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The worst mistake NFL coaches can make

Declaring a change in team culture doesn’t make it so

I am frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and the coaches’ game plan.

“The first thing we are going to do is change the culture,” says every coach ever, in a news conference on his first day.

Developing and fostering a productive internal culture is probably the single most impactful responsibility that a head coach has. And on day one, they all seem to know it. But most of them fail.

First, let me give a simplified definition of what culture is on a football team: It is the way things are done. The processes carried out daily. The implicitly agreed-upon expectations and behaviors. Now that we know, how do coaches fail?

Fueled by ego and insecurity, many coaches saunter into their first team meeting with a dictator’s bravado. They present themselves as the prophet, a savior through whom football salvation can be found. “I know what it takes. If you do things the way I tell you to, we will win. But if you don’t, you will be out of here.” That is the core message delivered by many of the new sheriffs across the league. Even when teams hire a “players’ coach,” the message is often the same. The coach naively believes that he can institute an authoritarian culture, which will almost certainly fail. I am not arguing that an authoritarian culture can’t work on a pro football team. I don’t like it, but it can produce results.

I am saying that a culture, of any kind, cannot be implemented or instituted. Especially not by one man being dropped into an organization where a culture already exists. An organization’s culture is a living thing that evolves in reaction to a multitude of internal and external influences.

Culture is not a cog

Culture is not a cog in the machine that can be removed and replaced. The new coach is no more likely to instantly give the team a new culture than the fired coach is to pocket his culture on his way out the door. Which is why it’s laughable when a new coach comes in and confidently says, “We are going to change the culture.” He then issues a decree, declaring what kind of culture the team will have. It is true that his influence will change the culture, but not necessarily in the way that he intended. It is also impossible for him to know what the new culture will be without fully understanding the culture he has inherited.

Culture must be developed or, as the origins of the word suggest, culture must be cultivated, like soil and crops. The new coach is the farmer inheriting a farm that has not been producing to a satisfactory level. And rather than test the soil and create a customized plan to facilitate improved growth in this one-of-a-kind situation, they come in yelling at the crops and throwing stuff, ummm … I mean fertilizer. They believe that they can grow grapes in California using the regimen that worked to grow potatoes in Idaho without accounting for differences in climate and conditions. Football players are no more identical to one another than any other co-workers. So, there is no reason to expect that all collections of players and teams are the same. Each team has unique experiences, personalities and influences that mean they are not at their best in all situations.

All coaches know that a good strategist designs and calls plays that best suit the talents of their personnel. Coaches should apply that logic to developing an effective team culture. Acknowledging that a culture already exists before they arrive and that it is somewhere on a spectrum, the new coach needs to accept that the culture he dreams of creating may not be attainable, given the distance from its current environment.

Coach, understand where you are first

Using a color wheel as an analogy, imagine that when Coach X arrives the culture is “green.” Coming from a “red” culture team, Coach X plans to replicate that “red” culture. A smart coach would realize that there is nothing he could say or do to move his team from green to red. Doing what he can, the best he could hope for would be a green-blue or green-yellow. Unless there is a significant crisis the coach could use to facilitate change.

But even before forming a plan to change the culture, Coach X must first understand the current culture. Too often, new coaches assume that a team’s win-loss record is a perfect reflection of the team’s culture. If we were able to run a regression analysis on a team, it would tell us that culture is very influential, the single most influential variable.

But it is a single variable among many, including randomness. So it is possible that the culture doesn’t need to change at all. Maybe the team has underachieved because of strategic decisions, insufficient personnel, or just bad luck. I know the last one is hard to accept, but culture cannot eliminate missed field goals, late-game fumbles, or referee mistakes. It could reduce the likelihood of them occurring or lessen their impact on the outcome of the game, but not eliminate them.

Which is why it is important for Coach X to understand the current culture before reflexively declaring that it needs to be changed. The team’s culture developed into what it is for a reason. It evolved in reaction to opportunities and dilemmas unique to this particular team. And the resulting culture could produce the most expedient processes (wins) and noble values (championships).

I was on a team where the head coach hated that a particular position group was always the first group to leave after the postpractice position meetings, while other position groups would stay and watch film. Hastily, he assumed this was a sign of the group’s lack of commitment and an indicator of apathy. Rather than inquire about it with the players or their position coach, he waited until a mistake was made in practice and yelled at the group, blaming its early exits for on-field error. In fact, the entire defense knew that the group had regular group “film nights” and frequently shared useful findings with the rest of the defense. Unknowingly, the head coach exposed himself to the team as not knowing his players while he discouraged healthy behaviors. I am not sure if anyone ever told him, but that incident, while intended to improve culture, harmed his credibility with the team. No one, athlete or not, wants people keeping tabs on how many hours you spend in the office.

Ironically, lots of coaches say the best teams they have coached were the ones in which the players took ownership and held each other accountable. Yet, others attempt to impose values and processes on players without their input, never giving them an opportunity to form a framework that they believe in and are committed to uphold.

coach, stay focused

Assuming Coach X has done everything right upon joining the new team, there is still another trap once the season starts. Coaches neglect culture. It will continue to evolve and change in response to the many external and internal influences, and shepherding that evolution requires a deliberate effort. Because culture is unseen and difficult to evaluate, a head coach can fall into a micromanagement trap. Rather than focusing on the big-picture responsibilities appropriate for the title, he blocks out focusing on the team and tunnels his focus on something like game-planning, essentially doing the job of a coordinator or position coach.

An NFL head coach is one of the most difficult and high-pressure jobs in America. It rivals the pressure of being a Fortune 500 CEO. But many NFL coaches make their jobs more difficult by overtaxing themselves and focusing on the wrong things.

Head coaches need to understand, as great CEOs do, that they can’t control everything, but through culture they can influence everything. I hope NFL teams recognize their misunderstanding of culture and address it, but I am not hopeful. In a normal competitive industry, the companies with the best cultures succeed and those with poor cultures die. NFL teams are protected from financial failure and complete collapse because the teams are allowed to operate as a legal cartel and share revenue.

So a losing team is protected from the pressures that would cause it to collapse and make way for a new team to emerge with a radical approach. There is a competitive advantage to be gained in the NFL by an organization that is brave enough to rebuff the NFL’s status quo and accept what much of the business world already knows: Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Domonique Foxworth is a senior writer at Andscape. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.