The NFL Way: Creating a Championship Culture

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People love to talk about my NFL experience. Introductions and conversations are often peppered with “and he PLAYED in the NFL!” I minimize my brief experience and say really I just PRACTICED!  In my opinion, my two years in NFL training camps (the Browns and Jets) is notable but it pales in comparison to others who have long careers in the League. I often make light of it with a good joke. It goes something like this:

“I love it when people mention my NFL experience because it gives me a chance to talk about the TERRIBLE debilitating INJURY that ended my career…… [pause] They HURT my feelings when they CUT me.”

This always brings a laugh. I poke fun at my way too short NFL “cup of coffee” but the truth is I learned a great deal in my short time in the League. Lessons that I use everyday. The most important lessons are about what it takes to build a winning culture.

It’s a real understatement to say the NFL has had a tough year. A dubious record on domestic violence, a deflate-gate scandal that marred Superbowl week, a Tom Brady suspension overturned by a federal judge, and now a Hollywood movie starring Will Smith to shine a light on the important concussion issue. All of that is enough to give the NFL a collective headache.

Despite these challenges, the NFL remains intensely popular. Last year, the NFL averaged 17.6 million viewers per regular season game. On any given Sunday (including Mon. and Thurs.), you can check in on an NFL game and see the triumph of the human spirit, the courage and physicality of the sport and, yes, the grace of many of its greatest athletes. You can see well-coordinated teamwork as a great team comes together. You can witness strong leadership and clutch performances. All of these things culminate in a remarkable experience.

It can really make a difference too. Every year, a great team with the right chemistry and culture rises to the challenge and achieves the dream of an NFL championship. And this can strongly impact fans and everyday citizens. There can be no doubt, a great team on a championship run, can LIFT an entire city.

The importance of culture has been all over the headlines. The New York Times recently published a widely read article on the culture inside e-commerce giant, Amazon. Based on interviews with over 100 current or former Amazon employees, the piece details the company’s brutal culture. Employees are pitted against each other in cut-throat competition, encouraged to rip-apart each other’s ideas in meetings and sabotage each other in online feedback. Emails are expected to be answered promptly at all hours of the night and face time rules. Employees are ranked and the lower ranked are fired every year automatically. As a result, it sounds like Amazon lacks a winning culture confirmed by the fact that the company ranks second in turnover rates for Fortune 500 companies.

Amazon could stand to learn something from winning NFL teams. The great teams which are able to strike a careful balance between hard-work, a commitment to excellence and strong team chemistry. NFL teams know that the only way to truly succeed is for everyone in the organization to feel connected to each others success and work to move forward together.  I believe many of the positive NFL lessons around culture and chemistry can be applied in any organization to achieve great results.

CHEMISTRY LIGHTS THE FIRE

Shared experiences help build chemistry. Toiling together in the early morning hours, while most people are still in bed, a football team pushes through the pain and exhaustion of double and triple practices. They come together in the extreme heat of Summer when it’s 95 degrees outside and 120 degrees in their helmets. They spend hour after hour in the weight room, laying the foundation for greatness. Hour after hour in the meeting room with teammates and position coaches, setting expectations, reviewing performance. A football team comes together in the collaborative experience of the shared pursuit of excellence.  Players who are vital to each other’s success must come together for any of them to be successful. The closeness of the quarterbacks and receivers, the cohesion of an offensive line, the linebacker unit that shares a philosophy, are all critical components. These players often room together on the road, work together independently by position and then come together as a team. This happens in the offseason to accelerate chemistry and to make sure they start to get on the same page.

Champions are made when no one is watching. Long before the scrutiny of the crowds and bright lights shine. Long before the interviews and autographs. Long before any scoreboard measures their efforts. If you haven’t done the preparation and developed crucial chemistry before game day, you won’t be successful. All of these shared experiences, executed well, are the building blocks of great chemistry. The same is true for any organization. Productive shared experiences, both professional and social, drive relationship building and build chemistry.

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Me sporting the common training camp beard.

Leaders Leaders Everywhere

Great teams don’t just have great leaders at the top or in key positions like the head coach or quarterback. Great teams have leaders throughout every level: the center calls the blocking scheme on the offensive line and communicates across the entire line, the Safety that calls out the defense and gets the team into position when things shift without notice.

Leaders throughout, both on the field and in the locker room, are not only critical to the success of an NFL team but to the success of any organization. Those who lead by example, who bring the energy level up and are vocal. Those who lead from the front and are the first through the drills in practice. Leaders who have one speed and always give 100%.  These players lead in the offseason while conditioning; they lead in the meeting room; they lead in the weight room; and they lead on the practice field long before they become great leaders on Sunday.

A team struggling without experienced leaders is a team that’s going to struggle. These leaders help drive the chemistry and the culture of the entire organization. They support all those around them to be better, especially the rookies. They coach the least experienced because they understand that each individual makes the whole greater. Sometimes when you see talented players released or traded from a quality team, and don’t understand how it makes sense on paper, it usually means that player has failed to meet the chemistry standards the team has set both on the field and in the locker room.

Success is a Choice

Teams with great chemistry have merit-based relationships. The NFL is the consummate meritocracy. It’s not about potential, reputation or facetime. The goal is clear: an NFL Championship. That goal is made abundantly clear from day one.  My letter from Coach Marty Schottenheimer inviting me to the Cleveland Browns set the tone for the obvious culture of the organization. It spoke about their commitment to the principles of hard work, preparation, and attention to the smallest detail in everything that they did.  And it was those characteristics—all coming together in the culmination of a team—that he knew would allow them to seek and “claim their prize of the NFL championship”. The Browns organization, which was a perennial playoff team when I was there in the 80’s, clearly made the choice to be great.

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Organizations that choose to be great share best practices, do constructive after-action reviews, don’t cast blame but focus on performance (not personalities).They do all of the classic management things right, like praise in public and coach in private. The feedback is never personal. It is performance and merit-based and is never ugly or demoralizing. The best coaches are ruthlessly fair and have genuine authenticity. They also make it obvious that they care about the player. They praise the individual profusely when they meet their standards. And they coach the behavior, not the person, when they fail.  They ensure that everyone under their span of control has made the choice to be great. Not just as an individual but as a team.

The End Zone

If you pay attention, signs of a good culture abound on an NFL sideline.  Instead of “sabotaging” a colleague, you see a player who has fumbled surrounded by teammates offering encouragement. They know their teammate is committed to excellence, already feels horrible, and will need to be at their best mentally to help the team win in the end. You see it in the Head Coach who, after his young Quarterback has thrown an interception, puts him back out on the field and immediately calls a high percentage pass to get him back on track. That doesn’t mean that things don’t sometimes get strained in the heat of battle. But the great teams overcome those challenges and ultimately get better from them.

The message is clear, good chemistry and culture can help get through the ups and downs that happen to all teams. A team that has good chemistry and leaders throughout the organization, is poised to win. An organization that puts TEAM before the individual and works collaboratively towards the ultimate goal, creates the kind of culture that leads to success. It’s not easy, but if you can put all these things together, I’m sure your team will end up dancing in the end zone.

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Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.

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