Six things CEOs can learn from Jim Harbaugh

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Customer loyalty, customers/buyers, marketing, Silicon Valley

Forty-Niner Head coach Jim Harbaugh is a turn-around specialist.  Prior to accepting the job in San Francisco a year ago, Harbaugh resurrected a long-struggling Stanford football program, transforming it into one of the nation’s elite teams.  Last Sunday, he had the Niners playing in their first NFC championship game since 1998.  His team lost, but it didn’t diminish the glow of a great season.

So what can Harbaugh teach about successful business leadership?  For starters he could conduct a clinic on motivation.  Then he could run a camp on how to improve returns on assets.  As for instillation of enthusiasm in the ranks, there is nothing his team would not do for him. How many CEOs can say the same?  With apologies to long-time Bay Area sports columnist Glenn Dickey, here are my business parallels to the Harbaugh Way:

1.  Naturally upbeat, indefatigable temperament. Harbaugh stays positive and vocal about the talent around him and remains outwardly unaffected by setbacks.  Players, to a man, knowing their coach is on their side, eagerly put forth the extra effort that paid off all year.  In business, it’s human nature to want to do a great job for a great boss — one that you now has your back.

2.  Strategist and tactician. Successful coaches have a knack for quickly identifying their teams’ — and their opponents’ —  strengths and weaknesses. Harbaugh is no exception.  Similarly, the best CEOs always seem to have an instinct not only for knowing what their companies can do best but making it pay off: how to “attack” their competitors in ways that leverage their companies’ strengths versus competitors’ weaknesses.  The best strategy, however, is futile in the absence of the tactical skills necessary to implement it.  In sports it’s about the X’s and O’s; in business, it’s knowledge of people, territory, customers and a visceral feel for the competitive environment and the overall business.

3.  Generous with praise. Never does Harbaugh publicly criticize a player.  Praise, on the other hand, is conspicuous and generous. Sincerely sharing the credit with the people who deserve it pays dividends.  Harbaugh makes a point of singling out his assistants and never poses, even subtly, as the lord and master.

4.  Comfort in your own skin. Harbaugh’s coordinators and many of his assistants are bound to be head coaches someday. Your key lieutenants should be of the same ilk. Surround yourself with the best people available and be secure in the presence of people smarter than you.  You will need them.

5.  How to motivate. When Harbaugh was hired, there was some question about how his exuberant, schoolboy style would translate to the NFL.  That question has been answered. As Glenn Dickey puts it, nobody outside the team knows what Harbaugh tells players before the game or on the sidelines, but whatever it is they believe it. The team played at a consistently high level throughout the entire season.  In other words, points 1-4 above had the desired effect.  In sports, as in business, always being at the top of your game is a challenge because the competition is relentless. Your team must believe in itself and teammates must have confidence in each other.

6.   Focus on the result, not the style points. Harbaugh ignores his critics who want a flashier offense.  In the same vein, knowing what your company does better than anyone else enables focus and disables distraction.  At any given time there is a long list of great things to be doing.  The best coaches — and CEOs — know which of those will generate the highest returns.   The most effective CEOs I’ve known were great listeners but they always asked great questions.  The most frequently asked: “What is it that we do better than anybody and how can we do it better?”


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