Percy Harvin and the Three Questions Every Business Leader Must Ask

November 4, 2014

As football fans know, Percy Harvin is a player with tremendous talent for whom the Seattle Seahawks traded multiple high-level draft picks. On a pure talent level, he is a game-changer. But on October 18, less than halfway into his second full season with the ‘Hawks, he was traded to the lowly Jets for a conditional mid-level draft pick.

His sudden exit raises three key leadership questions for executives of all stripes.

What Game Are You Playing?

Great coaches do more than make locker room speeches. Masters of their game – men and women like Tony Dungy, Pat Summitt and Phil Jackson – have built their legacies by articulating a winning system. More than just fielding a football or basketball team, they defined what kind of game they were going to take to their opponents.

CEOs face this same challenge on a regular basis. As the CEO of a global chemicals business told us as he and his board were wrestling with two very different strategic options, “It’s not just about playing offense or defense, it’s deciding if we’re playing American or Australian-rules football. Our future depends on being clear about that.”

Every organization, whether athletic or a public company, will be filled with opinions and second guessing on what game the organization should play. But the role of the leader is to articulate a clear choice (starting in the board room), force a decision for the sake of clarity and then hold the organization accountable to executing upon that decision.

Do You Have a System to Win?

Great leaders – whether in team sports or in business – take the complex and make it simple.

Over his career, in addition to successes, Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll has endured failures in the NFL and an embarrassing college scandal. But he took those experiences, drew his own lessons from them, and created a blueprint for winning that was simple, positive and fun – and that requires player buy-in. Under Carroll, the Seahawks’ winning system emphasizes the whole team, finding the right role for each individual and driving a positive attitude about relentless performance.

Effective leaders are consistently clear with their teams about the program they are building. Two completely different coaches from college sports today offer stand-out examples. John Calipari recruits some of the best high school basketball players into his program. A-list talent, these stars will only stay a year or two before jumping to the NBA. Yet, Calipari is able to blend that mix of egos, skills and youth into a serious contender year after year.

Coach Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth University doesn’t have access to the same level of talent that Calipari does, yet his system utilizes constant defensive pressure, maximizing each player’s role in creating havoc for opponents. Smart creates – and demands – a level of buy-in that has turned VCU from “VC who?” to a nationally relevant program. Both coaches, with very different sets of players, have been clear and consistent in communicating their system.

But for leaders, a “system to win”, while necessary, is not solely sufficient. Calipari and Smart, Carroll or Jackson: these leaders devote equal thought and weight to the behaviors required to be successful within their specific system.

What Holds You Back?

Within organizations that are clear about the game they are playing and their unique system to win, good leaders clarify which behaviors will drive success. Ebay, for example, is explicit in stating “our shared behaviors”. As important as reinforcing desired actions, however, the most effective leaders take the extra step of clarifying the behaviors that will undermine their system to win. What’s more, they act when those behaviors crop up.

Percy Harvin, it appears, wasn’t ready to fully embrace Carroll’s philosophy. Harvin’s numbers were an asset, but Carroll had a system to win and every player or assistant coach in the organization is part of that system. They are either accelerating it or impeding it. What does a leader do when behaviors undermine the agreed strategy?

That’s a leadership call and a tough one. Often, business leaders are slow to address behaviors. “It’s easy to become enamored of someone’s skill sets even though they are a bit of a cancer,” Dermott O’Brien, CHRO of ADP, told us recently. Effective leaders often use a kind of “stress test” to hold themselves and their teams accountable, by asking the question: what specific behaviors hold us back?

To be clear, in athletics just as in business, plenty of organizations fail even to self-administer this test, let alone address it with full candor. The results of such avoidance (think of Penn State alone) can be devastating.

The Three Questions

Ultimately, history and Seattle’s owners will decide whether Pete Carroll’s system is the right winning combination for the Seahawks. Just as a board will hold a CEO accountable to the decisions he or she has made. As former ABC and Disney executive Bruce Gordon said to us last year about senior-level roles, “You don’t own these jobs, you rent them.”

There is no single approach to winning. But great leaders in nearly any complex organization today can cut a path through the fog of possibilities by driving clarity around three questions:

– What game are we playing?
– Are we clear on our system to win?
– What are we doing about the behaviors that hold us back?

Organizations whose leaders address these questions – and whose teams can not only tackle the subjects but also hold themselves accountable to their answers – are the organizations delivering performance that sustains over time.

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