Six Leadership Lessons from Sports Executives

Many CIOs are hired specifically to make a major impact on both the productivity and the direction of the IT department. When these executives arrive at their new jobs, they often find that overcoming the existing culture is akin to swimming upstream against an overpowering current.

They discover that their inherited teams lack accountability, think of deadlines as flexible, disregard processes, and treat others within the organization poorly. Needless to say, anticipated turnarounds prove elusive.

This scenario parallels the many attempted “turnaround” projects in professional sports. Countless examples exist where a new coach or general manager is appointed to impact change, struggles with the task, and is soon replaced with the next change agent.

However, there are sport executives who have proven to be skilled at the art of the turnaround. Bill Stoneman (former GM, Los Angeles Angels), Jeffrey Lurie (owner, Philadelphia Eagles), Rod Thorn (President, New Jersey Nets), Bill Polian (President and GM, Indianapolis Colts), Geoff Petrie (GM, Sacramento Kings) and Dan Rooney (owner, Pittsburgh Steelers) each architected a major turnaround within their respective franchises.

Between 1995 and 2005, these executives accounted for three championships, numerous playoff appearances, and roughly one-fifth of successful culture change efforts in the three major sports (National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball).

In researching and interviewing these individuals, six prominent leadership principles emerged. Each can easily be applied to IT executives struggling with their own underperforming teams.

1. Speak with a child’s candor: Children are notorious for speaking the truth. Oblivious to social niceties, the five-year-old will not hesitate to inform her parents that their homemade meal “tastes bad.” Similarly, these sports executives entered poor situations and, instead of ignoring the many problems, they acknowledged and questioned deficiencies. Why don’t we have a practice facility? Why is our locker room in such as sad state? Why are we treating our players so poorly? They expertly took stock of the current conditions, and created a catalogue of issues that needed resolution. Additionally, each of these subjects was broached in the context of the larger organizational vision.

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