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Kenneth W. Keller: Finding paydirt in seven clear steps

Brain Food for Business People

Posted: March 16, 2010 9:16 p.m.
Updated: March 17, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Everyone, it seems, has heard of someone who is an “overnight success.” The reality is, the definition of “overnight,” when the layers of time are peeled away, is something more like two decades.

Those decades consist of long, hard days and very hard work, punctuated by serious doubts, failures and rare moments of exhilaration when it all comes together.  

At the pinnacle of his career, Bill Walsh was spoken of and written about as one of those overnight successes in football. For 20 years the professional football teams he led were either in contention or at the top of the National Football League.  

After coaching at the high school level for a handful of years, Walsh went on to achieve greater fame and fortune as the man who led the San Francisco 49ers to win five Super Bowl championships in 14 years.  

Walsh wrote in his book “The Score Takes Care of Itself,” that there are no guarantees, no formulas for success.

But as a coach, Walsh was successful. What did Walsh do differently? What made up those teams that he led win Super Bowls? How was Walsh able to take a team that went 2-14 in the 1978 season to a 13-3 season in 1981, winning their first Super Bowl by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21 in just 24 short months?

This kind of success could be attributed to drafting some excellent players who were not seen by others as NFL material, including Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. They were part of the story, but not the entire story.

When hired as coach of the 49ers, the first thing Walsh did was to fire all the unhappy people who did not want to work; did not have the needed spirit or energy; or did not want to adhere to a new set of higher standards. As general manager, Walsh had authority over personnel, and that trickled down to the lowest levels of the organization, not just the players on the team.

Walsh took no joy in firing people but he knew that to build a better organization he needed everyone on board and that people who weren’t happy were going to be fighting the changes he needed to make.  

Every sportswriter wants to know when the professional team they cover will win a championship. The 49ers did not have a plan to win championships; Walsh’s second step was to get everyone in alignment in terms of professionalism and businesslike behavior.

That included everyone who earned a paycheck with the 49ers logo on it. It also meant professional dress and temperament during games regardless of whether the team won or lost.

To that end, the third part of Walsh’s plan focused everyone on the efforts of the team, not the successes of the individual. Fans fondly remember those 49ers from that era now enshrined in the football Hall of Fame. But the 49ers won with those Hall of Famers because there was an excellent team surrounding them, allowing them to pass successfully.  

Fourth, Walsh hired for both talent and potential. At the beginning of Walsh’s tenure, things were so dire that anyone was open to try out for the team. Bill Ring was picked out of a workout from obscurity and played in two Super Bowl teams because Walsh saw something in Ring that could help the team.

When it came to hiring assistant coaches, Walsh was not afraid to hire people who might become his competitors. He hired coaches with the expectation that they would move up to being head coaches — and an astounding number of them did.

Fifth, Walsh set what he called standards of performance for each position. It wasn’t just a list of responsibilities but incorporated a list of actions and attitudes related to performance, professionalism and production.

Imagine seeing a job description that includes attitude. Shouldn’t all employees know the steps they must take? What about a standard of dress and deportment?

Sixth, Walsh believed that his primary role was to be that of a teacher, and he pushed that philosophy to his coaching staff and to his players. He believed that there was a joint responsibility for everyone to teach others consistently.

Finally, Walsh did not believe in outsmarting or outplaying the competition. What Walsh instilled in his teams was outexecuting his opponents. He was meticulous in tracking key performance indicators and used them to determine what play would be used in what situation.

Commentators used to call Bill Walsh “a genius.” While he was a smart man, Walsh himself disagreed with the nickname. He did lay the foundation for his organization to prosper in many ways for many years. Regardless of the age and stage of your business, that same firm foundation can be established today, if you have the vision and the willingness to do so.

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Brain Food for Business People” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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