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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.

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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’.

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.

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.

What It Takes to Win: Management Lessons from the NFL’s Final Four

While I enjoy watching sports for the competitions themselves, I also believe there lessons we can learn from them. In particular, as I’ve progressed in my career, and have had the opportunity to take leadership roles in various initiatives, I’ve paid more and more attention to how successful teams and individuals operate off the field. There are some excellent books that cover the management styles of teams or individuals (I recommend starting with Moneyball, The Extra 2%, The Education of a Coach, and the Soccernomics chapter on Olympique Lyon’s approach to the transfer market).

Like many people, I’m looking forward to the NFL’s Championship Sunday tomorrow. There are four strong, interesting teams competing for spots in the Super Bowl. They’ve all taken different roads to success, but they all have things they can teach us. Here are some of the key lessons I think we can take away from each team:

New England Patriots
Strong, Stable Leadership is Key
Head Coach Bill Belichick joined the club in 1999, and Quarterback Tom Brady took over as the starter midway through 2001. Since then, neither has relinquished his spot, and their stability has led the Patriots to 3 Super Bowls, another appearance in the final. In that time, they’ve only missed the playoffs twice (one of those years, Brady was knocked out for the season in the first game).

The Belichick-Brady partnership has transcended turnover on and off the field, and allowed the team to persevere through some bad drafts in the middle of the 2000s, and loss of other key personnel. For any organization, strong leadership is key to success in an ever-changing environment.

It’s Important to Adapt
In the early 2000s, New England built their teams around defense, focusing on ball control (running, short passes) while on offense. Later, as Brady matured, they shifted to a more aggressive passing style – still throwing short but adding a greater focus on the deep ball. Whatever the impetus, the Patriots were not content to assume what had worked in the past would work again in the future. Lots of organizations, after periods of success, are content to rest on their laurels, and that’s where they usually fall behind.

(Football-specific digression: because they won 3 Super Bowls from 2001-04, and have won none – and only appeared in one since – it’s easy to write off the past several years as a less successful approach. This is where luck and the law of averages come in. The Patriots won those 3 Super Bowls by 3 points each, 2 of them on the last play of the game. They made the first one by getting a controversial – albeit correct – call on the famous Tuck Rule play to go their way. Since then, the Super Bowl they lost was by 3 points in a game that could have gone either way. No Helmet Catch (which I refuse to look up and link to because of the bad memories), or if Brady’s bomb to Moss a few plays after NYG went ahead is a few inches closer to his target, and they might win). Also, they lost a close AFC Championship game to Indianapolis – after holding a huge halftime lead – the previous season, and had they moved on, would have been heavily favoured to beat Chicago. Point is, they probably should have about 3 Super Bowl wins in this era, but a few breaks or lucky/unlucky bounces is the reason they all came early on, not later).

Don’t Be Afraid to Take a Chance on Talented People with Problems…
Through the years, Belichick has taken on talented players with off-field issues. Some, like Rodney Harrison and Corey Dillon, contributed to championship teams. Others, like Randy Moss, had good runs of success before becoming headaches. And some, like OchoCinco and Albert Haynesworth, haven’t contributed much.

…But Have a Short Leash, and Don’t Be Afraid to Cut Ties
While Harrison enjoyed a long tenure, Moss had a great first year, but less than 2 years later, the Pats cut ties in the middle of a season once he became a distraction. And OchoCinco and Haynesworth rarely played this past season. It’s one thing to take a chance, but it’s critical to know when to let go, and to not feel compelled to keep giving them more chances.

Baltimore Ravens
Create an Identity, and Keep it Strong
Gang Tackle

The talent on offense has come and gone, but the D has been the Ravens’ identity for 15 years. Think of the team, and you think of charismatic, ferocious leader Ray Lewis, hard-hitting, ball-hawk free safety Ed Reed, or any number of big, bruising lineman and linebackers that have suited up in purple over the years.

The Ravens play defense, they hit, and they’ll make you hurt. Can you sum up your organization (and it’s identity) that succinctly?

Also, does your organization have a leader who dances to ‘Hot in Herre’ by Nelly to finish the pre-game intros?

Always Recruit New Talent, and Don’t Be Afraid to Let People Go
Every team in the NFL, due to the salary cap, sees a lot of turnover, the key is how they respond. Baltimore has turned over its roster several times (except for their core leaders), and rarely misses a beat due to the excellent work they do uncovering talent in the draft. This is particularly relevant for non-profits or small organizations on fixed budgets (like salary cap-limited NFL teams), who will likely lose talent to higher-paying competitors. Strong work identifying young, up and coming replacements can ensure continued success.

San Francisco Giants 49ers
Talent Needs an Environment Where it Can Succeed
After being drafted first overall, Alex Smith has struggled for much of his career. Many, including myself, wrote him off. But can you place the blame entirely on a quarterback who went through 3 head coaches, and 7 offensive coordinators in his first 7 seasons? Young talent needs to be nurtured, and under head coach (and former QB) Jim Harbaugh, San Fran is finally starting to see the fruits of Smith’s potential.

A Leadership Change Can Bring Quick Results
The aforementioned Harbaugh took over as head coach this season, and with few major moves, doubled the team’s win total from 2010. A successful leader like Harbaugh can rally people and get a lot more out of them with few other changes.

New York Giants
Build On Your Strengths
For the past number of years, the Giants’ strong point has been their ferocious pass rush, and they keep building on it. Justin Tuck was drafted when Osi Umenyora and Michael Strahan were well-entrenched as the starting defensive ends. When Strahan retired, Jason Pierre-Paul and Chris Canty were brought in not long afterwards, despite the line not appearing to be a major need. This talented, deep group of pass rush continues to fuel much of the team’s success, giving it a competitive advantage in almost every game.

If You Want Talent, Go the Extra Mile to Get It
Drafting 4th overall in 2004, the Giants had no chance at consensus first overall choice Eli Manning. But when he expressed refusal to play in San Diego (who drafted him), the Giants swooped in, trading that pick, an additional one, and next year’s first rounder to get Eli. A steep price, considering they took a QB for San Diego (Phillip Rivers) in that spot (also, Ben Roethlisberger went 7 picks later), but the Giants targeted Eli, and did what they had to in order to acquire him.

Don’t Panic in Times of Trouble
The Giants are one of the most mercurial teams I’ve ever followed, in any sport. In any given week, it looks like they could either quit on their coach, Tom Coughlin, or beat any team they face. Despite this, management has stuck with the coach despite conflicts, and some collapses on the field. With one Super Bowl win to his record, and a team playing like a favourite to win a second this year, it appears to be the right choice.