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Three things I learned from the NFL

Posted: September 30, 2008 8:29 p.m.
Updated: December 2, 2008 5:00 a.m.

When the Green Bay Packers football team hired Vince Lombardi as its new coach, he was intrigued with the challenge of turning the franchise around. Naturally, Lombardi being Lombardi, was all pumped up about it.

He began leading practices, inspiring, training and motivating. But at one point in a practice, he just got so frustrated with what was going on with the players that he blew the whistle.

"Everybody stop and gather around," he said. Then he knelt down, picked up the pigskin, and said, "Let's start at the beginning. This is a football. These are the yard markers. I'm the coach. You are the players."

He went on, in the most elementary of ways, to explain the basics of football.

Small businesses, those with 500 or fewer employees, have 116 million workers on the payroll and produce half of the gross domestic product in the United States, according to the Department of Commerce. In a survey conducted by the National Small Business Association last month, 67 percent of owners surveyed were impacted by the current credit crunch; 63 percent were hit by harsher credit card terms and 32 percent are suffering from tougher bank loan terms.

Yet, a survey of adults conducted last weekend indicated that 58 percent of Americans believe that the country will enjoy better times within a year.

The question is: What can a business do to succeed until better times arrive?

Back to basics
Like Lombardi, it might be a very good idea to go back to the beginning and back to the basics. In my mind that first lesson is by asking if the current business model your organization is operating under is viable and asking what can be done to strengthen it.

An excellent place to do this assessment is to visit Wikipedia, type in "business model" in the search box and review what is posted.

There are many examples provided that offer excellent ideas to compare and contrast to your current model.

From these examples ideas should surface that might be worth considering.

The National Football League business model has changed dramatically through the years.
When Lombardi was the coach of the Packers, the team made money by selling tickets to each game and from concessions (food and drink).

Now, in addition to selling season tickets (the waiting list is around 45 years for the Packers) the franchise has guaranteed revenue through a revenue sharing plan from broadcasting rights; and also makes money on merchandise, luxury boxes; sponsorships of every kind and shares a salary cap to keep payroll expenses under control.

Because of the constant revising and updating of the NFL business model, the value of each franchise has increased almost every year.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were bought by Daniel Rooney in 1933 for $2,500 was recently valued at over $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

Helping or hurting?
The second lesson is to review current staff to see if they are helping or hurting the team.
When Lombardi took over at Green Bay, he was open-minded about his players and coaching staff. He knew his "main thing" was to win football games and do to that, he needed the best available personnel.

During his tenure, Lombardi had difficult talks with players and coaches about what was expected and he made it clear that better results would be necessary to stay on the team.

Lombardi did what he needed to do for the improvement of the team.

Doing these assessments wasn't a one-time thing for Lombardi; he had a game each week and each week he reviewed every player. His best players were not immune from either his assessments or his talks.

He knew that the longer the under-performing personnel were allowed to stay under performing while taking a check the louder the message was being sent that this level of performance was accepted and appreciated.

Lombardi did not enjoy letting people go, but he understood that it was unfair to the rest of the team to keep a player who was not performing.

The third lesson was that Lombardi understood that it was up to him to take responsibility for the results of his team.

He knew that each of the teams he was playing against had the same number of players, the same league-approved equipment to work with; the same footballs to use during practice and in the games.

His only available competitive advantage, therefore, were his players.

Lombardi believed in practice. In business terms, he invested in the constant training of his players.

And while it may sound laughable to teach grown men who have played the game of football for years, Lombardi taught the basics.

Teaching the basics as head of the Packers paid off. He never had a losing season and his teams won three championships in a row, a record that still stands today. As a tribute to his work ethic, dedication and high standards of excellence, the NFL named the trophy awarded to the winning team of each Super Bowl the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Reviewing the current business model, training personnel in the basics and making tough decisions about "who is helping and who is not" are the keys to making it through the difficult times.

Kenneth W. Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums in Valencia. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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