the Stanley Cup finals, Coach Boudreau did everything he could to prepare the team and went into the series with confidence. The post-season analysis indicates that the Capitals were one-for-33 on power plays, a traditional strength.

There were also several players who not only turned in poor performances, but made costly mistakes. In the end, it comes down to human execution and there is a loser in every contest. True leaders shine when everything is on the line and their decisions require the courage of their convictions -- knowing that win or lose, they did the best they could and they are willing to be accountable for the outcome.

By Lisa Larson

 |  May 11, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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What is this rubbish?

Boudreau deserves as much blame as any of his players. Since when is a coach not responsible for his players' lack of execution?

Even more importantly, since when is blowing a 3-1 series lead in the FIRST round of the playoffs--to the worst regular-season team that actually actually made the playoffs--considered a "good run?" The Caps choked. They blew it. They came up small. They have nothing to be proud of. They should only be embarrassed.

Posted by: micron26 | May 11, 2010 11:47 PM
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