Michael Sam – What Most People Missed


I’m proud to be a Mizzou fan.  Even getting spanked outplayed outlasted by Auburn in the SEC title game was a pretty great moment.  But the coverage this week of SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam coming out?  Even more so.

Yes I’m proud that he’s a Tiger.  And yes I’m proud that the school and program have produced a young man willing to step up share who he is.  And yes I’m proud that he chose to do so before the NFL combine, knowing it could impact his draft position and his contract.  But that’s not what I’m really proud of.  What I’m really proud of is that he came out to his team at the start of the season.  Months ago.  And not only did it not cause any problems, but it also did not get any coverage.

No leaks.

No ugly incidents.

No turmoil.

Just a team.

It would have been easy in this season of Tiger football for someone to make an innocent remark that gets picked up by the press.  It would have been understandable if someone on the team decided to make a big show of their own homophobia and ignorance.  It would have been commonplace for Sam to keep his mouth shut and go through the season quietly, then let his teammates wonder later why he didn’t trust them enough to be honest about who he was.  But it was his trust in his teammates, their solidarity and support, and the way in which they acted as a team that is not only remarkable, but has been mostly missed (though not completely) in the coverage of this story.

We’ve all been members of teams, some of which we trusted, and some we didn’t.  The impact on our performance is noticeable, especially our long term engagement and productivity.  When we are surrounded by those we trust, who work to make our lives easier, and whom we know we can depend on day in and day out, we are better.  What’s more, we are programmed for reciprocity, so our inclination is to return trust and helpfulness.  This can snowball into an amazing cycle of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men (and women) if we let it.  I’ve been part of teams that defied all expectations of productivity and tenure, all because they truly enjoyed working together.  (As an aside, how together was this team?  Sam came out to his teammates in August.  He came out to his parents in January.)

It doesn’t always work that way, of course.  A breakdown of trust can sink a team faster than unrealistic expectations, a poor leader, or cement loafers.  I’ve seen teams that should succeed fail simply because of that lack of trust.  If the Tigers weren’t acting as a unit, this season could have quickly gone from SEC East Champion to complete disarray.  Credit to Gary Pinkel, the coaching staff, the university, and the young men who served as locker room leaders for not letting this happen.  It’s a great example of teamwork and togetherness overcoming adversity to succeed.

I won’t pretend to understand the burden carried by someone who has to hide who they are every day.  But I hope that this at least gives them comfort in the thought that coming out is not an event that you go through alone.  There are people around you that will support and uphold you.  Having a strong team can make even the biggest of mountains a molehill.

(And yes, I’ve heard the comments about “I don’t care if he’s gay, it shouldn’t be a big deal.”  You’re right.  It shouldn’t be.  But it is.  Let’s make it so in a positive light.  Because there are plenty of people out there who will take a opposing view, and do so very vocally.  These young men deserve all the positive reinforcement we can muster.)


Lessons from the 2012 Cardinals’ Collapse


As defending world champions, there were high hopes for the Cardinals this year.  What started as a great playoff run with flashbacks to the 2011 World Series (universally hailed as the greatest of all time) ended with three straight losses to the San Francisco Giants.  In the wake of the team collapse, here are a few lessons you can take and apply in your own organization.

It’s Not All About Leadership

The Cardinals made an interesting move this year, appointing Mike Matheny as the heir to Tony LaRussa. While my feelings on TLR are well documented, Matheny came in with no managerial experience. On any level.  But he was a great field general as a player, and he was given a shot.  It wasn’t an easy gig, to be sure.  While the team had hoisted the hardware in 2011, they would face 2012 without Albert Pujols.  Then they lost Lance Berkman.  And Chris Carpenter.  And Rafael Furcal.  And Jamie Garcia.

Despite all that, the Cards had a commanding 3-1 lead in the NLCS over the Giants.  A fine job by a rookie skipper, to be sure.  But the offense, pitching and defense all disappeared in game 5, never to return.  While there were some questionable decisions made by Matheny along the way, the player have to execute.  An no manager in the word can field a ground ball from the dugout.

You have leaders in your organization that will, from time to time, be given too much credit for a success.  The good ones, you may have noticed, pass that credit along to their team.  They may also get too much blame for failures.  The good ones keep that for themselves. But we all know that leaders can only set people up for success. Execution has to happen on the field.

Be Careful In Selecting Your Stars

With Pujols likely on his way out of town, the Cardinals invested a lot of money and years in acquiring Matt Holliday in 2009 and then signing him to a long term deal.  He’s a solid investment, at least on paper.  He’ll hit 25-30 home runs,drive in 100, hit .300 or so each year.  But Matt also has something in common with almost every car I’ve ever owned.

No clutch.

When your talent team is sifting through candidates, trying to find the right person to add to your team, remember that it’s not all about the results.  How you got there matters, too. A leader who makes their goals by burning out their team and running off their players isn’t one you want.  Nor do you want a team member that can’t come through when the pressure is on.  Dive a little deeper, and find the ones that strive when the spotlight is on them.  You’ll be glad you did.

Sometimes It Really Is A Team Sport

The Cardinals may have had a better group of players, more experience, and a bunch of rings that make them the better bet, but they were beat by a team that outperformed them in every aspect of games 5-7.  Would you trade rosters straight up if you ran the Cards?  Probably not.  But the process equation holds true.  The team’s outcome is a function of their inputs, and no two groups of inputs will react in the same way.

When you put your team together, they will form in their own way.  You can’t recreate an old team, even with the same people, in a new place.  And you can’t hope to succeed long term on the backs of one or two people. Pay attention to who you acquire, create an environment that accepts them for who they are and allows them to play to their strengths, and you’ll be amazed at what they can accomplish.  It’s why the business world sees David whoop the pants off of Goliath over and over and over.

Leadership Lessons from Joe Maddon

Tampa Rays Manager Joe Maddon

Joseph John Madden, manager of your Tampa Bay Rays.  He just inspires confidence, doesn’t he folks?  Look at him!  How secure would you have to be to dress that way? OK, the truth is, of course, that this isn’t Joe’s normal look.  It was part of a team dress code implemented for a recent road trip, done in honor of baseball writer extraordinaire Ken Rosenthal.  And how did the team respond?

This is just one example of how Joe runs his team a little differently that others.  His managerial style produces results, a great culture, and loyalty in a sport that sometimes finds it in short supply.  So, outside of becoming a major league baseball manager yourself, what can you learn from Joe?

Sometimes you have to leave the nest if you really want to fly.

Joe spent 31 years in the Los Angles Angels of Anaheim organization, six of them as a minor league manager.  As Mike Scioscia has been the manager of the Angels major league club since 2000 (despite his tragic illness), there wasn’t much of an opportunity for Joe to advance.  He may not have been given a shot regardless, as his teams had a losing record in all six years.

But Joe was, and is, a well respected “baseball man,” and in 2004 was a close runner up to Terry Francona in getting the big job with the Boston Red Sox.  (Francona led the team to two World Series titles, so I guess they made the right choice.)  In 2006, the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays tapped him on the shoulder to manage their woeful team.  He has turned them into a contender, and has a winning record for his tenure, as well as three first place finishes while sharing a division with the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Would he have gotten a chance in Anaheim?  Maybe.  He was 27-24 in two short stints as interm manager for them, but both times the long term gig went to someone else.  In the end, so did Joe.  After a long time honing his craft, he left for the opportunity to grow elsewhere.  Sometimes that’s what it takes.

It’s never too late to get your shot.

Joe spent four years as a catcher in the minors.  He collected 514 at-bats, and never reached AA ball.

Joe got his first managing job in 1981.  His team went 27-43.

Joe got his first full time major league gig at 52, 25 years after his first season.  Imagine getting your first shot at the big dance that late in your career.    You know how Joe got that job?  By being patient.  By learning.  By going in every day and working to get better.

How many players, coaches and managers have hung up their spikes before getting that call?  How long are you willing to wait for yours?

Fun is not a four letter word.

Look at the picture again.  Are you willing to put yourself in the line of fire that way?  Imagine how Joe would have felt had the rest of the team shown up in their traditional sport coat and slacks look.

I have a feeling he would have been just fine with it.  Joe embodies the old phrase, “Take your work seriously and yourself lightly.”  His method is to celebrate a win for 30 minutes, mourn a loss for the same amount.  Then you’re done.  Move on.  And the “moving on” includes going back to the team’s natural state of enjoying being together.

That’s not an accident.

Be yourself.

Joe couldn’t manage like Mike Scioscia.  He wouldn’t succeed being Ozzie Guillen. He shouldn’t try to be Tony LaRussa.  (No one should, but that’s another post.)

That said, you shouldn’t try to be Joe Madden.  That’s not the point.  The point is Joe is Joe, and everybody knows it.

So you be you.  It’s the role you know best.

Accountability and the NFL

Work rules are weird.  We talk a lot about culture, but rarely go after behaviors that build the wrong kind of culture.  Especially if those behaviors are perpetrated by high performers.  Have a sales manager who is killing his number, but close to 100% turnover in the process?  Maybe you overlook the damage he does to the “ditch diggers” on the way to higher revenue.  A high performing executive that verbally abuses his assistant in front of others?  Unless a lawsuit is coming your way, you might let it slide.  We all know the stories.  So it is nice when someone publicly holds a star accountable for their actions.  When it is a pro sports team, it’s that much more interesting.  From ESPN:

[DeSean] Jackson won’t play after he missed a team meeting on Saturday morning, a team source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Jackson, a two-time Pro Bowl pick, is the [Philadelphia Eagle’s] second-leading receiver with 29 catches for 503 yards and two touchdowns this season. Jackson had 110 catches for 2,223 yards and 15 TDs as a receiver the last two years and already owns the franchise record with four punt returns for scores.

There is some dispute over the benching.  His agent claims it is part of contract negotiations.  The team says this was the “final straw” in a series of behaviors.  Whatever the case, the Eagles were without one of their top players, and lost another in Jeremy Maclin to an injury early in the game.  Maclin came back, but the Eagles lost to Arizona 21-17.

How much have you put up with from a star player?  Or a borderline player, for that matter.  If you don’t hold people accountable, you can’t protect your culture.  And that, in itself, will build the culture for you.  Just not the one you are probably looking for.

Penn State, Blame and the NCAA

I wasn’t sure I was going to write about this, but I guess I am.  Wish I didn’t feel the need, or that there was anything to write about.  But there you go.  I’m not going to recount the details at any level.  That’s been done plenty in other places.

I have been fascinated by this story.  Not by the crimes, the terrible failures of leaders, the men who stood by and did nothing in exactly the situation where any person with a shred of compassion would have taken marked action.  Those things are tragic, but I think speak more to social inertia and to the incredible failure of a system that is supposedly designed to protect our youth. I don’t want to hear more of that than I already have.

I am, though, fascinated by the reaction of those uninvolved, or at least those whose involvement goes not further than their connection with the school, the football program, the coach, or to sports in general.  People who have made their voice heard on talk radio shows, ESPN, local newspapers and, of course, the Interwebs.  And far, far too many have spoken up in defense of Joe Paterno.  (For the record, I define too many, in this case, as any number greater than zero.)

Much of the bickering is over at whose feet would should lay the blame for this tragedy.  Some, quite understandably, demand the blame belongs to the perpetrator.  No argument here.  There’s not a punishment great enough.  But many of those people defend the coach, as he reported what he heard through “proper channels.”  The administration handed it to the police.  The police investigated and decided nothing need be done.  Time marched on, as did the string of events and victims.  The system failed.  Which of the people should take the blame?

Here’s the thing.  There’s no need to point fingers in the chain of command.  Every last one of these men are culpable.  Those who are concerned about the “legend” of JoePa are in arms that he was fired over the phone.  Stay tuned.  It’s not out of the question that a prosecutor decides to go ballistic on this case and file charges against everyone who knew anything.  And I have to admit, I’d be just fine with that.  If you knew something, anything, and stood idly by, that in my mind makes you part of what happened.

There’s another aspect that I’m waiting to hear, and that’s the NCAA response.  On the same day that Paterno was fired, ESPN ran this story that Ohio State (sorry, THE Ohio State) “will face a ‘failure to monitor’ charge in addition to more allegations of rules violations by its troubled football program.”  That big deal about players getting free tattoos seems a little silly now, right?  Are you sure that “failure to monitor” note wasn’t intended for someone a little further east?

The NCAA is ready to step in whenever revenue is threatened or there is a perceived inequity in player treatment.  Except Cam Newton, of course.  How could they consider standing idle in this case?  It may be that they are waiting for the facts to come out, then plan to step in.  I hope that’s the case.  If not, it will be as great a failure as they have ever had.  They have handed out their “death penalty” to programs for recruiting and eligibility violations.  They take the team off the field, cancel scholarships, take away bowl and television appearances.

If you want to make sure schools, not to mention anyone who works for or with those schools in the capacity of watching over youths who come their way, take this to heart, you need to make a statement.  A bold one.

Take away the Penn State football program. 

I don’t mean a few scholarships.  I don’t mean their bowl rights.  I don’t mean their wins.  I mean the whole thing.  Shut it down.  Shut it down tomorrow.  Tell the world that there is a price to be paid by anyone who is in any way connected to this kind of crime.  There will be no more cover ups or hush money.  There will be a much higher standard applied going forward.  And it would be voluntary.  But it can only be driven home with a sledgehammer.  When you are done, stand aside and let them throw the bunch of them, Sandusky, Paterno, McQueary, Schultz, Curley, and anyone else involved, in jail. They each should bear the responsibility of what they have wrought.

Disruptive Leadership

Anyone with a title can be in charge.  Anyone with an idea can lead.  But it takes courage to lead disruptively.  Enter Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

As the Pusher-in-Chief for our caffeine delivery system of choice, Howard has a place in the heart of many.  But he earned straight up admiration for his message to fellow CEOs on August 15th.  In it, he encouraged his peers to “forego political contributions until the Congress and the President return to Washington and deliver a fiscally disciplined long-term debt and deficit plan to the American people.”  (Hat tip to Bloomberg News for the info.)

This is more than a public declaration of feelings.  This is a powerful person reaching out to other powerful people to use their influence in a positive, disruptive way.  By asking for their help and support in this, he has put his own influence to work for the greater good.  At least as he sees it.

This is the essence of great leadership.  It’s easy to repeat a widely held belief, or to make broad sweeping comments that do not put your personal standing at risk.  But to really lead means to take steps to change the world, and that means driving change.

While being disruptive tends to carry a negative connotation, it need not be that way.  The telephone was disruptive.  The automobile was disruptive.  The Internet is disruptive.  These are game changing events, and they turned the world on it’s ear.  But I don’t think anyone would argue that they didn’t bring a lot of benefits with them.

You can be disruptive.  You can challenge the status quo.  You can ask tough questions, demand uncomfortable answers, and drive transparency and accountability in everything you do.  It will cause problems.  It will make people uneasy.  And it will raise resistance from those around you.

But that’s what great leadership does.

Engaging Leaders in Project Management

When you oversee a large number of projects, one of the most telling, and yet blindingly simple, metrics you can track is closure rate. For every project you successfully complete, how many die on the vine? If you’re using a defined methodology (DMAIC, PDCA, stage gates, etc.) you can drill down further and see what your fallout rate is at each point.

The next step is to ask why. It’s likely a systematic issue, as I’ve encountered repeatedly in the past.  And the system that falls apart most often is ownership.  The song goes something like this…

“Betty, you are a high potential, high performer.  We’d like you to get some project management/Lean Six Sigma/TQM/cross functional experience.  Please find a project that would interest you!”

***Time passes***

“Betty, you are a high potential, high performer, and we’re going to promote you!  Your project?  Oh…um…well, no worries.  We’ll find someone else to run it.”

***Time passes***

“Hey, whatever happened to Betty’s project?  Did anyone finish that?”

We look to our developing leaders to make a difference and drive projects.  In reality, though, the only way to really deliver value from a project is to have someone at a high level who cares about the result to make sure it is achieved.  In that spirit, here are a few simple methods I’ve found to help get those leaders engaged…

The leadership team picks the projects

Ideally, projects are driven by strategy.  As your business objectives are drilled into action, you should have a clear line that tells you how each project aligns to overall goals.  Each one should have a defined deliverable, and failure to execute should mean the risk of failing to meet the business goals.  If this puts a leader’s bonus at risk, so much the better.

Projects look for team leaders, not the other way around

Project leaders are chosen AFTER the projects.  Unless you create a project that is so good it can’t be turned down, you shouldn’t have to dig up development opportunities.  Being choosen to lead a mission critical project team should be an honor and a reward, not a burden.

Part of being a project leader is exposure to the leadership team

Project leaders report on progress to their leadership team.  Obstacles are openly discussed, and the team breaks them down together.  Open reporting and discussion breeds engagement with leaders, with then breeds expectation of results.

Leading a project should not be something you do alongside your “day job”

Just like any other quality/management system, these projects should be part of how you do your job, how you make it better, and how you deliver your results, not extra work on top.  When it becomes a second job, you start to lose your best team leaders.

If you are a team leader, make sure your projects are coming from the right place.  If its too late for that, then spend some time marketing the potential impact and make someone on that leadership team care about your project.

The number one job…

…of a leader is to keep promises
None of us can accomplish much on our own. Employees, employers,
customers, vendors, investors all rely on us to keep our word. A
sinplistic way to look at it, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it
less true.
I have seem great teams fall apart because a leader makes unrealistic
promises (or worse, very realistic ones) upon which they failed to
act. Even failure to deliver can, at least somewhat, be forgiven when
the effort to fulfill those promises are made.
Be candid, be clear, but most of all be committed to delivering on
promises made.

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