Five Key Lessons From Recently Fired NFL Coaches

Let Their Failure Be Your Learning Opportunity

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Jeff   Rosenblum
Jeff Rosenblum

Super Bowl Sunday is an incredible day for Americans to enjoy championship football and championship advertising. It is truly amazing to be in this industry and watch our work fill the country's collective conscience. While we sit down this week to reflect upon the great work of the NFL coaches and the great work of the advertisers, there is a clear opportunity to also learn from the less fortunate members of the NFL.

The league is now going through its annual purging of disappointing coaches. Already, we have seen four multimillionaires lose their jobs because their teams failed to perform at an expected level. While it might not be so obvious on the surface, there are compelling similarities between marketing organizations and the NFL. Equipment and intellectual property help create a competitive advantage, but essentially both are service companies: a group of people that need to maximize performance while marching towards a common goal.

While Mike Singletary, Eric Mangini, Wayde Philips and Brad Childress head to Kinko's to update their resumes, I think leaders of marketing organizations can learn these five key lessons from their failures.

Inspire the team
In the NFL, some coaches are known as technical experts ("the X's and O' s") and some are better known for their leadership. The championship coaches are known for both, but those leaders are few and far between. Consistent among this year's crop of recently fired is their lack of ability to motivate the team. Recently terminated Eric Mangini admitted to spending excessive time closed in his office rather than communicating with his team. Some coaches have gone down on record as saying it is not their job to motivate the team, noting that NFL players are high-paid professionals and should be intrinsically motivated. While that is logical, it simply is not true.

The situation is the same in marketing organizations: Motivation is critical. Both brands and agencies are faced with tight timelines, shifting priorities, changing goals and diverse teams. Effective marketing organizations have a breadth of skill-sets and backgrounds; those with pocket protectors need to work closely with those wearing berets. A paycheck is simply insufficient to motivate a team to excel. Talented people will flock to organizations where they are recognized, have a clear understanding of their role and work with others that are held accountable for peak performance. Without a concerted effort to motivate team members, they will simply feel like a cog in a wheel. Championship teams are not built out of "cogs."

Inspiring a team is more difficult than it sounds. Some leaders are blessed with natural oratory and interpersonal skills, but that is insufficient. Much more important, inspiring a team requires a document process that is predicated on regular communication. Communication should be frequent in both formal periodic sessions (town-hall meetings) and informal episodic meetings (when making a new hire). All team members should have a clear understanding of goals, roles, strategies and tactics. Successful team members need to be praised. Wins need to be expected, but still celebrated. Most importantly, this effort must be sustained. It's easy to keep it up for a month or two, but championship teams have it wired into their DNA.

Designate clubhouse leaders
Strategy and skill are not the only makings of championship NFL teams. Culture is critical to success. The mood of an NFL locker room can make or break a season. Coaches make tough decisions that are frequently unpopular. Great locker rooms rally behind coaches and poor locker rooms crush any chance for a championship. To help with positive energy both on the field and in the locker room, great NFL teams leverage captains and de facto leaders to maintain the team's ethos. They don't accept a "cancer in the clubhouse" that puts personal ego ahead of the collective goal. They praise team members that make a big block that might not have made ESPN's SportsCenter.

Likewise, marketing organizations are incredibly social and have many areas that are similar to the locker room, including meetings, email, instant messenger and the local bar. This free-flowing communication has the ability to make or break a team much like a locker room. Like NFL teams, great marketing organizations need to foster leadership among the team, not just from the top executives. This is successfully accomplished through a leadership team that is formally designated, trained and cultivated. The entire organization should know who is on the leadership team, what the role of the team is and that the leadership team is empowered to make dramatic changes to personnel and strategy.

Developing a leadership team is a complex, long-term process. Selection of the team is relatively easy. The more challenging aspects are allocating time to meet with the leadership regularly, maintaining a commitment to fully leveraging their strategies and providing on-going communication and support to mentor the leadership team so they can, in turn, mentor the entire organization. Process is critical to success. It is important to document roles, communication processes and communication schedules to maximize effectiveness.

Get the offense and defense to play together
Most NFL teams are stronger in either offense or defense but rarely in both. Teams can win with silos, but championship teams get their offense and defense to work together and strengthen each other by sharing knowledge. Unlike Mike McCarthy and his Packers, who made the entirety of the team more important than just one offensive player, recently fired Brad Childress went so far as to miss a key practice to pick up Brett Favre from the airport. Rather than breaking down silos, he put the offense's quarterback above the interest of the collective good.

When leaders focus excessively on one silo rather than develop processes that break down walls, organizations fail and those leaders are terminated. More than ever, it is critical for marketing organizations to develop synergies across team members. Tools and technologies have blurred historical departmental definitions and teams can no longer operate in silos. Just glance briefly at social media -- is it advertising, research, mobile or traditional? The answer is yes to all of the above.

Just like an NFL team can't win with just a great offense, it won't be sufficient to build the best creative team in the industry if they are not fueled by actionable insights and supported by strong media programs. Many in the industry realize these truths but the challenge is in developing the processes required to develop the synergies. In addition to documented processes, organizational compensation plans should reward organizational over departmental success. Most importantly, executives must be committed to on-going communication. It must be ingrained in the organizational DNA that information is shared and synergies are paramount. It can't be just "lip service." The values and processes must be documented and frequently communicated.

Know when to punt and when to go for it
With the advent of advanced statistical analysis, the NFL is currently going through many of the changes experienced by Major League Baseball. There are more decisions based on mathematics and less based on emotions. One of the changes taking place based on this statistical analysis is that teams recognize that going for it is frequently a smarter maneuver than automatically punting when facing fourth down.

Like NFL teams, marketing organizations also have a vast amount of statistics and new technologies available to help them make informed decisions. But, there are too many new tools to use them all –--mobile, social and the digital living room are growing exponentially as are the associated marketing tools.

Marketers need to learn when to go for it on fourth down by implementing high return technologies and when to punt on an opportunity to reduce risk. Punting is particularly hard because a balanced attack of traditional and cutting-edge tools is appropriate, but not as exciting as trying every new tool. Like NFL teams, statistical analysis is a powerful tool for identifying opportunities that will impact the bottom line rather than just make a nifty case study. Analysis takes time, patience and a willingness to embrace the mathematical aspects of marketing, but it could be the difference between a major win and a major loss.

Master special teams
NFL coaches come through the ranks as an expert in one specific discipline, typically offense or defense. All initially focused on an even more granular skill-set, such as linebacker or quarterback. Many of the recently terminated coaches failed to become true generalists -- experts in offense, defense and special teams.

The same is true of marketing organizations. Leaders must be competent in virtually all facets of marketing. The discipline that got you to where you are is probably antithetical to what is critical for your organization's success going forward. To simply stay an expert in your background virtually guarantees that you will personify the Peter Principle.

The key for leaders is to become a generalist; to have a solid understanding of a broad range of skills and disciplines. Leaders need to have a great foundation in research, strategy, creative and media and an understanding of all media including print, TV, interactive, social and mobile. Great leaders need to build synergies between team members and maximize bottom-line results. A generalist will have the ability to have strategic conversations with key team members, help foster communication between departments and know which external tools should be brought into the sandbox.

Becoming a generalist requires a sustained educational effort. Hours each day could be spent reading articles and watching presentations online. Leaders need to build skills and patience for listening to experts both internally and externally. Efficiency is at a premium; there are many great vendors and conferences that can help with education, but the majority are a waste of time. Additionally, a leader can't expect to be great while working an eight-hour day with a portion of those hours dedicated to education. Just like championship NFL coaches are notorious for their work ethic, becoming a generalist simply requires extra hours in the workday.

In conclusion
Like NFL coaches, marketing organizations tend to have championship leaders or the leaders are removed. The tenure of CMOs and agencies have never been shorter. The keys to success are challenging because they require documented processes and frequent two-way communication -- neither of which are particularly fun or exciting. It's a small challenge to develop the processes and a much larger challenge to adhere to the processes. But, the risks are too large and the rewards are too great to ignore.

Jeff Rosenblum is a Founding Partner of Questus, a digitally-led advertising agency with offices in New York and San Francisco.
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