5 Business Lessons From Former NFL GM Ted Sundquist

I recently had the chance to sit down with the Motley Fool’s own Jake Mann to discuss some of the business principles that I felt crossed over into the world of professional football and the emphasis I put on these in my book Taking Your Team To The Top – How to build and manage great teams like the pros.  

The following interview appeared on their website on February 9, 2014.

5 Business Lessons From an NFL GM

By Jake Mann | More Articles |

The NFL is one of the biggest businesses in the world. It makes more than $9 billion in annual revenue, and Forbes estimates each of the league’s 32 teams spent an average of $240 million last season. As you might expect, football’s most successful leaders often follow strategies similar to those used in the board room.

I talked to Ted Sundquist, the former GM of the Denver Broncos, about what he’s learned from more than a decade of NFL experience. There are a few lessons that can be used by anyone in the business world.

Lesson No. 1: When searching for talent, pay attention to ‘core makeup’

According to Sundquist, finding talent is “both an art and a science.” From football teams to publicly traded companies, some are simply better at this than others. The best typically set a character type they’re looking for, and find the top employees that fit that type, regardless of their exact job function. Taking Your Team to the Top, which Sundquist finished writing last year, discusses how NFL executives use this strategy.

“If you want a fast team … you build speed throughout as a core component…. If you want an active team in the community … you set character as a highly weighted [factor].” He says that this way, leadership can adjust its mission while still maintaining a standard “deemed essential to the identity of the team.”

Sundquist adds:

In the business world, companies will at times focus too much on the task required by the position to be filled and not … the core makeup of the team member filling the position…. If [candidates] do not meet the standards of “who you are” as a business, then there is no reason to go forth with any further evaluation.

If an employee’s underlying character is ignored, Sundquist says, “the job may be executed, but the problems that permeate off the individual … ultimately affect the other members of the team.”

Lesson No. 2: Make sure you have a mission

The GM told me that while interviewing for a job with an unnamed NFL team, he once asked its owner if he was prepared to supply the resources needed to win a Super Bowl. The owner’s honest answer was, “Super Bowl? We don’t say that word around here. Someone might hold us accountable and that would cause too much disruption.”

As Sundquist points out, during his 16 seasons with the Denver Broncos, their mission “was towin a Super Bowl Championship each and every season.”

“Everything we did,” he says, “centered on completing that mission,” and “everyone within the organization was keenly aware of how their efforts fit into the big picture.” To him, a mission is crucial to any organization because without it, “employees would simply be lost in the ocean of objectives.”

The mission statement, then, does three primary things, according to Sundquist: (a) It summarizes goals, (b) improves efficiency, and (c) maintains focus. These are usually constant no matter the business, whether the mission involves a brokerage trying to improve profit margins, a media company pushing for more page views, or a sports team searching for a championship.

Lesson No. 3: Develop your assets

That said, no goals can ever be reached if employee performance isn’t maximized. Sundquist reveals his football experience taught him that the youngest generation of workers is in search of more than a typical job. He says most tend to want more from their leaders now, and that “the old ideas of ‘give one up for the team’ just don’t resonate as they once did.”

Younger players and employees want and need to know that they will be personally rewarded for their work, and if not, Sundquist has seen what can happen.

They begin immediately looking for an out when they feel the team and its leaders are not there to support them…. Without a clear direction … these team members become complacent regarding their role toward mission accomplishment. In some instances, it takes only one downtrodden or disgruntled team member to destroy the efforts of the entire team.

What’s the fix?

Sundquist explains it is crucial that businesses “create an environment where all members feel as if they are … seen as an investment rather than movable and disposable commodities.” If this can be done, most begin to believe they are more valuable, and as a result, they work harder.

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