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How the Pros Manage Teams

Managing a project team is an endeavor that has a lot in common with coaching or managing a professional sports team and there is a lot we can learn from them. Think about the similarities. The coach of the professional team is charged with delivering results with a team they don’t have direct authority over, the project manager is seldom also a functional manager with direct authority over the team. The coach does not have direct control over acquisition of team members; the project manager inherits the project team in many cases and rarely has the luxury of choosing the team from scratch. The coach must work within a budget; the project manager is also given a budget to work with. The coach is given goals and objectives that may not always align with their team’s capabilities; the project manager is also given a goals and objectives which may be beyond the team’s capabilities to deliver. Lastly, the coach is usually the first member of the team to be fired for the team’s poor performance; the project manager is the first person to be blamed for poor team performance.

Of course there are some notable differences between the two professions too. For one, the coach performs his or her duties in the glare of the media, every mistake is magnified and the coach is obliged to answer to their critics in the press after every game. Fortunately for us we are seldom called upon to manage a project that gets the same degree of public interest. Coaches also have to manage players whose salaries are huge in comparison to the coach’s, or indeed to most peoples. Frequently these athletes are very young and immature which leads to behavior problems the coach is called on to manage. Project managers are called upon to deal with many behavior problems, but not this one. Let’s look at what we can learn from the coaching profession and thank our lucky stars we don’t have to perform under the same conditions.

Herb Brooks is as good a place to start our journey as any. Herb Brooks led a team of American college hockey players that won the Olympic gold medal for hockey in 1980. His team beat the vaunted Soviets in the process and that win over a team that all the experts believed could not be beaten was the event referred to as the "miracle on ice”. Brooks was a hockey player himself and narrowly missed out on the United State’s last hockey gold medal being the last player cut from the team. He went on to coach college hockey and was chosen to coach the 1980 USA Olympic entry. Brooks coached a team who were young (their average age was 21) and inexperienced. This was their first international competition as a team and most had no experience beyond junior and college hockey. The average age of the Russian team was 26 and they were seasoned veterans of international hockey. Their experience also included play at the NHL level; in fact they had recently played a series of exhibition games against NHL teams and amassed a record of 5-3-1 in the series. The Russian’s goaltender was Vladislav Tretiak, who many considered to be the best goalie in the world. Brook’s team had some players who were considered prospects by NHL clubs but none could match the experience of the Soviets.

So how did Brooks take this team of college kids and turn them into Olympic gold medalists? I believe the key to his success was his ability to make his team believe in themselves. Very few people outside of Herb Brooks believed the USA had a chance at the gold medal that year and you can bet that these expectations had an affect on the hockey players. Their expectations matched the experts and Brooks had to elevate them to the gold medal. He did this by making demands on the team that were very tough to meet. He was part psychologist, part motivator, and part teacher. "I was a bastard a lot of times, no question” declared Brooks. Brooks had another technique besides pushing the kids to the limits of their abilities and beyond. He developed an aggressive forechecking style which is difficult to learn because of the risks involved: aggressive forechecking can lead to break aways the other way. He drilled his team in this style until they perfected it and used it to beat the Russians in a key game on route to their 4-2 win over Finland in the gold medal round. Ken Morrow, a defenseman on the Olympic team and member of the New York Islander dynasty in the ‘80’s said of Brooks "Coach may have been the greatest innovator the sport has ever had”. Commenting on his abilities as a motivator, Morrow had this to say "All of his teams overachieved because Herbie understood how to get the best out of each player and make him part of a team. And like everyone who played for him, I became a better person because I played for Herb Brooks”.

So what can project managers learn from Herb Brooks? Brooks always believed in his team’s ability to achieve "stretch” objectives. No one but Brooks set a gold medal as an objective for his 1980 team but he believed they were capable of achieving it, so he set that goal as the team’s objective and went on the meet it. Brooks was not afraid to take intelligent risks. Whether or not we can credit Herb Brooks as the inventor of the "aggressive forecheck” approach or not it is a fact there are big risks involved. Brooks decided this style offered his team its best chance of winning and he took that risk. Brook’s greatest achievement may have been his ability to motivate his team and get them to believe in their ability to be the best in the world. This wasn’t always done in an atmosphere of congeniality as Brooks admitted, but even the worst diatribes focused on getting the player to play up to the level that Brooks thought he was capable of.

Casey Stengel is another case on point. Casey Stengel is probably best known for his quips to sports reporters but he had a phenomenal record for coaching winning teams, especially the New York Yankees. He managed the Yankees for 12 years from 1949 to 1960 and during that time his teams won 10 pennants (best American League team) and the World Series 7 times, 5 of them in a row (1949 to 1953). Stengel started with a great team, but his managerial skills certainly played a key role in this amazing record. Stengel’s advantage was the talent pool he had to draw on, but that was also a disadvantage as he had some huge egos to deal with. Stengel was an innovator, like Brooks. The strategy of platooning players had fallen into disfavor in the 1940’s until Stengel re-introduced it with the Yankees. Platooning players requires the manager to identify 2 players for each position (this may mean every position or a few positions depending on the depth of the team). Usually one of the players is right handed and the other left handed; the manager will change the line-up to match the batters against a right handed or left handed pitcher. The New York Yankees were so deep with talent that this strategy worked very well for them.

Stengel was also a great communicator. He didn’t run from the scrutiny of the sports reporters, he welcomed it as an opportunity to promote his team. The information he gave the reporters was no more than they could get from other baseball managers. This information is constrained by what could be used by opposing managers to gain an advantage. It wasn’t the information he gave them, it was the way in which he gave it that earned him his reputation with sports writers. He treated the sports writers like allies, not enemies, and was generous with his time and personal baseball knowledge. The PR boost this gave to the team played a role in game attendance (in the days before televised games at least) and contributed to the Yankees organizations ability to afford top flight ball players. His communication skills were even more critical when he came out of retirement to manage the New York Mets. The Mets were a team without the talent of the Yankees and this was reflected in their record but Stengel’s efforts to promote the team through sports reporters paid off and they were at least successful at the turnstiles.

Stengel transformed the Yankees, who had finished 3rd in their division the year before his arrival, from a team of superstars such as Joe DiMaggio into a team that had just 3 superstars: Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra. The rest of the team was comprised of "role players”. Stengel focused on team contributions rather than individual contributions and this focus paid off with those 5 consecutive World Series victories. Stengel was also protective of his players and didn’t give Whitey Ford more than 30 starts until 1955; Star pitchers were routinely given 39 starts at that time. Billy Martin was one of the role players Stengel had a special relationship with. Martin turned to managing after his playing days were over and managed the Yankees successfully. He felt that some of that success was due to the mentorship of Stengel.

Here are some takeaways that Stengel can give project managers. He was unafraid of the risks of introducing platooning to the Yankee club he took over. He also molded the team to suit his purpose. Perhaps the most significant contribution that Stengel made was his ability to communicate. It is sometimes said about projects and project management that communications is 95% of the battle. Take a tip from Casey: don’t treat project stakeholders as enemies to be avoided. Stengel set out to win over his critics and in the process converted the sports media into strong believers in his ball clubs abilities (winning all those world series didn’t hurt either). Tell your stakeholders what you can about the project but be a good will ambassador for it as well.

The thing that all great coaches and managers have in common is their ability to get the most out of the players on their teams. They achieve this with a variety of techniques such as Brook’s motivation or Stengel’s subversion of the players’ roles to the team but they succeeded in convincing their charges that they were capable of being the best. They are also willing to innovate, looking for strategies that compliment the teams they have built. To duplicate their successes, try duplicating some of the strategies they used to achieve those successes.

I couldn’t possibly write an article about Casey Stengel without including a few appropriate quotes, but I’d like to quote Herb Brooks first. Brooks isn’t known for his wit but he had it in abundance nonetheless. He is reported to have said this to one of his players: "You’re playing worse every day and right now you’re playing like it’s next month”.

Some Case Stengel quotes:

Said about the inept New York Mets, "Been in this game one hundred years, but I see new ways to lose them that I never knew existed”.

Said about the New York Yankees, "Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story”.

Said when a reporter criticized his ball players’ morals, "They say some of my stars drink whiskey, but I find that the ones that drink milkshakes don’t win many ball games”.

"When you are younger you get blamed for crimes you never committed and when you're older you begin to get credit for virtues you never possessed. It evens itself out”.

My personal favorite, when asked the secret of his managerial success Stengel had this to say "Keeping the half of the club who know I’m an S.O.B. away from the half that’s undecided”.