The NFL playoffs are in full swing and, whether you’re a football fan or not, the sport offers some valuable lessons in leadership.
Most notable is the “next man up” philosophy — that every player should be ready and willing to get the collective job done — which often allows teams to continue to win even after major setbacks like injuries to star athletes.
Here are three examples of how this model works for the NFL — and what each can teach small-business owners.
Trust Your “Green” Employees
The New England Patriots were decimated by injuries in 2013. Most notable was the loss of defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo and superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski to injuries. Injury after injury plagued the team all year, but it found a way to keep winning, often coming back from large deficits and squeaking out close wins.
The Pats started the season with 14 rookies on its roster, many of whom stepped in when veterans went down, and they performed admirably. The team enters the playoffs with 20 players who have no post-season experience, but that same group led them to a 12-4 season and the #2 spot in its conference.
Business Lesson: Don’t assume that only experienced employees can handle the most important jobs. Bill Belichick and his coaching staff put a lot of faith in young rookies like receiver Aaron Dobson, defensive tackle Chris Jones, and cornerback Logan Ryan, who came through at critical points throughout the season. You should do the same.
Offer your newest employees opportunities to take on critical, game-changing assignments. Provide plenty of training, allow newbies to shadow tenured co-workers on the job, set clear objectives, and offer them a chance to shine. When hiring, consider relaxing your prior-experience requirements and choose candidates who demonstrate a positive attitude, initiative, and determination.
Make Cross-Training a Priority
When electrifying Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was injured and then later benched in November, second-year quarterback Nick Foles took over, winning eight games out of 11, the divisional title, and a playoff birth. The young backup threw 27 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, the best ratio in NFL history.
Since 2012, controversy has swirled around whether Michael Vick or Nick Foles should be the starting quarterback for the Eagles, and with both players proving to be solid — even exceptional — at the position, it’s safe to say both will be starting in 2014, just maybe not on the same team.
Business Lesson: Cross-train your employees like Vick and Foles, so that they can step in as needed. When people learn how to perform different roles, your business is better prepared to handle the unexpected. If one employee is out, another can take over his or her critical functions.
Beyond that, you could allow two people to share one job, with each taking on the role 50 percent of the time. This arrangement often works best for two part-timers, but you could also allow two full-time staffers to split their hours between two different jobs. For example, you could ask a customer-service rep and a shipping associate to share roles to provide each employee with a variety of tasks and learning opportunities.
Emphasize the Importance of Teamwork
Green Bay Packers fans thought their season was over on Nov. 4, when star quarterback Aaron Rodgers fractured his collarbone during a game against the Chicago Bears. However, despite losing their most-valuable player and trusted leader, the Packers held on, won some close ones, and kept the team in the playoff chase.
The Packers offense ultimately finished third in total offense, despite Rodgers being out for eight weeks. In a show of sweet revenge, Rodgers returned for the final game of the season and won it, helping to knock the Bears out of the playoffs and securing the Packers’ spot as the #4 seed in the division.
Business Lesson: Green Bay finished a dismal 25th overall in total defense. However, despite having created just 10 takeaways in the first 11 weeks of the season, the team forced 11 in its last five games. Those turnovers were integral to allowing the Packers to finish strong. In atypical fashion, the defense stepped up and did what it took to win.
Managers can often spend way too much time focusing only on results and the bottom line; however, teamwork is critical to your success. When you see teamwork at its best, recognize it. Consistently reinforce the message “We’re in this together!” and prove you mean it by rolling up your sleeves and doing the dirty work every once in a while. If your team members understand and support your vision, they’ll do whatever it takes to succeed.