Football business: Some lessons from the NFL

The season is nearly half way through, so I thought a thinly disguised analogy for business would be the perfect excuse to write about one of my favourite subjects – football.

That is to say…American Football.

Team OptimaThe National Football League (NFL) is arguably one of the most innovative and powerful business brands in the United States. It has successfully reinvented itself over the years, staved off competition from other leagues and exported its complicated variant of the game to all corners of the globe; this weekend saw another regular season game played at London’s Wembley Stadium as part of the International Series.

The NFL is home to 33 professional sports organisations, one of which is publicly owned. Each one is a complex business in itself but I am going to focus on the Manager and coaching staff. Are you ready for some football?

Football is a game of strategy played by athletes on the field but controlled by the coaches watching from the side lines. As such, it all starts with the General Manager.

The General Manager

The General Manager shapes the overall programme for the organisation, selecting coaches, scouts, trainers and players – ultimately defining the product that the team presents to the fans. He works closely with the Head Coach when selecting players for the team and delegates control to the Head Coach during the season, and as such it is the Head Coach that takes responsibility for the performance of the team.

The Oakland Raiders organisation was shaped and run by Al Davis; who introduced the “vertical stretch” offense designed to score points on frequent big plays and built one of the most successful teams in professional sports based on their win-loss record, winning 63% of their regular season games between 1960 and 1983, whilst securing victories in four conference championships and three Superbowls (1976, 1980 and 1983). However, their last appearance in a Superbowl came in 2002, a loss that marked the beginning of a long losing streak – the Raiders have won just 31% of their games since, posting losing records in every season to 2009 and managing records of just 8-8 in 2010 and 2011.

One reason for this woeful record is that the Raiders have not had a General Manager; owner Al Davis elected to perform that role until his death in 2011. His desire to see a winning team resulted in a short-term focus and poor decision making. It is widely accepted that a new Head Coach will need three years to create a winning team, but the lack of long-term strategy and consistency resulted in six Head Coaches in eight years and a record of 45 wins and 99 loses.
The same thing happens in business. Companies that make short-term decisions based on the immediate need for profit will sacrifice good long-term investment in business strategies, ideas and staff development; an approach that is not sustainable.

Lesson 1: Don’t target immediate profit at the expense of long-term success.

The Head Coach

The Head Coach sets the strategy and builds the team needed to make it happen; he develops and supervises practices, he recruits new players and is responsible for mentoring them. The Head Coach is, most importantly, the leader. If the Head Coach does not inspire the confidence of the entire team then he will lose control and eventually fail.

Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh celebrates his Superbowl victory over the Miami Dolphins.

The ultimate goal in football is to win the Superbowl and to take home the Lombardi Trophy, named after footballs most famous Head Coach – Vince Lombardi. He achieved success by having his players practice a handful of plays to the point of perfection. Vince Lombardi was a disciplinarian. However, without taking away from the achievements of this great man, he would probably struggle to achieve similar success if he was coaching in the modern game.
The complexity of relationships that exist within a football organisation has resulted in the ever increasing demands on modern coaches to be skilled communicators and motivators. The old approach of “ruling with an iron rod” no longer works in football. Perhaps the best example of a modern coach is Bill Walsh, who achieved a decade of success in the 1980’s with the San Francisco 49ers, winning three Superbowls.

He did this by maximising the potential of his players and carefully planning game strategies to make the most of the resources available. He set clear objectives to this players and coaching staff and delegated specific responsibilities for the implementation of his long-term strategy and personnel plans.

The Head Coach needs to recognise the contribution of each player, create a secure environment and provide a clear sense of purpose and direction to unit a disparate group of individuals. There is a clear parallel between a good Head Coach and an effective Boss.

Lesson 2: As a business leader, you should be setting clear objectives, empowering your staff to realise those objectives, overseeing the work that they do and recognising the contributions that they make.

The Game Plan

The Head Coach also oversees the development of the game plan; defining the overall approach to a game – will the offence be pass heavy, run heavy or balance? Will the defence run a lot of man-to-man or zone coverage, will it be blitz heavy? The game plan is akin to the operational manual of the team. It then defines a series of plays for specific scenarios so that in any situation the team knows what options are available to them.

Every player on the field contributes to the success of each play; every player is assigned a specific responsibility and understands that they have to execute properly in the play is to work as it is drawn up.

The Game Plan is similar to a process diagram and allows every player to understand what is expected of them in a given situation and what the contribution is that they will make. Without the game plan, it would be very difficult for all eleven players to act as a single unit and little chance of success.

Lesson 3: Have a plan and be able to communicate the plan to your team. It is very difficult for a team to achieve its business objectives, when it is not told what is expected of it and what each individual will contribute to the success of the team. Sounds obvious, but I have worked in companies that do not communicate financial targets until it is to tell the team that they didn’t achieve them.

The Coaching Staff

The high degree of specialisation that exists within a football team (which itself is divided into three squads: offence, defence and special teams) means that it is very difficult for the Head Coach to be able to effectively micro-manage every facet of the game. Instead, responsibility for developing specific positions is delegated to the coaching staff.

The offensive and defensive coordinators manage the game on each side of the ball, working within the overall strategy to design and select the plays that are used against a specific team. They are line managers, with the authority to make critical decisions on behalf of the Head Coach.

By making assistant coaches responsible for specific aspects of the plan or developing resources at particular positions, the Head Coach is free to look at the bigger picture and oversee all aspects of the game more effectively.

Lesson 4: Delegate responsibility for specific tasks to other people and, importantly, empower those people to be able to make decisions on your behalf. Support them and enable them to manage the business for you.