Six Leadership Lessons from Sports Executives

By Joe Frontiera, PhD and Dan Leidl, PhD  |  Posted 08-31-2009

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.

Team-Building and Perseverance

2. Form a clear and inclusive vision: This concept has become clichéd in the recent past.  A vision is not intended to be the end-all; it is a starting point. Simply stated, a vision is about leadership. It is about connecting with others on a personal level and effectively communicating an idea of the future, of what the organization can be in clear and understandable terms.

An inclusive vision is one in which everyone, regardless of their level, must play a part in order for it to be successful.  Rather than communicating this idea exclusively to the executive staff, or "key players," these executives realize that every member of the organization is a stakeholder. When talking about his vision of winning a championship, one executive stated, "It's not just the coaches and the players and the scouting staff that are responsible for this. It's everybody in this organization."  Even the janitor needed to do his part in order to prevent the spread of infection within the locker room. Make no mistake: a clear, inclusive vision can be a powerful tool that can mobilize the energy and efforts of employees towards a singular cause.

3. Stay true to your plan: Similar to any executive team, sports leaders developed a clear plan to actualize their vision. What separates the successful executives from the rest was the steadfast adherence to their plan, even when there were significant pressures to diverge.

Too often, leaders shift their focus to the competition. Although this can be helpful from a tactical standpoint, it often results in wholesale changes to their organization's plan for success. For example, when one NFL team wins the Super Bowl using stellar defense, other teams will soon try to strengthen their own defenses in an effort to imitate that success. This reactionary impulse only serves as evidence that the copycat team lacked an individualized approach for achievement.

Additionally, intense demands can originate from fans and local media and national media to fire a coach, trade for a player or select a certain individual in the draft. When organizations cave to these demands, it demonstrates a lack of commitment to their own ideals. As one executive stated, "There's going to be a lot of public criticism, and there's going to be a lot of back biting, and there's going to be a lot of second-guessing. You just have to ride that out. You just have to stick your chin into the wind and ride it out."

Values and Vision

4. Triangulate your values: The foundation for a healthy culture is its values, and each leader was able to clearly communicate his values in three ways:

•       Verbally. Each leader was able to articulate his values through conversation. In doing this, each made his expectations clear, and each was clear on the behaviors and values that were important.
•       Day-to-day actions. Each leader was aware that employees, from players to front-office executives, were scrutinizing their actions on a regular basis. They had the insights to realize that even minute decisions and action had the potential to transmit their core values.
•       Critical decisions/crises. Crises always seem to arise in times of change, as there are those who resist change in order to maintain the status quo. During times of critical decisions, sport leaders were able to model their values through their actions.

In essence, leaders "triangulated" their values by communicating the same message to their followers from multiple directions.  They successfully removed the guesswork from their followers, many of whom were accustomed to toiling under less communicative leaders and their ambiguous guidelines.

5. Celebrate success: Although it would seem simple to determine whether a team has been successful in sport, this can be challenging at the beginning of a turnaround. After all, the team still lacks evidence in the wins column.

Therefore, it falls upon the leader to communicate smaller successes throughout the organization. Every success communicates a certain value (or values) that the leader wants to embed in the organization. By communicating successes, leaders were able to further engrain their values into the culture.

6. Think Independently: Each leader in this study made a concerted effort to continually question league and personal assumptions. "Why do we have to run 50 percent of the time and pass 50 percent of the time? Why can't we pass 70 percent of the time?" These teams adopted processes to ensure that they anticipated and, in some cases, created the trends that lesser organizations fail to anticipate. To accomplish this, leaders surrounded themselves with individuals who were not afraid to challenge them. This free exchange of ideas allowed the organization to continuously improve, enhance their strategy and avoid complacency.

These sport executives realized that their product was people--and getting the players, coaching staff, front office, marketing team and scouting department to function like a unified team was the key to success.

Similarly, IT executives should examine the unity of their teams. The heads of infrastructure and operations, enterprise applications and the planning units in an IT organization often have competing goals--yet each group needs to work together in order to optimize the department.

Like successful sport executives, IT leaders should consider that their success lies not in their ability to identify and implement the latest and greatest technology. Evaluating, implementing and optimizing technology is what the department does, but an executive's ability and willingness to lead others in the process of engagement will ultimately determine whether a turnaround is successful.

Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl are managing partners of Meno Consulting, a boutique-consulting firm that specializes in leadership development, organizational culture and team building.