Four Reasons The Packers Have Reached The Playoffs 7 Years In a Row
How was your Super Bowl Sunday? Did you spend it with family and friends? Were you happy with the Patriot’s big comeback win? This past weekend was full of predictions, pre-game shows, food preparation, commercials, Lady Gaga…and, sadly, (sigh), the last football game until Fall arrives. The final hurrah of the Super Bowl kicks off an endless, empty football free Spring and Summer that every die-hard football fan dreads. Many of you know that I count myself among that fan base…so this week I decided to write about one of the most successful, inspiring football teams in history. Keep in mind here that I am a Dallas Cowboys fan, but my belief is when you see any organization that is high performing you can take some lessons and apply them to your own little part of the world.
The Green Bay Packers are one of the most storied franchises in the National Football League. Although there were some dark days in the 1970s and 1980s, the franchise has, overtime, cultivated a culture of winning with 23 Hall of Famers and 13 Superbowl Championships. Most recently, the Packers have reached the playoffs seven consecutive years, tying for the third-longest streak of all-time. So what is it that makes this team stand out from the other football clubs? The following are four well-documented reasons the Packers continue to excel with the applied leadership lessons summarized:
1. The Fans Own the Franchise
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Packers is that they do not have an owner. Actually, it’s not quite accurate to say the Packers are without an owner. They have a hundred and twelve thousand of them. The Packers are owned by the fans, making them the only publicly owned, not-for-profit, major professional team in the United States. A brief bit of trivia: In 1919 The Indian Meat Packing company gave Curly Lambeau (founder, player and first coach of Green Bay) $500 to fund uniforms and equipment for the team. In honor of the company’s contribution, Lambeau called their football club the “Packers.”
In 1923, the Packers were just another scrappy team on the brink of bankruptcy. Rather than fold they decided to sell shares to the community, with fans each throwing down a couple of dollars to keep the team afloat. That humble gesture has since blossomed into a situation wherein more than a hundred thousand stockholders own more than four million shares of a perennial playoff contender. Those holding Packers stock are limited to no more than two hundred thousand shares, keeping any individual from gaining control over the club. Shareholders receive no dividend checks and no free tickets to Lambeau Field. They don’t even get a foam cheesehead. All they get is a piece of paper that says they are part owners of the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers’ unique setup has created a relationship between team and community unlike any in the NFL. Wisconsin fans get to enjoy the team with the confidence that their owner won’t threaten to move to Los Angeles or New York unless the team gets a new mega-dome. Volunteers work concessions, with 60% of the proceeds going to local charities. Even the beer is cheaper than at a typical NFL stadium. Not only has home field been sold out for two decades, but during snowstorms, the team routinely puts out calls for volunteers to help shovel and is never disappointed by the response. These fans are like no other in the football league.
Leadership Lesson: Research shows that the most successful cultures are those in which employees feel a sense of ownership. How are you promoting that within your organization? Even seemingly small gestures such as having them weigh in on core ideology or sharing the strategic plan for the year or being involved in hiring a new team member can have a tremendous influence on employee engagement. Put something in place today that encourages employees to think like owners.
2. Promoting From Within is the Norm
One of the more time-tested business strategies is to promote from within, rather than poaching talent from the outside. UPS, General Electric and Procter & Gamble have all been known for this strategy at one point or another. But what a lot of people don’t know is that the Packers have continued to thrive thanks to that same corporate philosophy. As an example, currently the Packers have exactly two players drafted by other teams on their 53-man roster. No other team is so overwhelmingly composed of homegrown players.
The key to Green Bay’s system is the belief that if you bring in players as early as possible, they won’t have developed bad habits that have to be un-coached. Additionally, to ensure they have a constant supply of in-house candidates, the Packers also use the practice squad differently than most teams—specifically, they have rejected the widespread strategy of signing guys primarily to mimic that week’s opponent. Instead, the Packers practice squad is populated with players they expect one day to suit up for the team. With that in mind, assistant coaches say they coach the practice squad guys as often and as hard as top draft picks, a rarity in the NFL.
Leadership Lesson: It is important that every company have a plan in place to develop and promote their own talent. If you don’t currently have a career path that is clear to employees then it will quickly become a competitive disadvantage. Everyone wants to know they are valued and will be rewarded for their hard work. Working hand-in-hand with HR to develop a comprehensive plan linked to core ideology is the key to success in this V-U-C-A world we live in.
3. Aaron Rodgers Focuses on Healthy Team Functioning
The team leader and quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, a two-time NFL most valuable player, is perhaps the most feared quarterback in football. However, in practice, Rodgers can often look downright human. That’s intentional. For the Packers quarterback, practice isn’t about getting his feet right or his decisions perfected, it’s really about establishing good, full-speed reps for those players around him. Inevitably, that means Rodgers tosses some interceptions in practice.
Just to be clear, Rodgers hates getting picked off. He’s rushed down the field to argue calls on make-believe interceptions in practice many a time. But the Packers have come to see these practice sessions as more of a trust-building exercise than a tune-up for Rodgers. That means throwing plenty of what are referred to as 50/50 balls, where both the cornerback and receiver have a chance to catch the pass. Essentially, Aaron is trying to see who can come down with the ball. He is stretching the boundaries and getting the opportunities on tape for the players to review later and continue to improve. This leadership philosophy, as he discussed in a recent interview, is based on foundational elements from Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. These core tenants, which the leader of this team espouses, have to do with being unselfish, continuing to improve together, being vulnerable as a leader, building trust and driving for results. Not many quarterbacks in the NFL have as high a leadership IQ as Aaron seems to have.
Leadership Lesson: Teams that focus on the fundamentals of team effectiveness drive the organization towards high performance. Do you currently ensure that your leadership team is working as well as possible together? Are you driving for results and holding people accountable? Are you are ensuring that the team is highlighted, not individual contributions that promote in-house competitiveness? All of these practices will ensure that healthy team norms are the rule and not the exception to your organization.
4. The Team Practices The Science of How & When To Use a Hail Mary Pass
The name “Hail Mary” itself is a plea for a miracle, originally used by Notre Dame’s legendary Four Horsemen (the 1924 backfield team) to describe any long, seemingly hopeless pass, but has come to mean one final desperate throw of at least half-a-field with zeros on the clock. When the Hail Mary works, it is one of the most exciting plays in sports. It is also the most deflating for the team that gives it up because the touchdown usually comes at the end of the game or the end of a half.
Aaron Rodgers is perhaps the greatest Hail Mary quarterback in the history of pro football. This fact has made many sportscasters wonder out loud if somehow the Packers have discovered a Hail Mary secret. In a sense they have. As chaotic as they might seem, for the Packers, Hail Mary passes are not disorganized scrambles with the ball heaved into the middle. This team actually scripts plays to score on such throws as well as designs schemes to stop them defensively. When the Packers offensive players run Hail Mary drills they do so with assigned roles. Some drift to the middle of the end zone but one usually has the assignment of trying to get to the back of the end zone in case a pass goes over the defender.
If you ask Aaron Rodgers, besides the practices, he owes the success of his Hail Mary abilities in part to a meeting on a celebrity edition of Jeopardy. Rodgers won on Jeopardy in 2015, beating retired astronaut Mark Kelly as well as Kevin O’Leary from Shark Tank. Rodgers and Kelly became friends after that, and Rodgers has consulted Kelly on the physics of football, picking Kelly’s brain about the trajectory of thrown footballs and how a pass can be affected by factors such as wind and temperature. Kelly told Sports Illustrated that they’ve talked about Hail Mary passes and throwing a football at the correct angle so that the ball will land in the end zone after staying in the air long enough for the Packers’ receivers to position themselves under it. A little art, a little science and a little luck…all things that any CEO will tell you is needed for a successful organization.
Leadership Lesson: Do you know when you should or shouldn’t take a risk in your organization? Sometimes from the outside it seems like a Hail Mary pass, but in reality you and your team have practiced pulling a win out of the jaws of defeat in a last minute maneuver that is both exciting and successful. And don’t forget the science – having the data without getting stuck in “analysis paralysis” can ensure that a team is pushing the limits while keeping their feet in bounds and getting the touchdown.
Let us know what you think about football as it relates to leadership. We are here as support for you as you continue on your path towards ending up in the Red Zone...you know the scoring statistics go up astronomically when you are this close to the goal!