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American Futbol: How Soccer is Breaking Through in America, and What We Can All Learn from It

Tonight, Major League Soccer holds its All-Star Game in suburban Philadelphia. A team of MLS stars team up to take on Chelsea, the reigning European Champions. The proverbial sport of the future in America (and Canada) has started to see significant breakthroughs in recent years. MLS is experiencing steady growth, summer tours of big European clubs are a smash hit, and TV ratings for major international competitions often impress. The question is, how did this happen? Soccer may or may not be the sport of the future, but for all the ridicule, it is clearly in the process of breaking through to the top tier of sports in North America. While still lagging football, baseball, and basketball, it is basically on par with hockey, considered the fourth big sport.

Even more encouraging is the support among a younger demographic. “Pro soccer” is slightly ahead of the NBA in second place amongst 12-24 year olds, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “avid” MLS fans has grown 250% since 2000. That graph also shows that more people are avid fans of international soccer, which is no surprise since that’s where the world’s best (Landon Donovan excluded) spend their peak years.

The trend for both domestic and international soccer in America is positive, which begs the question of how it happened. Below are a few factors I see contributing to its rise. There are lessons for all of us in our work from how the sport is making its presence felt.

Preparing for the MLS All-Star game kickoff event outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art last Friday.

The Fan Experience
As an underdog taking on the established leagues, MLS has had to focus on creating a positive experience for fans, most of whom do not have the same loyalties to franchises or the sport itself as the big four enjoy. Aiding this has been the development of soccer-specific stadiums for 14 of 19 clubs, which optimizes the live viewing experience. Clubs like Sporting Kansas City are at the forefront of developing interactive, fan-friendly amenities at their home park.
It is the only major sport that embraces supporters’ clubs, which help drive support, and as Roger Bennett’s excellent feature explains, promotes rivalries like no other league.

Outside the park, it uses social media aggressively and effectively, and its MatchDay App features live streaming, and extensive highlights posted shortly after games finish, among other features.

Kids Play Soccer
As of 2010, more than 4 million kids under 14 played organized soccer, double the number from 1990. This creates a natural awareness and interest that doesn’t exist among someone whose never played – and may have a harder time understanding – the game. Events like hosting the 1994 Men’s World Cup and 1999 Women’s World Cup have further helped catalyze interest in the sport, both playing and watching.

Related to this, demographics have helped significantly, in particular the growth of America’s Hispanic population, who has long embraced soccer (both in the US and abroad). Soccer is by far the preferred sport among that demographic.

Technology and Globalization
The growth of cable and satellite television, and the internet, has facilitated being a fan of teams and leagues that are played outside your region, or abroad. Viewers can get up to the minute information over the internet, and watch games on a live stream, or on cable channels ranging from ESPN to Fox Soccer. Outside of the logistics of getting to watch a game in person (and the different times they air on TV), there’s very little difference between following Manchester United and the New York Yankees, for example, if you live outside each’s home market.

It also can’t be understated how little connection there actually is between being a fan and seeing a game live. At the 2011 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Dallas Cowboys COO Stephen Jones noted that less than 5% of declared NFL fans see a game in person in any given year.

The Local Connection Has Helped
Paradoxically, the local appeal of MLS clubs has also helped. The league’s creation happened to coincide with a period of time when the big four leagues were aggressively chasing additional revenue, often through relocation and/or building new stadiums. These new stadiums inevitably came with a greater focus on corporate clientele through features like hospitality suites, and a price increase for everyone’s ticket. This made it harder (and more expensive) for the average fan to attend a game.

I believe that with many fans priced out, an alternative like MLS became more appealing. Features like Supporters’ Clubs and soccer-specific stadiums have helped create a sense of community among fans.

The Minor League Experience
It’s undeniable that the quality of play (and players overall) in MLS lags behind the major European leagues, and will continue to for a long time (if not indefinitely). Yet, on some level, I see this working to MLS’ advantage. This, combined with passionate fans and cozy (~20,000) seat stadiums recreates the feeling one gets at events like minor league baseball. You feel a connection to the local club, and get to see a combination of up-and-coming stars (who will usually end up in Europe) and famous stars winding up their career (Thierry Henry, Alessandro Nesta, and David Beckham – to name three – all have decorated European careers).

Soccer – in particular MLS – has succeeded by carving out a niche (through careful expansion and the cultivation of friendly stadiums and strong fan-bases), gaining exposure and familiarity (largely through greater youth registration), and catering relentlessly to their fan/consumer base. It may not be the sport of the future, but it’s a big part of the sporting landscape in the present, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to be for a long time.


Politicians Just Wanna Have Fun: Alberta Edition

A short, off-topic post. Given that politics is serious business, and most politicians tend to act as such, it’s nice to see the lighter side of elected officials sometimes. At the Premier’s Capital Ex Breakfast this morning, Premier Redford led her caucus in singing John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads“. Here’s a video I shot of their rendition:

30 Things I’ve Learned

I turned 30 today. While it doesn’t feel any different than being 29, or 28, people assure me it’s a big deal. It has caused me to be more introspective than usual, and I decided to write about.

One of my favourite features over the years has been Esquire‘s What I’ve Learned column (the name is expository). To commemorate my birthday, I’ve decided to share 30 things I’ve learned over the past 30 years.

1. It’s much easier to be against something than to be for something, but far less worthwhile.

2. Learning when to say nothing is a hard, but valuable skill to acquire. Sometimes, nobody gives a fuck what you have to say.

3. Not having any fear or shame helps you accomplish things. I learned this as a 21 year old asking cabinet ministers for millions of extra dollars in education funding.

4. I value experiences far more than I value possessions. I’m not sure I have a most treasured possession, but I have countless experiences and memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

5. Picking up photography as a hobby is one of the best decisions I’ve made. It’s a great way to preserve and commemorate those experiences and memories.

6. Two people I look up to – FDR and Bobby Kennedy. They both had the courage to speak truth to power, and to use their positions of privilege to help the less fortunate.

7. I read a story about Mackenzie King that said he used to pray before going to bed every night, asking for the strength to be a better man. That strikes me as a sensible goal to approach every day with.

8. If you’re the same person today that you were 5 years ago, you’re doing something wrong. Growing apart from some people is a natural and healthy – if uncomfortable – part of the process.

9. Two of my major interests are politics and soccer. They’re alike in the sense that every moment can feel either life-affirming or soul-crushing.

10. Knowledge isn’t very useful if you just keep it to yourself.

11. If someone reclines their seat on the airplane all the way back, without asking the person behind them, it’s a sure sign they’re an asshole.

12. Distractions are important. You might think my interest in baseball (and fantasy baseball) is silly, but I’m pretty sure it’s diversions like that that keep me sane and highly functioning in activities that actually matter.

13. My oldest memory is of getting a toy bus for my third birthday. In retrospect, I was probably destined to be an urbanist.

14. Physical activity is good for both the body and the mind. I do some of my best thinking when I’m out running.

15. The amount of time we devote to discussing something is often inversely proportional to its importance.

16. You can find lessons to apply to your work and day-to-day activity in anything, if you think about it enough.

17. How I measure my work-life balance – when I start having dreams about work, I know I’m working too hard. When I can’t tell you without hesitation what I accomplished in a day, I’m not working hard enough.

18. Routine is good, but by not trying new things and getting to know new people, you’re limiting yourself.

19. One of my goals is to accomplish something noteworthy enough to get to write a “What I’ve Learned” column in Esquire.

20. Related to that, it freaks me out that Thomas Jefferson was only 3 years older than I am now when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

21. “Do not drink alcohol while taking this medication” is a directive you should always follow (lesson learned in college).

22. I think of myself as a Canadian first and foremost. I grew up in the west, but spent considerable parts of my summers growing up in BC, Ontario, and Quebec. I later lived in Atlantic Canada. This is a pretty incredible country, and it’s worth getting to know.

23. It’s an amazing time to be alive. Every few years, a new technological tool is basically revolutionizing our lives. I can’t wait to see what comes after the smartphone and tablet.

24. New York is overrated, Chicago is underrated, Los Angeles is properly rated.

25. I regret two things – times I didn’t try my hardest, and times I did something when I knew better.

26. Actually, add a third – that I never had any command of the strike zone.

27. If I am a good writer (as many people tell me I am), much of the credit goes to the many talented English teachers I had growing up. They were demanding, and challenged me, and I’m much better for it – though I sometimes hated it at the time. Think about this next time you consider letting a kid off easy.

28. 10 years ago, I spent my birthday (probably) drunk and (definitely) broke. This year, I spent it working at a challenging, rewarding job I enjoy. I also just got back from a vacation in Southern California where I saw four ballgames and finished a half marathon in personal record time. Point being, I’m not relating to people who say life gets worse as you get older.

29. Good advice from The Great Gatsby: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

30. I have a pretty good life. Recognizing this makes me work harder to keep enjoying it, and to give back to others who aren’t so lucky.

Management Lessons from a Stanley Cup Champion

The Los Angeles Kings haven’t won the Stanley Cup yet, but they almost assuredly will. They’re up 3-0 in the best of seven final, and can clinch on home ice tonight.

The Kings are finishing up an incredible run. While they underachieved earlier in the season, they still entered the playoffs as the 8th seed in the west (their goal differential was 6th, so not far off what they probably merited). They are, so far, 15-2 in the playoffs. As this article notes, only the ’88 Oilers went 16-2; the only other team to lose 2 games in the playoffs was the vaunted ’77 Montreal Canadiens, though the then-shorter playoffs meant they only needed to win 12 games to secure the Cup. If the Kings lose tonight and win in Game 5? They’d equal the ’81 Islanders and ’85 Oilers, who both went 15-3 (when the first round was best-of-5). Their playoff run puts them in the company of the best teams from hockey’s most memorable dynasties of the past 35 years.

While the Kings’ run is certainly in part the benefit of a hot streak at the perfect time, their success is well-earned. There are a few lessons all of us can take from the Kings and apply to our respective organizations.

New York Rangers vs. Los Angeles Kings 2.17.11
Flickr/Matthew D. Britt

Mine for Talent in Unconventional Places
The process of assembling this team has taken years – in particular, many successful drafts, but the 2005 draft would be the single most pivotal event. There, the Kings acquired both leading scorer Anze Kopitar and star netminer Jonathan Quick. Neither fits the profile of a conventional star. Kopitar, the top-ranked European skater, fell to the 11th pick. While he played in Sweden, he is from Slovenia, and was the first player from that country to play in the NHL. Quick came from the American prep school system (and, at 6’1, is slightly undersized for a goalie today), before playing at UMass-Amherst. While that has produced many successful pros, it does not enjoy the reputation of the Canadian leagues, or the higher profile American colleges. Kopitar was chosen 11th and Quick 72nd; both probably fell to where they did in part because of their pedigree, but have outperformed many chosen ahead of them with more conventional backgrounds.

Be Aggressive in Going for Your Goal
The Kings spent years acquiring (primarily young) talent, building one of the best groups of young players , both at the NHL level, and at the minor league and amateur levels. In the past 18 months, they began using some of this talent to build a team that could contend immediately. Key personnel like Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter were all acquired in exchange for future draft picks, or recent high draft picks (and highly-regarded young players/prospects) like Wayne Simmonds, Braydon Schenn, Colton Teubert, and Jack Johnson. The Kings’ success in acquiring talent put them in a position to add the right pieces to flesh out a Stanley Cup contender. While in other industries you won’t have the benefit of trading talent (imagine if you could draft the best grads out of school!), but you can take to heart the lesson of timing – going above scope, or paying extra, to attract the right talent for the right initiative at the right time.

When Underperforming, Identify a Problem and Act Decisively
The Kings were struggling early in the season, and General Manager Dean Lombardi quickly replaced Head Coach Terry Murray, known for a laid-back style, with the more aggressive Darryl Sutter. Players credit Sutter with changing the environment.

A change in leadership isn’t an automatic benefit to a struggling organization, and can often make things worse. In this instance, the Kings correctly surmised that they had the right players to win, but needed a change in one specific role.

Show Your Personality, and Have Fun
One of the highlights of the Kings’ run has been following their entertaining Twitter account. Their social media activity has garnered many accolades, and with good reason. They’ve injected personality and fun into what is normally a staid, matter of fact activity – the corporate social media account. This has helped get the club attention, and I’d bet convert some fans, over the course of the past two months. People respond to personality, and fun, and the Kings have done a great job engaging and growing their audience.

Reimagining the Bookstore

I read a story yesterday proposing a new model for bookstores. That bookstores have struggled in recent years is a secret to no one, with high-profile closures like the Borders chain making headlines, to say nothing of the many communities that have lost long-time independent shops.

The author of this post was writing about one of those stores in his community. His new model was summarized as follows:

Once past the bestsellers, you find an Espresso Book Machine, churning out volumes that customers have special-ordered. (In his post at Digital Digest, Sanfilippo indicates that three million titles are available for printing on demand, but in an e-mail note he tells me it’s actually seven million.)

That Book Place also has shelves and shelves carrying a mixture of new and used books, with price stickers giving the customer a variety of options. You can have a brand-new copy shipped to you the next day, or buy it used, or rent it, or get it as an e-book. If you take out a membership in the store, you can borrow a book for free, or get a copy without the Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme that limits it to use on a specific kind of device.

In effect, the bookstore becomes a combination lending library and product showroom. “The books in the store shouldn’t be the focus of the revenue,” writes Sanfilippo. “Instead, the revenue might come from membership fees, book rentals, and referral fees for drop shipped new copies or e-book sales.”

To this, Mary Churchill, who tweeted the link, added the idea of “tables with e-readers embedded and of course, drinks and magazines”

These all struck me as good ideas, and things that . As this article points out, independent bookstores have been resilient, holding most of their business. Yet, it remains to be seen how long this can last in the face of growing e-commerce and e-reading.

Powell's Bookstore
Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, the largest independent book seller.

I enjoy visiting bookstores, and think they have a lot to offer to customers and to the community. While some will always be able to survive as general book stores, I see a handful of strategies that can help independent stores prosper going forward.

Become More of a Third Place
Rather than simply offering items for sale, bookstores can become gathering places, encouraging customers to spend more time there for more different purposes. Mary’s suggestion of drinks for sale is a natural step in this direction; while many booksellers have a coffee bar already, it’s adjoining rather than embedded in the store. A greater integration would encourage customers to spend more time in the store, and draw potential new ones in as well. The provision of communal space that can be used for meetings and events is another possibly avenue.

Embrace Technology
Similarly, the suggestion of e-readers would make a lot of sense. It would be a way for customers to browse before purchasing titles, and access newspaper/magazine subscriptions (perhaps under the membership model suggested below). Having bookstores facilitate downloads of e-books/articles is an opportunity as well.

Physical stores will never compete with the selection of online sellers, but they can develop niches in the marketplace, and stock well in those areas. Which leads to the next point…

Add Value Through Knowledge and Expertise
The biggest competitive advantage a store can offer is knowledge and expertise. This comes from employing and cultivating knowledgeable staff who are passionate about books and reading. One of my favorite activities at a bookstore is simply browsing and discovering new titles. Having staff who are familiar with them, and can recommend new work based on my interests, is an invaluable service, far beyond Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” function.

Give Your Customers a Stake in Your Success
I like the idea of selling memberships (a co-operative model, or membership-based non-profit/non-dividend structure may work well). Author talks, access to staff expertise, and access to books/magazines would help sell. For example, if my bookstore had e-readers (or physical copies, I suppose) where I could access a number of magazines on-site, as noted above that would be worthwhile (assuming a cost savings compared to subscribing on my own). Independent stores are unlikely to compete on price, so other benefits to members and customers are essential to succeeding.

These are just a few ideas. As much as the bookstore business facing challenges, I also see a lot of opportunity to evolve and succeed going forward.

Management Lessons from Canada’s 41st Election

The 41st Canadian general election took place one year ago today, heralding significant changes to the political landscape. Looking back, there are lessons in the results of that night that we can all apply to our organization.

Jack Layton in Edmonton I
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Challenge the Conventional Wisdom
For decades, everyone’s believed that the road to a majority government went through Quebec. Prior to his return to federal politics, Stephen Harper (and long-time advisor Tom Flanagan) advocated three sisters theory to conservative success in Canada – western populists, Ontario tories, and soft nationalists in Quebec. After failing to make a breakthrough in Quebec in successive elections, the Conservatives refocused their efforts elsewhere, and finally earned their majority with very little Quebec representation – a previously unheard of concept in Canadian politics.

Identify Your Core Audience/Market, and Focus on them Relentlessly
Building on the previous point, the Conservatives identified the voters needed to produce a minimum winning coalition, and zeroed in on earning their support. In particular, they focused on multicultural communities as a growth market, and their efforts have paid off in recent years.

Change Can Happen Suddenly, but Comes After A Lot of Groundwork
The NDP’s historic result came in large part due to a breakthrough in Quebec, winning 59 of 75 seats – up from the 1 they won in 2008. That breakthrough came in a 2007 by-election, after years of hard work. Since his election as leader in 2003, Jack Layton worked to build the party in Quebec – reasoning that the socially progressive base of voters in Quebec were a natural audience for the party. Results were slow coming, but in 2011, the tipping point was reached, and the party earned a major breakthrough that they’re looking to solidify under Layton’s successor Thomas Mulcair – the MP first elected in that 2007 by-election.

Don’t Take Anything for Granted
In their years as Canada’s natural governing party, Liberals seemed to grow in to the expectation that in the rare instances they’d lose – voters would come back to them in due course. Their grassroots had atrophied, and they lost a clear message to take to the voters. When supplanted by a more charismatic centre-left leader, and party with an appealing message, they lost big – having lost much of the core support they could once fall back on. Voters abandoned them for Jack Layton and the NDP, leaving the once-proud party with a long, difficult road back to success.

Without Diversification, You’re Vulnerable
The Bloc Quebecois had won a plurality (or majority) of the seats in Quebec in every election since 1993. From their roots as a sovereigntist party, they had settled in nicely to the role of looking out solely for Quebec’s interests in parliament – effectively acting as an interest group. When Quebec voters got tired of this message, the Bloc had nothing to fall back on. They were nearly wiped out – surviving with only 4 seats – down from 47 last election – as voters embraced ‘le bon Jack’.

Unions and the New Economy

Today is International Workers’ Day, more commonly known as May Day, an international celebration of workers’ rights. I don’t belong to a union (but am fortunate to work for an employer that treats and compensates me fairly). In fact, I’ve never belonged to one (edit: in the workplace – forgot to note the Students’ Union). In this, I’m hardly alone. Less than 30% of jobs in Canada are unionized. In the United States, it’s far lower – 11% in 2010 .

Unions have shifted over time, seeing the predominant ones become much more public sector and white collar than its blue collar origins. In Canada and the United States, its traditional base has been eroded by outsourcing and mechanization of many blue collar jobs over the past number of decades. While unions like the SEIU and AFL-CIO still exert political muscle in the United States, the union vote and power is in most places not what it once was.

I believe unions play a valuable role in protecting and empowering citizens. Yet, my opinion is far from the consensus. Polling in the United States shows public opinion to be nearly evenly split in terms of approval. In Canada, 2008 polling saw strong support for unions, but also concern around their level of political activity and influence. Additionally, high-profile strikes by public sector unions have often been met with hostility from the public.

The striking staff at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, site of the longest on-going strike.

To grow their support, I see three key challenges in ensuring they continue to play a key role.

Adapting to the Changing Nature of the Workforce
The traditional union structure makes sense for workers who spent many years (if not their entire career) with one employer (or in one industry – like a teachers/nurses union). However, the overall workforce is becoming much more fluid, with people moving jobs (and/or industries) frequently, and often switching between full-time employment and self-employment.

Sara HorowitzFreelancers Union is a good example of a model that can work for industries with highly-mobile workers. Unions representing performing artists are another.

Engaging the Most Vulnerable Employees in the Workforce
I’ve long believed the greatest strength in unions lies in providing job protection and a voice for the most vulnerable workers in our economy – those who may struggle to represent themselves. In the 19th century, it was miners and steelworkers and other labourers whose lives, in some cases, were literally at risk every day. As we move towards a creative economy, many service-oriented industries consist of workers with little job protection. They may not face the same dangers every day, but many do put up with unsafe or unhealthy working conditions due to the lack of available options, and the ease with which they could be replaced. Today, the working poor can often be found in Wal-Marts, fast food restaurants, and other service industries that see high turnover. I would argue that it is these workers who would benefit the most from a unionized environment (or one with greater protection in some form).

(This CAW-CEP discussion paper provides some excellent insight into the future of the union movement as well).

Winning the Political Battle
Unions are a popular lightning rod (especially for conservative politicians), and will continue to see their role and their rights under attack. The 2011 protests in Wisconsin showed that unions can still have a very powerful impact; James Fallows wrote about how they could work with young activists (such as the Occupy movement) to affect change. Doing this effectively to benefit all workers would be both a progressive move, and help unions win the public relations battle.

Happy May Day. Here’s Jon Langford’s song “Plenty Tough, Union Made” from the Wisconsin protests:

What Drafting Quarterbacks Can Teach Us About Picking Good Leaders

The 2012 NFL Draft took place over the past few days. The first selection in the draft is often a Quarterback (4 years in a row now, and 12 of the past 15), and players available at this position receive disproportionate attention from both teams and viewers. It makes sense, as it’s rare for a team to win a Super Bowl without an elite QB. Teams often overvalue QBs in the draft – 3-4 usually go in the first round; roughly half of which become average starters (never mind stars). Compared to many other sports, football (when a team is on offense) sees a hierarchical structure where there is a position that is the natural leader. The QB often has to call plays at the line, or make adjustments when seeing the defense. He’s the only skill player to handle the ball on every play.

A Quarterback is colloquially called a “field general”, and as the nickname indicates, there are parallels to the leader of any organization. Picking both can be problematic, but there are lessons from drafting QBs that can apply to any organization. These lessons are especially important for smaller organizations such as non-profits, where the (opportunity) cost of making a mistake is magnified.

What Makes a Great Quarterback or Leader?
During the first round on Thursday, I tweeted about how the top two picks, Quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, scored high in number of college starts and pass completion percentage, which are both usually good indicators of pro success.

Writer John Lopez elaborates on this, with his 26/27/60 rule. What this means is a QB prospect who scores a 26 on the Wonderlic aptitude test (administered to prospects), starts at least 27 college games (just over 2 full seasons), and completes 60% of his passes stands a good chance of success in the pros. I’d suggest the 60% threshold needs to be raised as college offenses use more and more short, high percentage passes, but the principle is sound.

Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck, first overall pick and likely success story.
Flickr/Michael Li

Each one of these points to key attribute:

Aptitude and Willingness to Learn
There is learning on the job in every position; a willingness and ability to acknowledge this and work to address this is essential. In a sense, it’s self-awareness (or humility) – the ability to recognize that you still have lots to learn, regardless of accolades or success.

Relevant Leadership Experience

An easy trap to get in to is confuse types of experience, assuming that people can progress linearly from one level (or type of job) to another and produce a similar quality of work. A better way to look at it is how relevant previous experience is to the role in question. You can see this in politics, where many politicians are successful chief executives at more than one level of government (while many legislators struggle to become good executives, for example). Number of starts for QBs captures this; playing QB at one level is usually pretty similar to playing QB at the next one up (unless you run the option offense).

Decision-Making Ability
It’s not enough to have similar experience; it’s important to have demonstrated success. Completion percentage is the easiest way to measure this for a QB. Did they complete the pass they were trying to make?

The 2012 QB Class and What We Can Learn
Six QBs were selected in the first three rounds. Each one points to an archetype of the type of person people often tab to be a leader, for better or worse:

The Supreme Talent
Andrew Luck is just a damn good QB. A three-year starter who completed 2/3 of his passes (and scored highest on the Wonderlic in this group), you have little reason to worry about his success.

The only knock on Luck has been that he’s more cerebral than charismatic. Yet, with people like this in any line of work, there’s no reason to believe they won’t succeed. Nothing in their history suggests otherwise. Luck will be a good QB, and any leader who hits the key metrics in their field the way Luck does in his will similarly be a good bet to succeed.

The Charismatic Leader
Robert Griffin III meets most of the qualifications on paper. His wonderlic score is slightly below average (not a huge detriment), but he’s a three-year starter (over 35 career starts) and completed 2/3 of his passes. Also, every report says that his teammates love him. He’s a charismatic guy who can rally and motivate them.

RG3 will likely be a success, as most charismatic leaders are. Whatever they may be lacking themselves, they can rally others to do. The key to identifying people like RG3 (as opposed to The Projection, which is covered later), is to look for a demonstrated track record of success, irrespective of their charisma. Get both, and you’ve likely got a strong leader who will do well.

The Natural Talent
Ryan Tannehill came to Texas A&M as a wide receiver, played his first two seasons there, then moved to QB. He started just over 20 games, and his completion percentage is in the low 60s.

He has a good wonderlic score (34), meaning he’s a better bet than most to put in the work to become good at his new role. It’s easy to think he can make it as as QB with all his given talent, but the odds are against it. Yet, if he doesn’t make it at QB, he can probably succeed in another role. That’s the thing with natural talents; they’ll be good at more than just one thing.

The Late Bloomer
Brandon Weeden tried his hand at baseball, and when that didn’t work out, went to Oklahoma State and became a record-setting QB. Now, he’ll turn 29 as a rookie, 6-8 years older than most of his peers. He’s a tough call, since he’s just at the threshold for wonderlic and starts, but his completion percentage is just under 70%.

His biggest disadvantage, as with all late bloomers, is the clock. Certainly he was successful in college, but he’s already at the age when most QBs peak. His learning and adjustment curve has to be quick, or the team that drafted him is likely to see a positive return for only a few short seasons, if at all.

The Projection

Brock Osweiler just looks like a star quarterback. At 6’7 and 242 pounds, you can just see him standing tall in the pocket, evading on-coming pass rushers before throwing perfect spirals to speedy wide receivers. Even though he only has slightly more than one season’s experience as a starter, and completed just over 60% of his passes, it’s easy to say that with all his natural physical talent, he just needs time to develop.

Except, history says he probably won’t. In fact, you’ll probably invest a lot of time in someone like this because you just know they should succeed. But they won’t, and you’ll be disappointed. It’s easy to get seduced by people who just seem like they should be good leaders, whether it’s because they’re charismatic and likeable, or they just exude the aura of leadership or success. More often than not, they won’t live up to expectations. In large part, it’s because they never have to change. Someone else will give them a chance because they project the same things.

My guess? Brock Osweiler is a bust. But in spite of his inexperience, and average completion percentage and wonderlic, he’ll keep getting chances.

The Steady Type
Nick Foles, taken 88th by the Philadelphia Eagles, is not expected to be a star – never mind start – any time soon. Nevertheless, I would be shocked if he’s the first one of the six out of the league. Foles started over 30 games and completed 2/3 of his passes for a middling Arizona team.

Many strong leaders will never wow you, they just get things done. Whether it’s through judicious (if cautious) decision-making or motivating and empowering their staff, they do a good, if not spectacular, job.. My guess is this is how Foles will play when he gets the chance. In football, these types of QBs are called “Game Managers”. They’ll never win you a game on your own, but they usually won’t blow it either.

When identifying leaders, it’s important to be thorough, and look for what is really important. If you’re in a position to do so for an organization, you could probably relate to NFL front offices.

Progressives in the House: New Opposition Leader. Now What?

Thomas Mulcair was elected as the new leader of the NDP last weekend. Previously, I wrote about what I see as a missing agenda amongst all progressive leaders in Canada. Today, I’ll take a different tack, looking at some of the things progressives can expect going forward, and some opportunities I see to make gains moving towards the next election in 2015.

Thomas Mulcair
Flickr/Matt Jiggins

The Conservatives will Test Mulcair, Early and Often
The attacks started early and often, with a news release the night of his election, and a members’ speech decrying him before his first question.

The long-promised austerity budget is short on austerity, but expect a fight on a few fronts.

The Conservative Party is likely challenge Mulcair on some of the NDP’s traditional beliefs and constituencies, attempting to force him back to his party’s traditional corner, or cause a rift. Labour will be one way. They’ve started this in the past year with back-to-work legislation for striking Canada Post and Air Canada workers, and will ramp it up with public service cutbacks. Expect the public service to make a big deal, and the Conservative government to respond accordingly.

Jack Layton, Leaders Tour - Tournée du Chef - Rebecca Blaikie
Flickr/Matt Jiggins

The NDP’s ‘Traditional Base’ Will Cause Problems for Mulcair
Mulcair will have to walk a fine line of moving the party to the “centre” in the public’s mind, but also keeping his party’s constituencies happy. As noted above, the Conservatives will likely try to exacerbate any tension between him and, say, unions. In addition, Mulcair is going to have to craft a more thoughtful response to the oil sands – one that satisfies his more militant members, but that also speaks to the aspirations of Western Canadians. Or, as that may be impossible, one that enough people on both sides can live with.

Mulcair Complicates the Liberals’ Obvious Path Back to Official Opposition (Nevermind Government)
The Liberal Party’s best hope was for the NDP to fall back, through one of two ways – losing a significant chunk of their gains in Quebec, or electing a leader who will pull the party further to the left.

Of course, predicting outcomes in politics is a very inexact science. It’s entirely possible that Mulcair will alienate voters in some form, but on the surface he looks like a leader likely to stay the course, and at the very least hold most of the NDP’s gains from the past decade.

That leaves the Liberals in a precarious position – barring a charismatic leader who connects strongly with voters, they’re unlikely to make gains trying to own the centre-left with a similar, more viable moderate party already there. In addition, Mulcair figures to be, if nothing else, an effective advocate in the House, meaning the value of an orator like Bob Rae is diminished as a potential competitive advantage. It may in fact force them to the place they should have gone years ago, which is to evaluate what it means to be a liberal (nevermind a Liberal) today, what one should stand for, and if there’s a place for those beliefs in an independent political party. Some self-reflection that leads to a clear raison d’être would do them good.

The Conservatives Will Get Their Wins. Can The Oppositions Make Them Pyrrhic Wins?
With a majority of seats in both the House and the Senate, it’s likely the Conservatives will be able to pass the legislation they want to. The major impediment would be public opinion. On this, should the Conservatives pursue legislation that will be controversial, or unpopular, the opposition needs to engage the affected parties, working with them to earn support, and ensuring the Conservatives wear any controversial issues in the public eye. In other words, if they’re going to get what they want, make sure it’s at a cost.

Work Needs to Happen Outside of the House
Building on the previous point, the opposition’s ability to affect change legislatively is limited. There are private members’ bills and amendments they can advance (which I’ll talk about in the next section), but the work to build a broader coalition needs to happen off Parliament Hill. It’s both issue-based, rallying support to attempt to stop or at least dilute unpopular legislation, but also in building a broader coalition of voters – one that can realistically form government. Right now, the best chance they have in 2015 is to default into government through Conservative unpopularity – but that’s not sustainable. The fundamentals favour the governing party, and will until there’s a coalition of voters that can realistically win 170 seats (with the seat count increasing to 338 next election).

That Said, the Opposition Can Make Gains By Changing the Terms of Engagement in the House
As noted, the opposition should seek to introduce legislation (which can hopefully pass) that will earn favour with its constituencies (current and potential). Stressing a more collegial environment overall, for example, highlighting instances where it works with government, and enhances, rather than simply opposes legislation, is key. Most importantly, however, would be to change the terms of engagement, bringing a more collegial, collaborative approach, and toning down the rhetoric in Question Period. This will appeal to voters who are tired of the constant bickering and partisanship.

Avnish made a great point on Twitter, saying:

(NDP Leadership Candidate Nathan) Cullen, I think, understood how young Canadians view politics with his coop approach. Results matter, not the party that’s behind it

I agree with that, and think that this is a point where process, rather than policy, can win substantial votes.

There are both challenges and opportunities ahead – I hope last weekend turns out to be a step towards a stronger progressive presence in Canadian politics over the next three and a half years.

Management Lessons from March Madness

The past two weekends, many of us have gotten caught up in March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament that sees 68 teams compete in a single-game elimination format. This weekend, it culminates in the final four, with two semi-finals tonight, and the championship game on Monday night.

As I’m wont to do, I find lessons from sports that we can all implement in our work, no matter what type of organization. I’m going to share a few from the tournament here:

Your Product Needs to Be Well-Understood
While a segment of people who follow the tournament are fans of college basketball itself (or of specific teams), for many, the tournament itself is the draw. As a product, it is well defined, and its facets well understood by the audience. Casual fans are surely familiar with the alliterative names for different rounds – Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four. The opportunity for people to latch on to teams (especially lower-seeded underdogs) creates greater viewer engagement, especially when many of the key players turn over on a year-to-year basis. And, of course, who doesn’t look forward to the One Shining Moment video that ends CBS’ coverage of the tournament every year?

The tournament is a model in being clear about what it’s providing for its customers.

Listen to Your Customers
One of the key things in any organization is to keep your customers – or constituents – happy.

The NCAA has proceeded cautiously in expanding – or changing the key aspects – of the tournament. Expansion from 65 teams was rumoured a few years back, and in the end, the organizers merely expanded to 68, which added 3 additional play-in games, not a large new tier or round. This change was not substantial enough to alter the tournament, and organizers and fans were rewarded in 2011 when play-in school VCU made it all the way to the final four.

A recent change that did not go over well was replacing Luther Vandross’ popular version of One Shining Moment with a new rendition by Jennifer Hudson. That lasted all of one year; CBS brought back the Vandross version, much to the relief of many (including myself).

Audience/Customer Engagement Matters
Most fans – casual or serious – participate in March Madness pools, creating a greater engagement and association than would otherwise exist. I would venture that this interactive part keeps many people interested when the teams and/or games themselves otherwise would not – if they still have a chance at winning their pool.

(On that note, go Ohio State!)

Understand Your Value Proposition
One of the most successful coaches, and controversial ones, is John Calipari of Kentucky. Calipari has taken two schools (UMass and Memphis) to the final four, but later had both appearances vacated due to various sanctions (in both cases, he had moved on before they arose). Now at Kentucky, he has built a powerhouse in large part by mastering his value proposition for recruits – that they play for one year (until they’re eligible for the NBA Draft), and he will focus on preparing them for the next level. This approach is controversial, but given Coach Cal’s success in attracting top recruits who become top draft picks, and winning games, also undeniably successful.