What I learned from watching a bunch of losers
8 tips for creating better performing organizations in business and sports
I’ve just spent the last half of a year watching my favorite sports team, Colorado Avalanche, getting dangerously close to breaking a record. And it is a very bad thing. They are the very worst team in the salary cap era of hockey. In nearly every stat that matters, they plain old stink. And it is heartbreaking to us who have been diehard fans for many years.
In fact, it’s an amazing descent for a team that, just a few years ago, had finished second in the Western Conference and got to the playoffs after a long drought. For non-hockey fans, that means they were doing pretty good and we all started to believe. But, it was all downhill from there. In fact, it was so bad that the coach (who was a Colorado hero and one of the greatest goaltenders to play the game) quit a couple of months before this season struck. He was never a loser, but I am pretty sure he could smell loser in the air. We all started the season with hope… Hope that he was the real problem and not our beloved team. But after watching loss after loss, after incredibly pathetic loss, many of us fans were depressed and destroyed. We have sat here scratching our heads wondering “how could it have gone so wrong and how are we this bad.” Is it a leadership problem? Is it a personnel issue? Can we tinker with the roster, or do we need to blow the whole darn thing up?
As someone who has worked with hundreds of organizations through good times and bad, I can’t help but see a pretty good set of organizational and leadership lessons that can be gained from watching things go from good to bad. Below are some (not all) of the tips that I believe sports teams and business can do to create better performing organizations:
Start at the top: Leadership success should be measured by the productivity and/or success of the team being managed…period. It is all too common for leaders to shift the blame towards employees for mistakes, errors, and failed performance. But if performance is lacking, then look to the top and start making changes there first and fast. If your company has the worst performance of any company in the history of companies — not one leader should be left standing.
Don’t expect all superstars to be good leaders: The general manager of the Avalanche hockey team is a hall of famer who produced magic on the ice. But he has no business savvy or education about what it means to be a leader of a complex organization. All too often, organizations try to promote their best performers instead of the employees who have the best potential of being a successful leader. It is wrong-minded thinking that continues to pervade most organizations. So next time you think about promoting your best salesperson or scientist, think twice. Look for someone who has the right combination of interpersonal skills, business skills, negotiation, experience, etc., to lead. Take the time to hire right or else expect the costs of getting it wrong to be extreme.
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Stop a culture of losing before everyone is a loser: There is a saying, “employee engagement is infectious.” As each employee becomes more engaged, it starts to rub off on others and the positive affect starts to grow exponentially after a while. And when things go bad, the opposite happens. When disengagement takes hold it can turn into a tidal wave of misery for all involved. Employees complain, moan, and start to blame each other. But it never, ever needs to get that far in the first place. Measuring engagement is easy (you can do it for free with SurveyMonkey), and whether you are in a locker room or an office building, leaders should always have a good pulse on their employees’ sentiment. If you start seeing it slip, then you have a chance to make a save before it’s too late. But when it’s too late, then saves won’t help you. You’ve officially let your team or company end up in loser land and it will take much more effort to turn it all around then it would have if you had caught the engagement problem early.
Fix engagement to fix performance: In sports and in business, once your employees stop believing in the mission, vision, or strategy of the organization or its leadership, then it is well proven that they will perform below standards. It is natural for people to point fingers at individuals and claim they are underperforming. But the problem isn’t always individual. Highly engaged employees show discretionary effort, which means that when they are willing to go above and beyond for the sake of the organization. In other words, they are not just working for the paycheck but instead “want to do it.” Whether it is in business where employees willingly put in longer hours, or in hockey, where players are more willing to take a hard check to clear the zone, if they are engaged then they are motivated to go that extra mile and the pain is worth it. Once engagement is gone, it is simple psychology. Instead of playing/working for something greater than oneself (e.g., the organization), employees only do what they have to do, which is about falling back to basic motivations to survive, get paid, put food on the table, and avoid discomfort. The implication is this – the best way to spend your time is to focus on the overall engagement problem first. Once it is fixed, then you can start worrying about individual performance.
Pay won’t solve your woes: I read all the time on various blogs that “there are no excuses because they are professionals who are paid millions of dollars.” Fair point. I wish I could be disengaged but rich too. But athletes are also human beings who deal with the same psychological challenges we all do. They want to believe, belong, play for the winning team, see hope in the future, and be part of something meaningful. And pay doesn’t really do it. In fact, research shows that pay doesn’t increase employee engagement or motivation beyond a certain point (well except for sales but I’ll safe that for a different blog post). So look to leadership and culture to really move the needle first before thinking pay makes a difference.
Build a high performance team not a team of high performers: The Colorado Avalanche have had a number of Top 3 draft choices through the years. While none of them have turned out to be bonafide superstars, they are each “A-players” who are talented in their own way. And right now, they are individually having their worst years ever. Success is about teamwork in both sports and in business. Individual efforts can save a game or make a big sale, but over the long course of a business year (or miserable sports season) success is about how a group of people can come together and do something bigger than the individual parts. This is how companies hit high performance goals. It’s not about finding a few really talented people and then surrounding them with mediocrity (or “veterans” as the Avalanche calls them). And it isn’t about finding all “A-players” because you probably can’t find them or afford them. It is about thoughtfully and purposefully building a talent strategy that is designed to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses of each individual player. In the end, you will know you are successful when the when the “A-players” play like “A-players,” not because of their own personal talent, but because of the contribution and support from everyone on the team. Conversely, when all other players perform at a higher level, because of how the “A-players” unselfishly do, the little things to help everyone around them will be better, too.
Use analytics for your talent strategy: A few years ago, when the Colorado Avalanche had their surprisingly awesome year, the critics were skeptical. They pointed out that while the wins-loss ratio was positive, the advanced analytics suggested that the team would regress greatly because they were a poor possession team. For the non-Hockey fans out there, it simply means if you don’t have the puck a lot, you probably won’t be scoring a lot. In conclusion, you were lucky. And today, I can say, those analytics were right and the leadership didn’t listen. Success has a funny way of distorting reality. You can see the same in organizations who have early success with an innovative product or have a record year for sales. A good year can mask bad leadership or poor employee performance. Talent Analytics, even basic ones like measuring employees’ personality, experience, and skills against performance, can quickly inform you about how likely you are to continue your winning trends. After all, there is luck in business too, but why bet the farm that a streak of luck will continue when you can test it with real data.
Sometimes you need to blow it up: What do you do when you have a loser culture, low performance, a failing talent strategy, and little hope for the future? Unfortunately, it is the time for sweeping cultural change – it is time to blow it up! It is well known in the cultural change world that there are times where you have to do drastic things in order to unfreeze an organizational culture in order to make meaningful change to how things get done. The unfreezing can be a particularly rough process that involves changing the leadership, the employees, the processes, the products, and pretty much everything else that represents the old. In sports, it is often called a rebuild. No fan or employee wants a rebuild because it represents the need to go backward before going forward again. It is a painful process where traditions and values of the old must be washed away and never repeated. It takes real strength to accept defeat and signal the time for a true rebuild. And if you are a leader, it often means you need to go too. But, once cultural change is underway, there can once again be light at the end of the tunnel. Your former employees are probably happier where they are now. Your brand advocates and fans will start to return, and that sweet feeling of hope will fill the air as the culture is one of winning and engagement.
There are a lot of ways to avoid being a loser. Rarely is a company or a team so bad off that they can’t right the ship using some of the tips above. It takes purpose and focus to improve a culture, employee engagement, the talent strategy, and the leadership of a company. But I have worked with enough companies to see how incremental change can help move things in the right direction. On the other hand, if you are the poor Colorado Avalanche then please skip all the other tips, and go right to 8. It is probably time to blow it all up. Get some new leadership, start the rebuild, and bring us a culture of winning (or at least not losing) once again.