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Are You Focused on Winning Like the NFL?

We’re halfway through the NFL season, and I have to say that from a fan standpoint, I’ve had better years.

I root for the Cowboys, Broncos, Chargers and Falcons, although not necessarily in that order. So far only one of my teams (Falcons) enjoys a winning record, while the others have all dipped well below the .500 mark. After their usual slow start, the Chargers look like they may have started to turn things around. But barring an absolute miracle, the Broncos and Cowboys will surely end up watching the playoffs from the comfort of their living rooms.

I love watching pro football because it’s a fast-moving sport played by exceptional athletes. But I also love the many parallels between the game and the world of business. The NFL holds many valuable lessons for today’s business leaders, in particular its relentless focus on winning, regardless of a team’s won-lost record.

In preseason, every team shares the same definition of winning — walking off the field as victors at the Super Bowl. Some may have higher expectations and more realistic hopes of getting there than others. But they all hold the same vision of hoisting the coveted Lombardi Trophy at the end of the final game.

Then the season starts and reality intrudes. The best teams outperform the others, make it to the playoffs, and get even more focused on winning. The rest fall by the wayside, and the players end up playing for pride and in many cases their jobs. But regardless of whether a team’s record is 10-2 or 2-10, they still remain intently focused on winning.


Because perhaps more than any other type of business (and never forget that pro football is first and foremost a business!), NFL head coaches understand the importance of having everyone focused on winning.

In sports and in business, the pursuit of winning keeps people focused and motivated. It aligns them with the vision and direction of the organization. It gives them a sense of purpose and a reason to show up for work every day. It reinforces the notion of being part of a team, a group of people who share the same values, goals and aspirations. And it gives people the courage and tenacity to fight through setbacks and adversity, which abound in the NFL.

For many teams, the definition of winning can change as the season progresses. For example, a team that sits at 2-6 at the halfway mark may redefine their destination as reaching .500 at the end of the season. But even when the Detroit Lions went 0-16 two years ago, I guarantee you their coach was continually talking about winning in the locker room, and doing his best to get his players to believe they could win the next game.

Another lesson we can learn from NFL football is the importance of making quick adjustments when the plan gets off track.

As business leaders, we have a tendency to lay out a plan and stick to it at all costs. We justify our inaction by saying things like, “We’re in a down market” or “It’s a temporary slump, sales will pick up next quarter.” Next thing we know, it’s the fourth quarter and we’re down by three touchdowns with no timeouts left. In football, if we don’t adjust quickly we lose a game. In business, the failure to adapt means we probably won’t survive.

Perhaps the best thing about NFL football, and all sports, is that everybody gets “do-overs.” No matter how badly a team performs, there’s always the next play, the next game, or next season. Of course, next season may involve new coaches and new players, but the team always gets an opportunity to start anew.

Not so in the business world.

Today’s markets move so quickly that we can’t afford the cost of do-overs. If we go 0-16 as a business, we may not get the opportunity to come back for another season. Even if we finish at .500, the best we can hope for is to constantly chase after the market leaders who have done a better job of adjusting their game plans.

To win the Super Bowl of business, we need to manage our organizations in a way that gives us the best chance of getting it right the first time. That starts with getting very clear on what winning looks like, and then constantly communicating that picture so it remains foremost in the minds of employees.

For this year, go Falcons (and maybe Chargers). For the Cowboys and Broncos, although I have not completely given up hope, just wait ’til next year!

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