Leadership and Organizational Culture

Leadership and Organizational Culture Transformation in Professional Sport”, by Joe Frontiera of West Virginia University, was one of the most frequently read articles in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies in 2010. Joe has provided some additional background to the article:

At the beginning of the 2008 season Green Bay Packers’ general manager Ted Thompson, three years into his job, was taking a daily beating from fans and pundits. After all, he told the very popular Brett Farve that he couldn’t return to the team. No longer wanting to deal with the “will he stay or will he go” circus that had surrounded Farve, Thompson tagged an unproven 4th year player in Aaron Rodgers as the Packers’ starting QB. The Packers went 6-10 in Rodgers first year as a starter. Fast forward to 2011, and the Packers are the new Super Bowl Champions.

As a lifelong sport fan, these types of turnaround stories have always fascinated me. As a child, I focused on the players, lacking the awareness that they were simply the public face of a larger business. As I grew, I saw that the teams that won consistently weren’t necessarily different in terms of their talent level on the field. Rather, the ownership and/or day-to-day managers of the organization were doing something different; the leaders in the front office seemed more competent, and the culture of the organization fostered success.

That’s what drove me to interview some of the most successful owners and general managers in (American) professional sport over the past decade. Bill Polian, the President and General Manager of the Indianapolis Colts, was among the most impressive that I spoke with. This is the man who drafted Peyton Manning, who turned a perennial loser into one of the most successful franchises in the NFL. Sitting across from him in his expansive office, I was surprised to learn that every one of the many pictures he had on his wall was purposeful. Each communicated a message, a value, a larger meaning to those who visited that office. Walking around with Polian, I watched him greet by name all employees, from custodians to pro bowl defensive end Dwight Freeny. Every move that Polian made communicated a larger meaning.

Polian was a man with a plan, a man of conviction who, like the Packers’ Thompson, also had to deal with the blowback from his own unpopular decisions. As he stated, “once you establish the plan, you have to stay with it through thick and thin, and there’s going be a lot more thin than thick. And there’s going be a lot of public criticism, and there’s going to be a lot of back biting, and there’s going be a lot of second-guessing, and you just have to ride that out. “

In reflecting on why an article like this is well received, the answer may lie within us. In many ways, sport mirrors life, and it allows fans a chance to watch the development of an organization play out in a very public fashion. When we see a turnaround in sport, we implicitly believe that our workplace can turn around, that our schools can turn around, that our lives can turn around, that our country can turn around. We’re left with tangible evidence of that hope, something we can grasp onto.

At this point, all types of turnarounds intrigue me. How does a rural school go from one of the worst performing schools in the state to one of the best? How does Apple remake itself after falling so far behind Microsoft and almost becoming irrelevant? How can the city of Detroit reinvent itself and stop the bleeding that has been constant over the past decade? With all of these, the answer lies somewhere between leadership and organizational culture.

In many ways, this research project helped to shape the trajectory of my career. As a managing partner at Meno Consulting, I work to help leaders and teams, both in business and in sport, work to get better, to reinvent themselves, and to discern the larger meaning of their work. To be involved in this work is powerful, and I look forward to someday writing a larger and more encompassing piece about turnarounds.

Joe Frontiera, PhD is the managing partner at Meno Consulting, and co-authors a regular column for The Washington Post’s On Leadership section. Joe can be reached at jfrontiera@menoconsulting.com.

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