Career Coach: What we can learn from the NFL

It’s winter and a time many have been gearing up for for months: The NFL football playoffs in the lead up to the Super Bowl. If you are watching, it is most likely for pure entertainment, an opportunity to get your mind off your job and root for your team or watch a great match-up between two season-tested teams. But for the NFL coaches and players, it’s a business. In their business, success is measured by winning games. Metaphorically speaking, your business is also about winning games and there are numerous lessons we can learn from NFL football to make our company a better performer with a strong winning record.

– The team

It all begins with recruiting the right people to your team. This includes every position – sales specialist, a marketing associate, staff accountant, IT specialist, etc. These players are critically important to the success of the firm. However, their success is reliant upon excellent coaching. In football, that comes from coaching specialists – quarterback coach, receivers coach, linebackers coach, etc. In companies, it comes from people at the middle-management level who lead teams within the team – director of digital marketing, director of financial planning, director of IT operations, etc. Then of course you have the most senior executives — the chief information officer, chief marketing officer, and other C-suite executives or high-level vice presidents. Much like the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, they head up major units within the team. Finally, the head coach in business is the chief executive. To be a top NFL football team, you need players with talent who are developed by the various coaches. You need excellent coaches who know how to guide, develop and teach these players how to be at their best at their respective positions. It is critical that the coaching staff lead and get players to perform as a team, with the same ultimate mission – to win the game. Every business needs to operate this way. Identify great talent, develop the talent and teach them how to play as a team.

– Preparation

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In football, teams have several days to prepare for the next game. This involves studying the playbook, studying the films of the other team in action to glean as much information as possible to create the best game plan to win. Every business should do the same. Let’s say you are in consumer product sales and have an upcoming appointment with a fantastic retailer prospect currently working with your competitor. Prepare properly: Study the retailer, your potential customer. Read everything you can about them – an annual report, a 10K and news releases. Study their stores, making your own observations, particularly in the area where they are selling your products. Finally, study your competitor who currently has the business, trying to understand how you can differentiate from them in a way that will give you a competitive advantage. This strategy applies to many aspects of business: If you have a new project to work on, you must do the proper research and homework, collecting enough data to create a strong plan or “playbook” for accomplishing your objective.

– Calling an audible

In a football game, the quarterback may spot an unexpected defensive set and he may change the play on the spot by calling an “audible.” Your business is the same way. Even with outstanding preparation, dynamic circumstances may require a pivot or adjustment to your plan. In business it’s important to be nimble and flexible to make necessary adjustments along the way.

– Execution

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An NFL team may have fantastic players and coaches and they may have done an outstanding job in preparing for the game. However, for 60 minutes on the field they must execute as flawlessly as possible or risk losing the game. It is incredibly frustrating for the team (and the fans) when they make mistakes during the game – dropped footballs, missed tackles, fumbles, interceptions. To keep this from happening, flawless execution requires excellent communication between members of your team, with each anticipating the other’s move. This means playing well together, supporting each other and maintaining focus. If someone makes a mistake, don’t assign blame; work harder together as a team and support each member to keep these mistakes to a minimum and improve each day.

– Get ready for next week

Even great NFL teams usually lose a few games in a season. But during the regular season, there is no time to wallow in a loss – they have to prepare for next week’s game. It’s the same for you in your business. You will not always win. It’s important to learn from your loss or setback and make adjustments to your strategy or game plan for future opportunities. It’s time to get over your recent loss and begin preparing for that next game, working on being at your best.

The next time you watch an NFL game, think about the work ethic that is involved in the preparation, potential pivots and overall execution. Put these practices in place and put your business team in a position to win.

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Gary A. Cohen is associate dean of the Office of Executive Programs at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is a certified executive coach and prior to joining the faculty at Smith, he had a successful 30-year corporate career, with the last 15 as a senior executive. He can be reached at, @gary_a_cohen, and on LinkedIn.