What Football Teaches About Building High-Performance Teams
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My football career began by accident. As a younger kid, I’d always been a soccer player. Then one day in eighth grade, someone saw me kicking field goals and suggested I try out for the football team. I wound up playing four years in high school, a couple years at Harvard, and even a year of semi-pro after college.
Many of the team building lessons I learned during my playing days have been indispensable as I’ve grown my company Grovo from 45 to 175 people in the past year. With football season in full swing, I thought I’d share a few here in hopes that you’ll find them just as valuable.
Success comes from playing in unison.
Football is different than most other sports. It takes 11 different people doing 11 different jobs perfectly to succeed. Other sports aren’t like that. Most baseball plays only involve the pitcher, catcher, and batter. But football requires a persistent and universal choreography. Everybody needs to know the play, be organized as a team and execute flawlessly to win.
I remember playing one team in high school that was far more physically gifted than we were. There was no comparison. They had an all-state running back, all-state linemen. They were best in breed but we beat them because we played together. Experiences like this taught me that building a team is never just about talent. It’s about getting people to play in unison.
One way we facilitate this sort of collaboration at Grovo is through cross-functional teams. We’ll put a product manager, UX designer, marketer and engineer on a team with a specific objective for driving the company forward. This keeps people focused, improves communication and leads to higher quality work.
A team starts and stops together.
One coach taught me a lesson in discipline I’ll never forget. He had a policy: if practice was scheduled for 6 a.m., that meant six zero zero. Not a second later. If one person was late, we all stood there waiting for that person to show up. Doing nothing. When that person arrived, the entire team had to run sprints, while the person who was late watched. The message was clear: the team starts and stops together.
Teams are strengthened by this kind of shared accountability. Getting up at 4:30 a.m? That stinks. But even though we didn’t like it, we valued it. Values are what bind people together and push them to achieve remarkable things, especially when the chips are down. Often an individual’s greatest performance can only be coaxed out in service of something greater than him or herself.
To build those same values, I lead a weekly sales meeting that starts at 7 a.m. every Monday. That’s seven zero zero. And believe me, at 6:58 the room goes quiet, knowing we have 90 seconds until the minute turns. It’s a fascinating experience, and the sacrifice gets people fired up. People have told me it's their favorite moment of the week. If you don’t have the discipline to show up on time, then don’t be here. Go find another team. This isn’t the team for you.
Positivity is a potent driver of performance.
My high school coach was an extraordinary leader. The tactics he used were simple, but powerful. He treated us fairly, provided positive reinforcement and he listened. His belief in us earned our trust and therefore our utmost effort. It was incredibly inspiring.
I try to embody many of his leadership qualities at Grovo. I constantly champion exceptional performers. In weekly email updates. In company-wide meetings. In the halls, and throughout the day. We make it a point to celebrate often. These positive rituals don’t just lift people’s spirits, but they also promote a culture of excellence that drives results. It works. You can feel it.
You can bring the same positivity to the team you’re building at your own organization. But for it to be effective, you must be honest. Be authentic. Be vulnerable. And listen. Remember, even if you’re the one building the team, you’re still a part of it. Never forget that.
Building a high performing team is essentially about establishing and nurturing a shared set of expectations for behavior. If you can do that, the results come almost automatically. Like the late, legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh said, if a team follows the right process, “the score takes care of itself.”