Lessons Learned from a College Football Team that Wanted to Change

on November 14, 2019

As I was beginning my professional career 30-plus years ago, I also spent four years as a high school football coach. Not far removed from playing myself, I found it invigorating to help young players flourish. I still remember developing the offensive game plan that would take advantage of our strengths and avoid the exploitation of our weaknesses. I remember the challenge of trying to determine which players to pat on the back with encouragement and which ones to challenge with constructive criticism to help them achieve their full potential. So much of what I did as a coach translates to what I do today.

That wasn’t the last time football and my day job collided. Not too long ago, several of us at Root got a chance to work with a Division I college football team to help reestablish a high-performance culture and team. The team had been highly successful two years prior, but had lost its way. They needed help and turned to us.

We began our work with the team by defining a few principles that are core to high-performing teams and leaders, whether working on the field or in the corporate world. These principles are:

  • Positive change only occurs for individual leaders and teams when we have an honest assessment of where we are and a clear picture of where we want to go.

Unfortunately, truth telling is not a core competency of most teams (or C-suite leaders for that matter), and it is impossible to visualize fuzz. It requires focus, rigor, and vulnerability to embrace the truth that stings (and decide what you want to do about it) and to align on one picture of success that means the same thing for the entire team.

  • Every day, each of us is faced with Change, Choice, Consequence challenge. Change happens, good and bad. We are frequently surrounded by circumstances that seem to demand more than we can deliver. We are often lured into the belief that we are powerless as passive observers to this change.

However, each of us has total freedom in terms of how we react to change. We can respond reactively, choosing a path fueled by bitter feelings and blame, where we are in denial, make excuses, and feel victimized. Or, we can choose to be reflective and follow a path to getting better by making changes. This path is fueled with a curiosity about the true realities, exploring opportunities the change ushers in, and finding new ways to navigate the obstacles in our way. Bitter or better choices are being made every day.

  • Adversity is a gift, and when we see it that way, it is one of the strongest ingredients for individual and team growth. Adversity is the force that allows us to go beyond previous performance caps and make the positive changes necessary to drive breakthrough performances. It turns out that high performance requires embracing adversity as a friend, not seeing it as an indictment of capability or potential.

On the Field and in the Boardroom: Aligning on the Truth Leads to Success

The team took these concepts to heart. Both individually and collectively, they took full responsibility for the truths of the previous season where the best version of the team and individual players didn’t show up consistently, on or off the field. The team was able to be truthful, candid, and vulnerable in acknowledging the shortcomings of the previous season.

I was struck by how similar their truth statements were to those we see from the senior teams of some of the well-known companies we work with. It was also striking how strongly each of them felt they wanted to address these truths.

The truths from the football team, which mirror the truths I see today in workplaces all over the world, were:

  • When we most need to talk, we don’t.
  • We don’t know how to take being challenged and turn it into a positive force.
  • Big egos put “me” over “we.” As a result, the team splinters.
  • We got comfortable with losing, accepted failure, and lost the desire to stretch and strain.
  • When it got tough, people tapped out and we lacked the leadership to prevent people from getting selfish.
  • We acted as 105 individuals rather than a single team.
  • Nothing is given; it’s earned. We don’t help guys realize high school is over. (Or in the workplace, that people need to step up and earn their new role.)
  • We consistently lack individual ownership.
  • We lack understanding of each other as individuals.

Embrace the Discomfort for Growth

Did the team want to avoid discussing their reality? Yes, at first they did. I’ve seen the same reaction from leaders and teams at hundreds of organizations. Most people fear change because they fear the unknown. It’s how our brains are wired. And yes, this means that sometimes people will choose to live with failure, because it’s what they know, and therefore it’s what they are comfortable with. However, when guided with the right tools and given the confidence that facing the truth is both uncomfortable and necessary to begin the journey to success, people will choose change.

Needless to say, those young football players and their coaches benefitted greatly from getting comfortable with truth telling and are off to an outstanding start – they may even be on the path to a championship season. After a recent win that saw a game full of back-and-forth adversity, I sent the coach a note of congratulations. He said it all when he said, “Thanks, and the team stayed together when it was hard.” If everyone stuck in a rut or facing a challenge was willing to face the truth, make changes, and stay united – even when throwing in the towel feels so much easier – then they too might be headed toward a season of wins.

 

Thinking

Managing Change
Customer Experience
Managing Change