Why you should run your business like a football team

Why you should run your business like a football team

December 16, 2018

This weekend not only kicked off the opening round of playoffs for the National Football League, but on Monday, Jan. 13, the undefeated Clemson Tigers and LSU Tigers will play in the NCAA College Football National Championship game.

Every one of these successful teams, whether at the collegiate level or in the pros, has a key ingredient that is vital to continuing high performance.

That ingredient is reflection.

A large part of a football team’s success is taken up with pre-game strategy meetings, appraisals from coaching staff at each break in the game, post-game reviews, group team analysis and individual reflection. All of this happens every week.

So, why is it that the majority of our workplaces only have annual and – if we are lucky – half-yearly performance reviews?

Not only is the opportunity for reflection and assessment limited in business, but it is carried out in a format that encourages defensiveness, negativity and a sense of self-doubt. How can employees continuously self-check, reassess and improve without a system and support network that allows them to do this?

The annual performance reviews that most businesses currently undertake can rarely be described as a positive arena of feedback and development. Instead, they tend to lead the employee to think they are being overly managed.

People may accept that there is a need for improvement and development, but what they do about it is often questionable.

Think like an athlete

An improvement mindset is vital if we are to change workplace thinking and boost growth. If employees can start thinking the way our greatest athletes do, a culture of continual growth and high performance will grow.

Here’s where we can learn from the way our greatest sporting teams operate. Their processes of reflection are positive. Opportunities for development are welcomed with open arms. Players play to their strengths and, as a secondary endeavor, work on development areas.

There is a constant awareness of exactly what you, as an individual athlete, bring to the team. There is also a shared acknowledgement that there is always a need for continuous improvement.

What is pivotal is getting employees to see reflection as a positive experience and a way to improve their own performance. In football, for example, a Quarterback develops an ability to read a defense in order to successfully run the offense.

In Super Bowl 51 Tom Brady of the New England patriots orchestrated the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history thanks to his ability to read the Atlanta Falcons’ defense.

Playing to your strengths

How do we start this reflection process within organizations? By focusing not only on the employee’s self-awareness, but more importantly on the self-awareness of the leader in the situation. Every leader needs to be honest with themselves and their employees about what their strengths are.

If leaders are honest about what they do well and what their opportunities for improvement are, they instantly gain credibility with employees and the process can become a positive one.

This approach is termed strengths-based management, and it puts the focus on the individual’s inherent strengths. Everyone should be working 90% to their strengths and 10% to what they are trying to develop.

This is not to say that we should ignore individual weaknesses. It simply recognizes that self-improvement can be a lot more enjoyable if the focus is on strengths, rather than the things we are not achieving and are not doing well.

With the right training and ultimately, the right processes in place, this sort of accountability can be pushed into all businesses. Just as a coach holds his players accountable for their actions, businesses can hold employees accountable for their own continuous improvement.

Remember, there is only one constant in business, as in sport: change.

By building systems that encourage positive reflection and work to individuals’ strengths, we can build employee’s ability to change, to progress and to achieve.

So, is that all there is to the correlation between business and football? Not at all. There are five football principles that every business leader should know.

In football, a good head coach knows it pays to set goals, develop a strategy and practice.

Well, the same thing is true in business. Every year, companies’ great expectations fall apart under pressure and a few underdogs go all the way.  

What’s interesting is that most NFL and college football teams do a better job than businesses do in key areas of leadership and management.

Successful business leaders know that these five principles drawn from football make for a winning approach to business:

1. Practice isn’t optional.

In sports, it’s rare to come across a play in a game that you’ve never seen in practice. In football, most teams spend five days a week preparing for just one game. The goal is to fail in practice and iron out mistakes before game day.

In business, practice is often shortchanged. It’s pretty unusual for a team to run through a presentation three or more times before pitching a new client. And, how many people take the time for a debriefing after important meetings?

The next time your team faces a difficult situation, spend some time training for the encounter. It’s guaranteed to pay off.

2. Coaches can’t play.

In business, leaders and managers often step in to handle difficult situations. That never happens in sports. Since coaches can’t get in the game, they have to lead from the sidelines – which builds important skills. Coaches need to communicate strategy and let players handle execution – and so do you.

Too often in business, people do the exact opposite. New managers, in particular, often simply fix mistakes or handle small tasks rather than take the time to coach their direct reports. In the short term, that just seems easier. But if managers can keep themselves “out of the game,” they can build stronger, more effective teams for the long run.

3. Everyone uses a playbook.

Many companies lack defined systems and processes. With no clear “playbook” for how the company likes things done, team members end up running in different directions.

This absolutely would not fly on a football team. Imagine a new player showing up to play on a college team. Now imagine him telling the coach, “I don’t need the playbook. I’ve got my own style.” That player would earn himself a really nice spot on the bench.

Nevertheless, businesses tolerate this kind of behavior all the time. Team members simply do what works for them, and the results are very hit or miss. How much better would your business be if everyone followed a cohesive process, one that’s been proven to get results?

Having a playbook makes it possible to keep up momentum when people are out sick, on vacation or leave the company.

4. No position is forever.

In sports, players have a finite contract that covers employment duration and compensation, which is then renegotiated based on current market value and past performance.

In business, there is an assumption that employment will go on indefinitely and that compensation only goes up. Rarely does anyone evaluate whether a team member is still in the right role, at the right level compensation, or if a change needs to be made.

Sports teams do a much better job of unemotionally embracing the concept of current value to the team.

5. Objectives are clear.

Imagine playing or watching a game and having no idea how to win. In sports, the rules of the game are very clear, as is the score. In many organizations, however, employees really have no idea where the company is headed, how they are being measured or the rules that apply.

When employees are given transparent information about the company, including its financials, goals (quarterly, annual, five-year, etc.) and how their position fits into the bigger picture, they are more empowered, focused, outcome-driven and are able to find greater meaning in their work.

There’s not a lot of ambiguity in sports: Everyone knows what’s expected and what’s needed to win, so perhaps it’s not that surprising that football teams do a better job of keeping their eye on the ball than most businesses.

Take a few pages from the football playbook – emphasizing regular practice and focusing on goals to consistently ensure that the right player is in the right spot at the right time at your company. These winning strategies can help you come out on top.

But these aren’t the only football principles that every business leader should know.

There’s a lot to be said as why you should run your business like successful coaches run their football teams.

In many ways football teams resemble a corporation. Some coaches refer to every member of the organization as a shareholder: Every player has a share of the team but it’s not always an equal share.

Successful coaches know that culture beats strategy every time. He knows it’s not the Xs and Os that win championships. It’s the Jimmys and Joes. He also knows that talent alone isn’t enough. At the highest levels, all players are talented. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there.

The beauty of what successful coaches have done is that they have created an environment where good personnel can achieve great results. So follow their blueprint and you can do the same thing without a roster of overpaid employees.

The biggest factor in the successful coach’s accomplishments are the use of a comprehensive, highly targeted screening mechanism to find players who are the right fit. The philosophy is that fit trumps talent for every position. And this process filters out the wrong prospects.

Successful coaches are aware of who they are and seek like-minded players who share their core values.

Some coaches are exacting. They value team chemistry over individual talent and hold accountability as a top priority. Not every professional athlete is willing to perform under their rules and regulations.

They like it that way because the filtering mechanism is at work. These coaches and their scouts just need to go out and find the right free agents who would be a fit for their system. Successful coaches understand the importance of repelling the suspects in order to attract the best prospects.

As a business leader, do you?

Championship teams are so well-positioned, differentiated and articulated that all of their competitors know who the successful coach is, what he’s about and what the winning team stands for.

Business, like football, is a team sport. Take a page from the successful coach’s personnel playbook to save you time, money and headache in building your championship team. Sign the right players with the right mindset and goals to have a unit that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

Here are the three values that guide championship teams:

1. Passion.

The successful coach and his scouts seek out players with a genuine passion for playing football not for the lifestyle that comes with being a pro athlete.

This is why when successful coaches and their scouts interview prospects they ask questions to uncover the person’s passion for the game.

You need to ask the same type of questions. Business, like football, is hard work and when a person loves what he or she is doing, it doesn’t feel like work.

2. Intelligence.

If a successful coach likes his team to play a very complex, cerebral strategy, they and their scouts know they need intelligent players, athletes with intellectual curiosity, commitment, a strong work ethic and follow-through.

This is important because football is more of a grind than other sports. Unlike what’s the case for basketball or baseball, football players play only once a week. Head coaches will tell you that players don’t get better in games: They get better through the repetition of practice.

But this is only the case if the players have a passion for practicing and are coachable.

3. Value.

I imagine a coach placing a budget on each position and will not waiver from it regardless of how talented the individual may be when it’s contract renegotiation time.

If a player is not performing up to what the coach thinks should be his value, he probably rebalances the budget so to speak and releases that player.

With the organization structured in this manner, the team would never be at the mercy of the marketplace or a player.

Sure, players can make more money elsewhere and some do opt to leave but others would rather take less money and stay.

No one player controls any teams. A successful coach’s strategy has been proved time and time again. It sends a message about the importance of the team’s culture to the entire roster.

A successful corporation in any industry is not beholden to any one employee. The company must always put itself ahead of the individual even the superstar.

To run your business like the successful coach, think of the long term while preparing in the short term. Everything you do from a personnel standpoint in your organization has consequences for someone else in the company.

Remember: The team is the superstar.

(Updated: January 2, 2020)