Reaching the Top: Parallels Between Super Bowl & Organizational Champions — February 2020

If you don’t know it, I’m a diehard Chiefs fan.  I was born and raised in Kansas City, and I’m a third-generation season ticket holder (yes, while living 400 miles away in Minneapolis).  I was at both playoff games in Arrowhead last month (both of which required about three or four days to recover my voice), and I was fortunate enough to go to the Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago – a lifelong “bucket list” moment for which I’ve waited literally 50 years (and likely don’t have another 50 in case it takes that long for them to return).  The Chiefs were probably the country’s sentimental favorite this year: they were the fresh, new team that represented hope for so many other cities who don’t have a championship or have waited a half century as well.  Adding to their appeal was the league’s posterchild and phenom quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the always-great-but-never-quite-good-enough-to-win-it-all head coach in Andy Reid.  Indeed, they captured the nation’s attention on the nation’s greatest sporting stage.

All of those were great storylines leading up to the Big Game, but today I offer today some insights from their title run that really haven’t been offered (or at least I haven’t seen them) – stories of determination, teamwork, and leadership.  These concepts reflect the necessary ingredients of any championship team – in sports or in business…

So what’s required of a champion?  A lot, I’d contend.  And while this article is about a sports champion, I think every single factor that went into propelling the Chiefs to the top of the NFL this year could be said of a winning business, hospital, school, or nonprofit agency.  Think about it – winning teams require…

Talent and Team Chemistry: what made KC so formidable this year was the quality of its roster, particularly on offense (with three of the 10 fastest players in the league – the “legion of zoom” as some called them – and a quarterback who arguably might go down as one of the best ever).  Indeed, the Chiefs had six Pro Bowlers and five more as alternates – they had a solid roster.  But this didn’t happen overnight: it took years of careful drafting and free agent moves to assemble a roster that was 1) full of talent and 2) possessing just the right chemistry.

As gifted as the team was athletically, it also had in harmony: there were leaders on both sides of the ball; the locker room was filled with fun and lightheartedness; there were no egos that sometimes comes from having so many elite players.  From everything I’ve read and seen, I honestly think this group congealed as a balanced team.  All-for-one, one-for-all type thing.

Translation: to acquire elite talent, organizations must have effective recruiting and selection processes – they need to know what skills and competencies they need, and then make the right hiring decisions to assemble the strongest team possible.  And to build chemistry and keep and leverage their talent, organizational leaders need to create an environment where their “players” (their people) can succeed – they need to be trained, developed and coached, rewarded, and empowered to do what they are capable of doing.

Resilience: oftentimes champions are made because of luck – playing other teams at the “right” time, getting a fortunate bounce or call here and there, staying healthy throughout the season.  I guess all of that is true, but I’d assert that teams sometimes make their own luck, and that resiliency – bouncing back better, stronger, faster from adversity than what might be expected – is what really separates the great from the good.

For example, the Chiefs had significant injury problems this year: at one point (I think it was Week 8 versus the Packers) the Chiefs were missing 11 of their starters – yes, that’s half their starting 22 (and still nearly won).  In fact, the Chiefs were the sixth most injured team in 2019, losing over 200 player-games throughout the season.  But one of the mantras in football is “next man up”: KC proved it had a deep bench, made some highly effective in-season free agent moves, and also adjusted schemes and strategy to meet their ever-changing roster.

If the Chiefs showed resiliency throughout the season, they also demonstrated it within games.  KC became the first team in the history of football to overcome three playoff games in which they trailed by double digits in each (by 24 to Houston, by 10 each to Tennessee and San Francisco) – and, in fact, won each game by double digits!  When down by a lot – especially when the stakes get high – so many teams choke: they try to force things, which often leads to more mistakes, which results in them falling further behind.  I guess that’s why blowouts happen – you just see some teams tighten up, playing even more poorly the deeper the hole they experience.  The Chiefs believed in their ability, stuck to their strengths but made slight adjustments were needed, and eventually were rewarded with impressive comeback victories.

Translation: to continue to win in the face of adversity, organizations need agility – they need the ability for making rapid change and flexibility in operations.  They also need what Deming called “constancy of purpose” – a culture that supports the willingness to persist despite challenges.

Focus: excellence requires focus – focus on the fundamentals, focus on your strengths, focus on the ultimate goal.  The Chiefs were fortunate enough to earn a “bye” heading into the playoffs, which means they didn’t play the first “Wildcard” weekend, but instead got to rest and prepare for their eventual opponent in the second round.  Not only is rest important in a sport that is so physically taxing, but I found really interesting a quote from Patrick Mahomes about that bye week: he used most of that time to work on fundamentals like footwork and arm throwing position – little details that he practiced probably in Pop Warner football, but things that – in his words – sometimes get sloppy throughout the course of a season. 

Translation: excellence requires complete mastery of the fundamentals.  An organization cannot achieve world class customer satisfaction, for example, if front line staff are not trained (and coached and rewarded) in providing great service at the point of contact.  Focusing on mastering the little things will eventually lead to mastering the bigger things.

And I mentioned constancy of purpose – that applies to focus as well.  Many might forget that the Chiefs were literally four inches – yes, about the length of a somewhat-used pencil – from making the Super Bowl last year, if not for an offsides penalty on a defensive lineman.  To get that close but fail to reach the ultimate goal is a setback that many teams just don’t overcome (look at the Los Angels Rams, who made the Super Bowl last year but lost, and then had a very ordinary 2019, finishing 9-7 and missing the playoffs).  Sometimes experiencing failure just shy of the goal creates a (mental) barrier to ever achieving that goal.  But winners overcome that resistance: they focus on the main goal and find the determination to start over after failure to reach higher levels of performance the next time.

Translation: organizations need vision: they need leaders who set ambitious goals, keep their teams focused on those goals, and – perhaps most importantly – need constancy of purpose to withstand failures and temporary setbacks to ultimately achieve those goals.

Metrics and Intelligent Risk: Today’s sports are filled with data.  First made popular by the 2002 Oakland A’s in the whole “Moneyball” movement, pretty much all competitive sports teams now make use of empirical analysis in preparation before games (what schemes to run to exploit opponent’s tendencies) as well as in-game (what specific play is appropriate given the circumstances of the game at that time – the score, time remaining, field position, and so forth).

So much has been talked about regarding the now-famous “2-3 Jet Chip Wasp” play in the Super Bowl (in fact, last week the NFL named it the Number 1 play of the entire season).  The Chiefs faced third and 15 with just over seven minutes to go in the game, down by 10 points and deep in San Francisco territory.  They converted the play with a 44-yard pass, which set up the first of three touchdowns in the game’s final seven minutes and an improbable come-from-behind victory.  But what many don’t know is they ran that exact same play in the AFC Championship Game last year against the Patriots – with the exact same result.  The play doesn’t work all the time, but the Chiefs had data on the 49ers defensive tendencies, had another star player (Travis Kelce) run a decoy route in the middle, and adjusted Mahomes’ drop-back to exactly 14 yards to give enough time for receiver Tyreek Hill to get open.  Each little detail was important, and the Chiefs use of data (and previous success with the play in a similar situation a year ago) led them to believe it would work in this situation.

Something else interesting to note during the Super Bowl was that the Chiefs converted two fourth down attempts deep in San Francisco territory in the second quarter.  Many teams may have settled for the more predictable – but more conservative – field goals, leaving points off the board.  But KC converted them both and eventually got one more touchdown (four more points) than they would have otherwise had.  Coach Andy Reid is often criticized for being too conservative in his play-calling, but in these two situations, he claims to have run the math and calculated that taking the risk outweighed settling for fewer points.

Translation: organizations that manage by fact – that use data to understand requirements and circumstances, inform strategy, and make critical decisions – far outperform those who instead rely on instinct and “gut.”  In the Baldrige Framework, we’ve learned that world class organizations select measures that “best represent the factors that lead to improved customer, operational, financial, and societal performance” and that a “comprehensive yet carefully culled set of measures or indicators tied to customer and organizational performance requirements provides a clear basis for aligning all processes with [an organization’s] goals.”  Baldrige also notes that high performing organizations pursue “intelligent risks” – those opportunities for which the potential gain outweighs the potential harm or loss to your organization’s future success if you do not explore them.  Sounds like “going for it” on fourth down when the data tells you that you should!

Thanks for indulging me!  The Chiefs had a magical season, finishing on top of the football world as Champions of Super Bowl LIV.  Sure, they had luck, skill, world class players, and a solid coaching staff that enabled that all to happen.  But they also had a few other ingredients that are a little less obvious – but equally important – in the makings of a champion.  Call it the “secret sauce” that separates the great from the good.  It worked to create a football champion, and I’m pretty sure the same ingredients work to create organizational champions.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding what it takes to reach the top?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

Catalyst for Success Since 1987!