Building a Successful Team: A Lesson from the NFL

February 2, 2015

work relationships

In any profession, in any field, and in any line of work, at some point or another people collaborate and work together as a team. Successfully managing a team can be tricky, and this problem is pervasive in both the business world and the sports world. Gerry Sandusky is the play-by-play voice of the Baltimore Ravens and a speaker, corporate trainer, and author of the New York Times bestseller, Forgotten Sundays. He has written and spoken about the concept of team, and AMA wanted to learn more. This is an interview with Gerry on what lessons and practices companies in the business world can take from NFL teams to help their own teams be more successful.

AMA: The NFL has minicamps and training camp to bring players towards a common goal through a shared sacrifice. What can companies do to emulate these efforts? Do you see any merit in a company retreat?

GS: There is merit to a company retreat when companies use them as ways to continue to guide their teams in the direction of a long-term vision. They lose value when companies see them as a once-a-year pump up the troops, team-building exercise.

In an NFL minicamp, teams practice their systems. They install a portion of their playbook to reduce the burden of training camp. They create a limited downside environment (no hitting) so players can experiment and stretch their boundaries. They build relationships between players and coaches in reduced stress environments but not stress free environments. They are still competing.

A better business model than the once-a-year retreat is off-site training (or on-site training that is not interrupted by anything), where an organization takes key personnel through a small scope skill set improvement—software, hardware, presentation skills—and frames the training around how it fits into the organization’s growth plans. That gives team members enhanced skills, a better understanding of the organization’s big picture, and time to grow their skills away from the daily pressure of execution demands. It’s practice that benefits the individuals and the organization. That’s the NFL model.

AMA: Better teams emphasize group goals over individual accomplishments. How can organizations inspire their team members to strive towards achieving the shared goal over their individual goals?

GS: That requires leaders re-framing the personal payoff for individuals. In football, coaches have to emphasize that a defensive lineman who is willing to go after fewer sacks to play more of a team concept has a far better chance of winning a Super Bowl. Which do you prefer, a sack record or a Super Bowl ring? Most players will say a Super Bowl ring. And if they don’t, then the leader knows he either has to dig deeper into that player’s motivation or has to get another player.

The real power doesn’t lie in the surrender of individual goals. It lies in drawing each individual to a higher individual goal, one he shares with every other member of the team. That’s where the synergy lies. Once it becomes a shared mission, a real sense of purpose and journey develop. Then players—or members of a business team—get so focused on doing what’s best for the team, they appear to lose sight of doing what’s best for them. That’s an illusion. Everyone is always driven by WIFM—What’s in It For Me? When the WIFM is to be a part of the group, that’s when teams transform into unbeatable organizations. That’s when the magic happens.

AMA: Only one team wins the Super Bowl, and the other 31 are left wondering how they can win next year. How can an organization keep their top talent from leaving when they don’t reach their goals (i.e., their own “Super Bowl”)?

GS: The answer to that lies in relationships. Every talented individual is driven by goals. The more the leaders of the organization understand what drives its “players,” the easier it becomes to frame the next challenge in a way that speaks to that player’s goals. Let’s say a top executive wants to become a CEO. That’s really no different than an offensive coordinator wanting to become a head coach. But much like executives, many head coaches fail—not because of their own lack of talent or drive, but because of their own lack of understanding of how organizations work. A good coach, or executive, in a great organization has a far better chance of long term success than a great coach, or executive, in a poor organization.

Too often in sports, coaches jump at the next head coaching opportunity because they fear it will be their only one or their last. The same happens in business. If an organization wants to hold onto its top people, then the leaders of that organization have to do a better job of mentoring those stars and teaching them about the nature of organizations: What separates the good ones from the bad ones? What are the deadly mistakes that doom talent? What are the warning signs to look for? What are the winning signs to look for?

Great talent, be they coaches or executives, will feel far more loyalty to stay with their current organization if they can clearly see the problems that exist within another organization and also have an awareness of where they are headed on their current career path.

When it comes to keeping top talent, you must enhance their education of what they will see at the next level before they get there. If you do that, there is a much better chance they will stick around in hopes of reaching that level in their current organization rather than taking a shortcut by leaving too soon for another organization.

AMA: As a season progresses, an NFL team’s goals may change due to their progress (or lack thereof). How should leaders approach their team if their goals need to change?

GS: Every team starts out thinking about making the playoffs. Then getting to the Super Bowl. Then winning the Super Bowl. Few get there. The key to adjusting along the way is to shrink the target. A team with a 2-6 record will be overwhelmed by the idea of winning the Super Bowl or even getting there. For that team, its leaders have to tighten the focus.

First, win this week’s game. Forget everything else. But don’t wait until Sunday to win this week’s game. Win practice today. By that, coaches mean have an excellent practice, polish your skills, be outstanding at your job.

In business, so many variables—the price of oil, the direction of the stock market, disruptive technologies—can have an impact on a company’s chance of reaching that year’s or that quarter’s goals. When that happens, the leaders have to tighten the focus. Win this account. Exceed last week’s output. Improve these two areas, etc.

Once a team buys into a tighter focus, it loses sight of the things it can’t control, things like the past, the economy, unpredictable developments, and it regains complete power and focus on the things it can control: Effort, attitude, and input.

This year, the Carolina Panthers had a losing record, but by riding a tighter and tighter focus through the second half of the season, the Panthers wound up going to the playoffs and winning a playoff game—something only six other NFL teams accomplished this year.

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American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.

One Comment »

  1. avatar

    Using the football analogy, insightful tips on managing a team. All too often, in any discussion of teams, the focus is on the members of a team and how they need to interact with one another. While important, there is another equally important aspect to teams: their leadership and the management that comes with it. After meeting whatever are the initial requirements of a job, each member of a workplace team brings his or her own strengths background, and skills to a team. A good manager is attuned to these differences, mixing and matching tasks with skills and personalities, and using them to create a team that not only achieves a lot but is also rewarding for each member of the team.

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