The ultimate goal for any sports organization at any level, is to win a championship. If you are not trying to win, either in the short term or long term, you are doing your players and fans a disservice. When you look at the most successful franchises, one thing is clear: the championship culture begins at the top and trickles all the way down. Of course, this applies to any enterprise, not just sports. Strong management is a key catalyst for strong business operations, and provides the frontline staff confidence and belief in the broader organization.
Getting your players to buy into the culture of the franchise begins well before they put on the jersey for the first time. Think about franchises like the New England Patriots or the New York Yankees. Their reputations precede them. If a young player is drafted by those organizations, or if a free agent is considering signing, they already know the culture of winning exists. That starts with strong ownership and is reinforced by a competent, transparent, and professional management team that has spent years building that championship calibre culture.
But the question remains, how does an organization build that culture? For one, it takes time. No championship organization was built overnight. They often take years to build and develop, and can easily fall off the rails along the way. Nothing is guaranteed in sports management, but there are certainly ways to incorporate techniques to slowly build that winning culture. Let’s take a look at a few of those management techniques that are crucial to an organization’s success both on and off the field.
There Must be Trust
Above all, there must be trust. That begins with the ownership group bringing in a competent management group that they trust to run the operations of the team. If there is no trust at the top, the entire organization will crumble. Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka was recently asked about how he is approaching next season, after the defending NBA Champions were eliminated in the first round of this year’s playoffs. Pelinka stated that the Buss family has complete trust in him to spend wisely in free agency and explore any options for trades as well. It is the same trust they placed in him when he made the blockbuster trade for superstar Anthony Davis, a deal that would ultimately lead to an NBA Championship later that season. If ownership can trust their own judgement and let the people they brought in do their job, that is the first step towards establishing a championship front office.
Have a Vision
Have you ever heard of someone saying that the NBA or NFL is a copycat league? That’s kind of a nice way of saying, teams will always prefer to copy the template of success from other organizations, rather than try and create one themselves. Classic examples of this are teams trying to recreate the success of franchises like the San Antonio Spurs, the Detroit Red Wings, and of course, the New England Patriots. But championships and decades of success are not something that can just be copy and pasted into another organizational structure. It takes years of drafting well, and a coaching group that has implemented its system from top to bottom, so that every player on the team buys in. In other words, these organizations had a vision and they saw it through to the end.
Hire from Within
You want to build a championship front office? Hire your own home grown talent. When the championship culture trickles down, you can already be sure that when lower management is ready to step in and fill a bigger role, their work ethic and vision have already been ingrained with the greater vision of the organization. Sports management is a difficult business to learn but once you have the right ambitious candidates in place, they can be groomed and guided to eventually take over as the leaders of the franchise. A succession plan is crucial to the long-term success of any operation, be it a business or a sports team. Would Apple have been as successful as it is now had Tim Cook not been pegged as the successor to Steve Jobs? What about Satya Nadella, the current CEO of Microsoft? He joined the company in 1992, and worked his way up until he was named CEO in 2014. Nadella was raised in the Microsoft ecosystem and knew the long-term vision and direction the company needed to go. Microsoft has since more than tripled its market cap, and is one of only a handful of companies worth over $1 trillion.
Embrace Success and Failures
This last point ties in with the previous one: reward your employees for their victories and ensure they learn from their mistakes. The very best leaders in an organization give back to their employees and oftentimes great work is rewarded with promotions and upward movement within the organization. Empowering your employees no matter how high or low they are in the organizational chart, is the sign of a strong leadership group. These employees will then reward you with hard work and dedication, and perhaps the strongest quality of all, loyalty. If you acknowledge successes, no matter how small, employees will earn your trust. In sports management, this can be anyone from the training staff, coaches, scouts, and special advisors. For a front office to reach a championship level, the entire organization needs to operate as a well-oiled machine. Embrace the failures as well. Too often toxic environments are caused by the fear of failure. The very best sports organizations learn from mistakes and failures, rather than repeat them.
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