4 Traits of Winning NFL Teams That Work in Business

Invest in your people.
4 Traits of Winning NFL Teams That Work in Business
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Chief Programs Officer, BetterUp
5 min read
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As a former NFL player, I’m fortunate to still know leading coaches of the game. Several weeks ago, I spoke with one offensive coach, and we were struck by how much football is increasingly like business. Given the rapid pace of change, companies and organizations need to constantly reform and redeploy resources, just like football teams do almost every play of the game.

Related: What Makes a Business Inspiring?

I’ve long dissected the similarities between football and business. A college walk-on, I was later drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals and then played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’ve been on losing teams and winning teams, both with great talent, but different cultures. Since sustaining a career-ending injury, I’ve devoted myself to studying what makes for optimal performance and how individuals and organizations can get there. Here’s four things I’ve seen winning football teams do that companies should, too.

1. Be insanely agile.

Companies today need more agility than ever to match the pace of economic and technological change. “In the past, most organizations were designed for efficiency and effectiveness,” consulting firm Deloitte notes. That’s a business model “unsuited to an era of unpredictability and disruption. Instead of mere efficiency, successful organizations must be designed for speed, agility and adaptability.”

I couldn’t agree more. I ran organizational development for Fox International Channels just as the Netflix effect was taking hold. Since then, we’ve seen other companies like Airbnb disrupt entire industries. All companies, whether startup or established, need to be able to adjust to shifting conditions almost continuously. That’s certainly what happens in football. Teams come to the game, and then to each play, with a plan. That plan almost always changes based on what the offense or defense shows. While basketball is like jazz with continuous motion, and baseball is the ultimate American individual support, led by pitcher versus hitter, football is all about orchestration and continuous collaboration.

2. Trust and empower.

When employees feel empowered, they perform better, are more satisfied and are more committed to the organization, research shows. On great football teams, players are likewise encouraged to share information, collaborate and help make decisions. “Winning teams are more like open forums in which everyone participates in the decision-making process,” said Bill Walsh, late coach of the San Francisco 49ers and one of pro football’s most influential figures, in a Harvard Business Review article.

Related: What You Can Learn From Some of the Best Company Cultures in America

For this to happen, employees and football players alike need the psychological safety to speak up and make mistakes. High performance teams, in the office or on the field, have one thing in common -- psychological safety. The Seattle Seahawks are known for building in psychological safety and making relationships the core of the team. “We’re a relationship-based system,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “That’s why we get such a great return from our guys.”

3. Set micro goals.

Goal-setting is at the core of performance, growth and change. But if a company -- or a football player -- only sets super high goals, they’re creating a recipe for failure. No one can sustain going to work each day with the only goal of being the best salesperson in the industry or the best wide receiver of all time. Focusing on micro-goals, smaller goals that roll-up to big gains, is more optimal. Rather than aim to be the best at the start of the year, shoot to outsell everyone else that week, or that quarter.

I’m a fan of what makes the Navy Seals so extraordinary. One of the pillars of mental toughness among Navy Seals, author Lars Draeger found, was their ability to break challenges into small, achievable goals. Execute consistently on micro-goals, and you’ll progress. Football teams do this all the time. They get four tries to advance ten yards before getting four more tries for the next ten with the ultimate goal of a touchdown.

4. Invest in people.

In sports, the more prepared you are, the better chance you have to win. In practice the week before a game, plays are tested and retested. Players fail and grow, over and over. As Carroll noted, relationships are critical, and players give more when their organization invests in them.

Related: Investing in Your Employees Is the Smartest Business Decision You Can Make

Walsh shared a similar sentiment. “Those teams that have been most successful are the ones that have demonstrated the greatest commitment to their people. They are the ones that have created the greatest sense of belonging. And they are the ones that have done the most in-house to develop their people,” he said.

The same is true in business, yet many companies aren’t doing this. When surveying executives in 2006, Korn Ferry found many “putting a priority on thinking, planning, and investing in technology -- with significantly less effort going toward the people in their workforce.” That won’t be a winning strategy. Human capital represents value to the global economy that is 2.33 times that of physical capital, which includes assets like technology, according to an economic analysis commissioned by Korn Ferry. Invest big in people to achieve full transformation.

Competition is at the core of every sport -- and business endeavor, too. In either scenario, agile organizations that pay ample attention to their biggest asset, their people, will come out on top.

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