THREE LESSONS CEOs CAN LEARN FROM THE NFL
By Daron K. Roberts
Leadership is a contact sport.
From Wall Street to the National Football League (NFL), the CEO and head coach are co-laborers in an unforgiving battle to increase the bottom-line (profit and wins). Amid the tornado of overblown strategic plans and slick slide decks, CEOs can get lost in the ancillary functions that can deflate a company’s growth.
The NFL offers CEOs a unique setting to examine management strategies. Head coaches do not enjoy the luxury of waiting three months for quarterly reports. The weekly gauntlet of nationally televised games shortens the runway for strategy rollout. Results are instantly made public and improvements must be made within 168 hours.
Here are three lessons the CEO can learn from successful NFL head coaches.
Bill Walsh – Script the First 25 Plays
Legendary coach Bill Walsh, the Steve Jobs of football innovation, introduced the practice of “scripting” to the NFL. In coaching parlance, scripting describes the process of creating a predetermined set of plays to be used in a game. Walsh won three Super Bowl championships as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, but the lessons that enabled him to be successful were engineered as an offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers. Leading up to a game, Walsh culled a long list of plays from his West Coast Offensive playbook and created a set of 25 plays that he would call at the beginning of the next matchup.
This filtering process forced Walsh to: 1) identify his team’s competitive advantage over the next opponent, 2) prioritize options that would maximize success and 3) communicate the overall strategy with his lieutenants and players. Leading up to a game, the 49ers offensive squad rehearsed these 25 plays both in practice sessions at full speed and in walk-through sessions at a brisk pace.
In “The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership,” Walsh noted, “Scripting was a most effective leadership tool in fair and foul weather. In a very calculated way, I began calling the plays for the game before the game was played.”
Whether the first quarter of a football game or the second quarter of a fiscal year, managers should take an inventory of their primary goals, isolate the best strategies to reach those landmarks and script the path to reaching them. Most importantly, simulating the process with top managers and lieutenants is critical. The twin acts of scripting and simulation forces managers to work out potential kinks prior to kickoff.
Bill Parcells – Evaluate Your Lineup, Then Do it Again and Again
Each NFL club takes 90 players into training camp. When the New England Patriots kick off against the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first regular season matchup of 2015, each team will have 53 players. The math is simple: the workforce of an NFL club gets sliced in half each year. Given this rapid human resources shredder, coaches constantly evaluate their lineup in order to determine which players will make the final cut.
Does an offensive guard have the physical durability to withstand a 16-game regular season? Does a cornerback have the football acumen to adjust to a position change? These questions typify the selection process that leads up to the selection of a final roster.
Bill Parcells, former NFL head coach and considered as a turnaround guru (the only NFL head coach to lead four different teams to the playoffs), employed a relentless system of player evaluation.
On average, a team will conduct four personnel meetings per day. This incessant assessment (and reassessment) brings to the fore the strengths and weaknesses of each player on the roster, and highlights position groups where the team can “up” its talent pool.
Business leaders have to spearhead a similar approach to evaluating top personnel. Does a sales rep show the initiative needed to increase target numbers? Does a VP of marketing understand the changing landscape of an emerging customer base? Constantly evaluating the company’s lieutenants empowers the CEO to retain top talent and identify need areas for roster improvement.
Pete Carroll – Embrace the GOAT
No, GOAT does not stand for the “Greatest of All-Time.” “GOAT” is shorthand for scapegoat. CEOs must be willing to provide cover for their team, especially during highly visible crises.
Enter Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks.
Super Bowl XLIX pitted the Seattle Seahawks against the New England Patriots. This matchup was an archetypal Clayton Christensen disruptor-meets-disruptee matchup. With three Super Bowl championships and an eventual Hall of Fame quarterback (Tom Brady), Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was taking on Pete Carroll (one Super Bowl victory) and a young Seahawks squad.
The game turned on a critical 2nd and goal decision. With 26 seconds remaining, Seahawks (down 28-24 to the Patriots) had the ball and were less than 36 inches away from sealing a second Super Bowl win. Instead of following conventional wisdom and running the ball, the Seahawks called a pass play that was intercepted by Patriots defensive back, Darius Butler. Game over.
The aftermath of that provides a case study in crisis management.
Carroll immediately took the blame for the play call. In an NBC interview shortly after the game, Carroll said, “It’s a play that we really tried to keep him [Butler] from making. I told those guys, that’s my fault totally.”
In reality, Seahawks offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, called the play. Instead of throwing Bevell under the proverbial bus, Carroll made it clear the play was the head coach’s decision.
This public “falling on the sword” approach engenders lieutenants to the CEO and builds the social capital needed to buoy employee confidence. More importantly, the potential of long-term trust deficit dwarfs the short-term fallout from media criticism of the CEO. CEOs must take the public hit and then spearhead an internal postmortem to correct any systemic deficiencies.
CEOs can take a page from the head coach’s playbook to improve management. Both the gridiron and boardroom share a singular focus – winning.
Daron K. Roberts, J.D., is a former NFL coach and founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation (CSLi) at the University of Texas at Austin. CSLi develops and deploys leadership and character curricula to student-athletes and coaches. His forthcoming book, “No Struggle No Progress: 10 Growth Lessons from an NFL Coach,” will be released in January 2016.