I have always loved sports. As a fan, I am a passionate New Orleans Saints fan (and yes, I’m still bitter about the NFC Championship call) and Kentcuky Wildcats basketball enthusiast.
Growing up in Kentucky, I played basketball from age four through high school. I remember spending hours in the gym every summer, just me and the swoosh of the basketball through the net. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite sounds. Practice was a way I could methodically improve my skills and mindset for the eventual action that would play out on the court. Alas, I was a bit too slow for college ball, but the lessons I gained through my time as an athlete have continued to benefit me as a leader.
Players get most of the attention in sports coverage as long as things are going well. But when a losing streak hits, you better believe the coach is all fans are talking about. That’s because coaches are the leaders of teams and accountable for the team’s performance even though they aren’t on the field.
Sound familiar? It’s very similar to the role a CEO plays as head of an agency. Here are some of the lessons that marketing industry CEOs can learn from great coaches like Phil Jackson, Bill Belichick, Sean Payton and John Calipari about building talented, passionate and integrated teams.
Set a clear game plan
Simply put, the team needs to understand who they are, what they stand for and where they’re headed. In an industry that is in a near constant state of disruption, crafting an aspirational vision of success that aligns team members around a common goal is essential. It might be making the play-offs, winning the Super Bowl or becoming the fastest growing digital experience design agency, but teams need clear direction and something to strive toward together.
The greatest risk to a championship caliber sports team is to become distracted by the chase for a championship and lose focus on the next game. I’ve seen this happen time and time again with pitches. Marketers get so focused on hitting an overall budget or aligning with the established creative brief that they lose sight on putting together the best response to the pitch in front of them.
This is how great teams lose to lesser teams. A great coach keeps the team focused on preparing for the next opponent. Methodical preparation to drive improvement and progress one step at a time is key to any team’s success.
Be willing to adapt
Great coaches aren’t afraid to change their game plan at halftime. The ability to make adjustments and clearly execute them with the team is the differentiator between mediocre and great coaches, and the same holds true for CEOs.
Let’s be honest. Agencies are messy. (That happens to be what I love about them.) Creative teams change, platforms change, timelines change. So use that constant change to stay nimble. Clients value partners that are focused on solving the problem, so do that by whatever means are available to you. What worked last quarter may not work this quarter, so don’t be afraid to pivot.
Coaches select and train their teams, but ultimately the team has to execute the plan. Watching can be the most frustrating piece for many leaders, but at some point the team has to band together and bring home the win. A coach isn’t allowed on the field of play, and a CEO can’t be everywhere.
As agencies, we need to build teams that are self-sustainable so we are free to do what CEOs are uniquely positioned to do. It also empowers the team to trust themselves and build confidence. This is why it’s critical to build a strong, integrated team through direct but respectful feedback and a culture of accountability.
It seems like this is the easiest point on the list, right? Of course, you have to care about what you do, but burn out is the enemy of passion and agencies seem to have a lot of it. You can’t let that be you.
The coach and CEO both set the tone for their organizations. That tone needs to be passionate. If you don’t care, your team won’t. Many times, the difference between a win or a loss comes down to who wants it more. Who was willing to push harder when the going was tough? Who was willing to be braver? Leaders have to model this behavior and infuse it into every part of the organization.
Leadership matters. Our people and teams are what make all that we do possible. As leaders of marketing organizations, it is our privilege to model behaviors that result in happy clients and great work, but also positive momentum in the careers of our teams. Giving the people we work with the tools to cultivate a strong, winning mindset at work is a competitive advantage in the marketplace.