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Kenneth W. Keller: Businesses can learn from college football

Inside Business

Posted: September 8, 2009 10:07 p.m.
Updated: September 9, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Sept.3 was the beginning of the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) football season.

It ends when 64 of the top colleges play in bowl games in December and January 2010, culminating in the championship game to be played on Jan. 7 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.  

The game has come a long way since the first official intercollegiate football game in America between Tufts University and Harvard on June 4, 1875.

Hundreds of colleges field teams each week in the fall. Millions of fans watch games from the stands, on television or via the Internet.

In the next five months, there will be dramatic finishes, come-from-behind victories, last minute meltdowns and unexpected defeats.

What does this have to do with business? What does this have to do with your business? Much more than you might think.

At the core of a football team is the concept of teamwork. Teamwork on the field is not just expected; it is required.

While each team may have stars, even superstars, when those individuals are on the field, they are part of a greater effort operating as a single unit.  

Most organizations stress the need for teamwork. During interviews of prospective employees, owners and managers ask about it.

It is expected that every employee will be a team player. But when it comes to rewards and punishment, most companies do this only at an individual level.

Employees receive a mixed message. It is little wonder that leaders and managers struggle with teamwork because they are saying one thing — “be a team player” —  and at the same time, rewarding individuals for results that might be to the detriment of the team. Think Terrell Owens.

College football is not for dummies.

Coaches strive to maintain a competitive advantage and are required to both create and use plays to score points and defend the goal line.

The ultimate objective is to win games. In order to understand and execute the plays the team runs, players have to understand and do what is asked of them in a fast paced, time sensitive, public arena.

The Rose Bowl currently seats 92,542. Imagine being 18 years old and having this many people screaming and booing at you. Clearly, college football is not for the slow, stupid or meek.  

To improve teamwork and minimize the distractions of visibility, everyone on a football team is clear about their “main thing” while playing.

This sounds so simple. Yet, how many businesses that purport to think they operate as a team actually know what their “main thing” is?

Most employees have a main thing: To collect a paycheck. This is quite the opposite from winning a football game.
What is your company’s version of winning a football game? Do you have one?

When a team takes the field, they huddle. The huddle is the way the on-field leader directs the rest of the team.

It is a very short meeting. The team then breaks, individuals go to their assigned positions and each individual executes according to the plan.

Most companies don’t huddle unless it is an emergency. All too often there are versions of a daily huddle, but they occur in the form of a one-on-one meeting between supervisor and employee.

If the supervisor were to meet with every direct report at one time, it would be more efficient, it would improve communication and it would reduce errors.

What is preventing your business from implementing a daily huddle?

Each football team has several coaches. These individuals are responsible for teaching the players the fundamentals of the game — strategy and tactics are drilled.

The players are honed into condition to play a mentally and physically exhausting competition by a coach who understands what the competitive playing field is.

Football teams devote massive amounts of time to practice, with the goal of allowing each player to improve their individual and team skills.

Unfortunately in business, not enough time is actually given over to practicing skills as a team.

Instead, there are meetings and then each individual is usually responsible for improving their own set of skills.

Even when an organization officially encourages employees to better themselves, most people opt out.

What can your business do to encourage more practice to make the employees better at what they do?

If you were to compare your organization to a leading football team, how would you rank in terms of level of teamwork?

How strong is the concept of teamwork beyond everyone getting a paycheck with the same company name on it?

Have you established a reward system for both the team and for every individual?

Have you defined what winning is for your business?

Does your business and each department have a “main thing” or does everyone do their “own thing?”

Does your business have daily huddles?

Are employees at every level being coached or are they being kicked?

Do you hold practice for people to learn and improve their skills? Or are people on their own to determine what and how they should improve?

Are you being the best coach possible?

These ten questions are given to you to improve how your team operates.  

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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