Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of listening to the venerable football coach Jimmy Johnson while at a conference in Miami with the Entrepreneurs' Organization. He shared some insightful and valuable lessons regarding creating great teams illustrated with colorful stories from his career.
My impression of Johnson up to that point was that of a hard-nosed, short-tempered athletic coach who liked to blow up at players when they made mistakes. I learned that while he is a demanding and often dramatic coach, I gained a deeper appreciation for his compassion and behavior on and off the field.
Johnson's mission is to win. And he achieves that by getting the most out of his people and his teams. He accepts nothing less than an athlete's best performance on and off the field. Here are five key takeaways that every team leader and business executive should consider.
1. You get the level of performance you tolerate.
It's human nature to find the easiest path. If you accept subpar results than you shouldn't be surprised to get more performance at that same level. If you want to raise the bar, then you need to make it very clear that underperforming is unacceptable. In order to motivate you need to make the current situation uncomfortable in some way to spur change.
2. Put the team interests before your personal interests.
Johnson told the story of a previous super bowl champion staying out late to party before a key playoff game. He went around the room and asked all of the new players how badly they wanted to win, and they all responded that they've always dreamed of a Super Bowl win.
Then, he turned to the seasoned player, who was suffering from his night out, and asked him, "was your night out good enough to risk your teammates dreams?" It was a sobering story that illustrated why members of great teams put the team's interest before their own.
3. Skill will not compensate for poor conditioning.
Football, like most sports, is physically demanding. And without the right conditioning you won't be able to last a full game. At the beginning of each season, Johnson would test the players to see who had done their conditioning work and who hadn't.
Regardless of skill, he made sure that all of his players started with a strong base before working on developing their skills and plays. Without a solid base, all of the skill in the world would fade by game's end.
This is just as true in business. If you don't get the blocking and tackling right, it doesn't matter how brilliant you are, your team will suffer.
4. Compete with yourselves, not other teams.
While Johnson was very focused on winning, he made a point to have the team focus on competing against themselves rather than competing with other teams. If they lost, they acknowledged that they had been out-played and focused on finding ways to improve. Bemoaning and fixating on a loss was not helpful.
Likewise, after a win, they would review the game and find areas they didn't perform their best, even though they won. They focused on how to improve for the next game. This passion and dedication allowed the team to keep a positive attitude and work on getting better rather than moping or getting soft while celebrating.
5. You coach the whole person for success.
One of the more poignant stories was how Johnson would host a late dinner once a week for all of his college players on the one night of the week that most kids would go out and party. He would have dinner and just talk about anything except football.
He asked them about their family, post college plans, and life goals and he would coach them and push them to make big plans outside sports. Taking an honest interest in their wellbeing and helping them with real issues made them come back again and again. Of course his real strategy was to keep them busy and not out parting so they were more successful as athletes and as young men.
Like most ex-coaches, Johnson has a larger than life personality with an ego and stage presence to match. He also has a big heart and has big dreams for not just himself, but also for the players and the other coaches he works with.