I love a good sports to business crossover lesson, and there’s no better place to find them than American football.
I’m only a very casual fan, but I’ve read several books on the National Football League (NFL) and some of its greatest coaches.
I know that many of the top coaches in other sports, football and rugby for instance, will visit top NFL teams to see what they can learn.
However, there’s one key difference.
In the NFL, to keep things as even as possible, they have a salary cap and a drafting system which favours the last season’s poorly-performing teams.
So, sustaining performance and winning ways in the NFL is way harder than in football, where the top teams outspend the lower teams by some margin.
The English Rugby team is blessed with both a larger choice of players as well as greater financial resources than most of its competitors.
I’m not having a dig here, but just trying to set the scene for why you might want to pay attention to the lessons from the NFL. It’s a tough school.
The latest book I’ve read in this genre is Gridiron Genius: A masterclass in winning championships and building dynasties in the NFL by Michael Lombardi.
Throughout his career, Lombardi was fortunate to work with three NFL coaching legends: Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49’ers, Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders and Bill Belichick, the current coach of the six-time Super Bowl winners, the New England Patriots.
Lombardi was a keen student of what made these coaches better than the rest.
As I said earlier the salary cap and draft, the two great equalisers of the NFL talent pool, make it impossible for one team, season after season, to accumulate more talent than their competitors.
What allows a team to keep winning year after year is the quality of the leadership, management and culture that is built across the whole organisation.
In that respect, it’s no different at all to what you're trying to do with your business.
As Bill Belichick says: “We are not collecting talent; we are building a team.”
He also says: “It’s not the strength of the individual players; it’s the strength of how they function together.”
So here are Lombardi’s distilled thoughts on what makes a great organisation, whether in sport or business.
1. Culture comes first
“You can have the best game plan (or strategy or tactics), the best team (or product or service), and the best players (or engineers or salespeople), and you may achieve short-term success. But if you haven’t created an underlying ecosystem of excellence, short-term success is all it will ever be.”
To be honest, every great business book extols the virtues of culture. Clearly it’s key.
Great financial planning firms understand the need to be clear on the values they stand for; to hire and fire accordingly, and to work hard at living up to those values on a daily basis.
Culture gets everyone aligned.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” Peter Drucker
2. Press every edge all the time, because any edge may matter anytime
“The great ones understand that a focus on details is crucial not because they know what will matter when, but because they don’t.”
Basically this is attention to the details, and great business owners are obsessive about this too, without destroying themselves or the organisation in the process.
The best businesses I know are constantly trying to improve things, large and small; to incrementally improve.
They are rarely obsessed with what their competitors are doing. They focus on where they think they can get better.
When the large, obvious and easy wins have been captured, they focus on the small things and fix those.
Over time, those small things seem to make a disproportionately large amount of difference.
3. Systems over stars
“Obviously, I have seen some superstars up close in my day: Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Tom Brady. But superstar is the second way I’d describe each. The first is “superb system guy.” Talent matters, but willingness to buy into the program matters more.”
I remember working with a very successful financial planning firm in Scotland many years ago.
They had a team of around eight to 10 advisers, from memory. The two best performers on the team were not really buying into the team vision and were acting in their own best interests.
My advice at the time was to let them go, and the owner of the business did just that. He told me many years later that it was the right decision, although it did hurt a lot in the short term.
10 years on, the firm is hugely successful and everyone is aligned.
No one is bigger than the team. End of.
4. Leadership is a long-term proposition
“Devotion to the process has to matter more than chasing the score. True leaders always value sustainable success over quick fixes.
“Much as empire builders such as Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos have ignored the quarter-to-quarter earnings game, dynastic coaches ignore all distractions—fan pressure, media scrutiny, player grumbling—once they are convinced that a decision is right for their team.”
I’ve written about this before in my blog about why systems, not goals, are what matters most.
You need to focus on the inputs to your success, rather than obsessing over the results. It’s the inputs that determine the outputs.
Imagine how hard that is to do in the pressure-cooker environment of managing a leading professional sports team. We’ll probably never face anything like that level of external pressure.
However, it’s your internal impatience, the desire to get ‘there’ fast, that can lead to a similar pressure for you as a business owner. Don’t give in to it.
Counter-intuitively, making decisions that are right for the long-term is the quickest way to generate short-term results.
5. You’re never done getting better
“Greatness over time is in direct correlation to growth over time, and growth over time requires finding new ways to do the same old things. Real leaders, real achievers, real champions are never done learning.”
In my consulting work and in my own business, I’ve seen that the growth of the business rarely outpaces the growth of the owners and leaders in that organisation.
Working on your own personal growth is as valuable as finding new ways to grow your business assets. So spend more time on developing yourself.
How does your business and your leadership stack up against these five principles?
There are some great lessons here - it’s never too late to start building a great enterprise.
Let me know how you go.
You can download a free copy of the Standards of Performance for Financial Planning Greatness pdf here, which contains the key ingredients for building and managing a world-class financial planning business.