Leadership for a Change in the Win-Loss Column


Last weekend, I experienced the infamous “long drive home” after my daughter’s devastating loss at her volleyball tournament. While it’s never easy to watch her disappointment, I knew there were valuable life lessons in the moment. I also realized that, especially with a teenage girl, the immediate aftermath was not the time to reflect on those lessons. What I’ve learned from raising her older sister and brother is that this was the time to just listen.

When she finally opened up, she began by questioning the coach. Even though I privately agreed with her, I also knew that end-of-season fatigue, the distraction of his older age-group team making the finals, and generally being numb to 13-year-old girl drama were all part of the coach’s’ equation. So, what I told her, as any coach might have, was to focus on what she could control—her own performance.

Later, as I vented to my husband, I had to grapple with the reality that the coach dictated my daughter’s day far more than I cared to admit.

My own, personal life lesson? Leadership really matters.

Coaching to Win in the Turnaround Game

There are 53 players on an NFL roster,  yet the head coach has the most significant impact on a team’s success or failure. In business, it’s the CEO. No matter the playing field, great leadership builds great success.

Exceptional leadership is all the more important when an organization is faced with adversity or even failure. Often, a new coach is brought in to help the team climb its way out of the cellar, or a new CEO is tasked with orchestrating a turnaround after a huge commercial flop.

That’s when winning becomes more than the goal. It also has to be part of the culture, says former GE CEO Jack Welch in a recent ETW webinar. “Leaders should have an insatiable desire to win,” he says. “Look at the losers’ locker room, then look at the winners’ locker room at the Super Bowl. You want to create that exciting, winning atmosphere. You want your people to feel proud.”

A winning culture, Welch says, starts and ends with a leader who’s transparent about the desire to win; who always pushes people toward the objective, who motivates, and who continuously measures outcomes. “If people are not delivering, you coach them and, hopefully, get them to deliver,” he says. “If they don’t, then you’ve got to separate ways. Winning should matter to everyone on the team.”

Losing Will Not Be Tolerated

Famed NFL coach Bill Parcells knows firsthand how leaders often have to change the culture to turn around a losing team.

“To lead, you’ve got to be a leader,” he quips in a column for the Harvard Business Review. “That may sound obvious, but it took me an entire year to learn. When I started as coach of the Giants, I lacked confidence…I didn’t confront [players] about how they needed to change to succeed. As a result, I didn’t get their respect and I wasn’t able to change their attitudes. So, they just kept on with their habit of losing.”

The New York Giants only won three games in 1983. But within the next six seasons under Parcells’ guidance, the team won two Super Bowls. The difference? In 1984, and throughout the rest of his coaching career, he learned to be brutally honest. He told his team, over and over again, that losing would not be tolerated; that change would happen, or, as Welch also suggests, poor-performing personnel would be let go.

It was a tough message, the coach admits, but he balanced it with a more positive one. That, beyond money, “the only permanent value of work lies in achievement—and that comes from relentless effort and commitment.”

Success Breeds Success. #Winning

You’d think Welch, the GE icon, was a football coach, too, when he says, “You’ve got to put blood and sweat into your leadership. You have to help your people believe their work is the most important thing they have to do. They shouldn’t be at work waiting to go home; they should be working to win.”

Welch notes that, while leading GE, it was recognized as one of the most admired companies in the world. “That allowed us to hire more great people because people are drawn to winning. There was real chemistry,” he says.

“Everything happens for the right reason with a winning culture.”

the story of we.me logoWhat’s Your Favorite Turnaround Story?

If an organization spends too long in the loss column, it might be time for new leadership who’s willing to orchestrate a culture overhaul. Of course, there will always be people who are change-averse. Transformation is never easy to do—even when failure is the only other option.  

But history is full of legendary turnarounds orchestrated by some of the very best leaders. Remember that tonight—as you drive your Chevy home to watch the Golden State Warriors in the NBA championships where you’ll sip on a Pabst Blue Ribbon while scrolling through social media on your iPhone. Every one of those brands was doomed, nearly to extinction, until new leadership came in and imposed a winning culture.

There probably will be many more coaches in my daughter’s athletic career. Some may not measure up—or even know how to create a winning culture. My hope, however, is that she connects with some of the great ones; that she gets to experience victory more often than defeat, and that one day, it will be her job to lead a team through a turnaround with her winning attitude.

What’s your organization’s turnaround story? New leadership? New culture? What had to change for your organization to succeed—and win? Join our community of HR professionals who are telling their stories in our We.Me series. Leave a comment here or email me: Stacie.Mallen@ETW.com.

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