Q&A with Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl, authors of Team Turnarounds
What parallels have you seen between what turns around sports teams and business teams?
The most striking parallel we found is that a committed leader is needed. Specifically, there must be someone who is willing to stand up and tell the truth to the larger organization, as difficult as that may be. Often, it involves some iteration of the message, "We're really not that good." But just as important is the follow up message that needs to be sent: "We can be better, we can succeed."
How can you evaluate the state of your current team and what might be in need of a turnaround?
Most teams that are in need of a turnaround already know this deep down. What holds them back are the creative rationalizations and excuses that the collective group starts to hold on to. In sports, it could be something as simple as "We're a small market team," which implicitly lowers the expectations. So while the state of a team might be obvious (especially in sports where wins and losses are hard to ignore), these deep-rooted beliefs must be uncovered and disputed.
How do you get teams past the discomfort and denial of admitting failure so they can move on to a better future?
Deep down, everyone wants to achieve, to be a part of something bigger than themselves. So it's important that we engage them in the process. One individual that we interviewed asked his employees questions like, "What are we doing that's stupid?" and, "What do you think we can be?" These are two incredibly simple questions that can not only reveal a lot about the past and the present, but begin to shift focus to the future.
What is the hardest stage of the turnaround process?
All six stages are hard. Turnarounds in general are difficult, and they're a profound test of leadership and resilience. That's part of the reason we wanted to create a roadmap for leaders. In particular, Stage III, "Changing Behaviors," is where a group needs to replace old behaviors with the new ones that align with the appropriate vision, goals, and ideals. But, as anyone who has ever tried to diet, quit smoking, or exercise more knows, changing your own behavior can be a brutal challenge, let alone trying to change a group's behavior!
How do you create a culture of excellence in a team?
A lot of teams or groups experience short-term success but can't seem to replicate it. The teams that have sustained success seem to examine their definition of success on a regular basis. Success may initially be defined as profitability, but once you're profitable, then what? Two other elements must be present: continual learning and innovation. In other words, how can we make sure that everyone on this team is constantly learning and growing? And are we constantly questioning the assumptions and the rules that we're playing the game by, regardless of whether we're in business or sport?
What insights did you gain from speaking to professional sports team owners and general managers?
There are very different personalities that have successfully led turnarounds; some are laid back, and others are almost maniacal about their beliefs. But the one commonality that they all have is they care deeply about their sport and about their team. Another thing is the creativity that existed within this group. They're not insular-instead they use the experiences they have outside their sport to make their own teams better. For example, Bill Polian told us that he goes to hockey games with a GM in hockey to watch how that individual evaluates talent. He believes that in looking outside his own sport (football), he can make his team better.
What is a leader's role in the turnaround process?
There are a few things that leaders must do if they are going to be successful. For one, people don't follow a title, they follow the person. So the most important thing that a leader can do is to create relationships with the team and provide insight into who they are and what they value. Secondly, the leader must find ways to refute the excuses of the past and raise the expectations. Finally, a leader must be committed to teaching the team how to be resilient while continually cheering them on because any climb to the top is going to be riddled with obstacles, and a team needs to learn how to persevere through the challenges and setbacks. Whether it's a Broadway production, a diner, or a government agency, the process for a turnaround is the same: A leader has to boldly identify where the turnaround is needed, say it, and then guide the team forward.