Jeff Schmitt: From the Bottom Up

Losing Your Team … NFL Style


The announcement surprised no one. After a drubbing by the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings fired Coach Brad Childress 10 games into the season. It was a stunning reversal of fortune. A year earlier, the Vikings were an errant pass away from the Super Bowl. The team's win totals had increased each year under Childress, who was rewarded with a fat contract extension. Coming into 2010, Minnesota fans were buzzing about their stingy defense and ground-gobbling offense. Three months later, the Vikings were in disarray. What happened?

Sports writers sometimes claim a coach has "lost the locker room." By that they mean players have tuned out their coach. Some players even follow their own agendas, resulting in blowouts on the field and finger-pointing off it. In business, some managers lose their teams, too. The end result is similar: reduced revenue, lousy service, customer defections, and a corrosive atmosphere that leaves performers feeling sapped and cynical.

The roots of defeatist football and business teams are eerily similar. In fact, Childress' dismissal provides a glimpse into how winning teams can deteriorate. Here are some lessons from his downfall:

Build Relations: Childress was appropriately nicknamed Chilly. His players found him aloof. Whenever a personal connection is missing, imaginations run wild. Childress' imperious style was interpreted as condescending. People saw his brusqueness as personal disdain. Sure, loyalists like Pat Williams defended him. But many players had a stunted professional—let alone personal—relationship with him. They had no context and no outlet. As a result, Childress' distance and demeanor defined him to his detriment.

Look at your team members. How much time do you devote to them? How do they view your communication style? How comfortable are they coming to you? Remember, silence is often the biggest threat to the team dynamic. It only breeds misunderstandings and enmity.

Maintain Trust: The problems could stay in house only so long. Unnamed players began popping off to the press, claiming Childress had "absolutely no people skills" and the team was "winning despite him." Childress reinforced this impression by getting into a heated argument with an injured receiver and publicly ripping his quarterback. Regardless of merit, his actions crystallized many players' worst fears: "He doesn't have our backs, so why should we have his?" Fact is, players bond over common goals and collective experience. In their view, Childress' swipes against one player were a slight to all. Already reeling from defeat, injury, and fan backlash, the players viewed Childress as disloyal, insulating himself while positioning the players as scapegoats. Suddenly, the rules had changed; it was every man for himself.

It's no different in the office. At minimum, employees expect respect, whether it's keeping reprimands private or standing behind them in adversity. Without trust, a team will fracture into factions and inevitably fall into chaos.

Address Issues: Winning has a funny way of keeping issues from bubbling over. No, Childress didn't become a tone-deaf grinch overnight. In fact, his game plans were long viewed as parochial, and fans regularly questioned his ability to maximize his players' strengths. Fact is, tensions had been festering for years in Minnesota. Unfortunately, it took a bitterly disappointing season to expose the wounds.

In business, a successful year can also keep personality clashes, resentments, and poor fundamentals at bay. Eventually, they rear up with a vengeance. Identify potential problems, get them into the open, and solve them before they distract and drag you down further in tough times.

Don't Defer to Prima Donnas: You can have only one leader. And Childress' authority was undermined by Brett Favre, a quarterback signed to put the Vikings over the top. Favre followed his own rules: He freelanced, questioned plays, and even refused to leave a game. Childress tolerated Favre's insubordination, and it spread like a virus, with players arguing with teammates and coaches on the sidelines.

Similarly, in business, managers sometimes rely heavily on one performer to be their deus ex machina. In this environment, there's always the risk that employees will follow the rainmaker over the manager. Establish the same rules for everyone, or your team members will mirror the person they view wielding the real power.

Don't Undermine Superiors: In October, the Vikings traded a high-draft pick to acquire Randy Moss, believing he was the X-factor who could get them on track. Within a month, Childress released Moss without first alerting owner Zygi Wilf, who had picked up Moss's pricey contract. The act showed that Childress was willing to circumvent the chain of command to get what he wanted, even if it was against the team's best interests. It gave credence to his critics and cost Childress his biggest supporter in the organization.

Want to know the quickest way to lose face with your superiors and reports? Go around their back and act unilaterally. You're only contributing to the dysfunction.

Keep Your Customers Happy: In business, you lose customers and partners. In football, you lose fans and the larger community. Fact is, Childress' termination was about more than wins and losses. It also entailed starting fresh. The front office wasn't oblivious to the cat calls and "Fire Chilly" signs dotting the Metrodome. They remembered the heartbreaking playoff losses and Super Bowl defeats that dogged the organization. They understood the fans had little patience with coaches after the polarizing Dennis Green and bumbling Mike Tice. And they knew the headlines weren't producing the goodwill needed to move the state legislature to finance a new stadium. Bottom line: The team knew the fans had taken a side—and Childress was the sacrifice.

Sometimes, a team's composition is about more than internal dynamics. It is a political decision that factors in the needs and histories of customers, prospective partners, and other stakeholders. Perception is reality. And even when perception is distorted, the customer is still always right.

Understand Your Shelf Life Is Short: When Childress was hired, the press heralded him as a no-nonsense disciplinarian. The fans expected him to clean up a franchise discredited by scandals and return it to the playoffs. Judging from those criteria, Childress' tenure was successful. A team's needs evolve over time, however. And the strengths that enabled Childress to turn the Vikings into a contender didn't translate to new challenges inherent to winners. Fact is, the players had outgrown his system. They sought inspiration, greater freedom, and stronger communication, and Childress failed to adapt.

The same happens in management. Sometimes, leadership, however good, goes stale. Employees need to hear a new voice, even if it utters many of the same truths. And new leadership can serve as a wake-up call, to shake them out of complacency and adapt to new realities and expectations.

Despite his mistakes, Childress did at least one thing that serves as a good example for managers. He groomed an in-house successor capable of replacing him. In defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the Vikings had an alternative with a proven track record and the players' trust. The front office understood that it costs less to replace coaches than players. But they also sent a message to the players: You're out of excuses. Start performing—or you're next in line.

Jeff_schmitt
Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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