I’ve been following pro football since age ten – six decades! One of the aspects that has always interested me has been the background of the coaches. For example, Charlie Weis, who was a brilliant offensive coach for my team, The New England Patriots (and I’ve been rooting for them since their inception and through their many years of stumbling and bumbling). Charlie never played football at any level: pros, high school, or college! Yet Bill Belichick, perhaps the greatest coach in pro football, gave Charlie full control over the offense. And even Bill only played at a Division III school, Wesleyan University in Connecticut. And his sport there was mainly lacrosse.
The article by Ray Fittipaldo in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lists many more coaches of note in the NFL who played little football, never made the pros , and whose colleges were far from the pro football minor leagues like Notre Dame or University of Southern California.
What does all this have to do with startups and entrepreneurs? Here’s what Mr. Fittipaldo concludes:
Playing experience has never mattered much in the NFL. It has become less important as head coaches become more like CEOs. They must be able to delegate to assistants because the job entails so much more than it once did.
Vince Lombardi, who is widely considered the greatest head coach of all-time, never played in the NFL. Neither did Bill Walsh or Paul Brown.
The keys to leading a team are similar to leading a startup. You don’t need to be world class programmer to lead a tech startup, though the superstar companies, like Google and Facebook were founded and run by highly competent software engineers. Here’s what Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame player for the Houston Oilers who was the head coach of the Tennessee Titans from 2011-13 has to say:
But it’s become obvious you don’t have to be able to play in this league to be a great coach.
When I walk into the room, I may get that instant respect because I sat in their seats. But if I can’t teach them or make them better they’ll shut me off real fast. If you have experience that’s a nice little plus, but [Maurkice] Pouncey, [David] DeCastro and [Kelvin] Beachum want a guy who will push them, prepare them, make them better on Sundays. Players buy in fast if you show them you can help them.”I think it just goes to show you that if you’re a good leader and you understand the game and how to manage people it doesn’t matter if you played in this league or not,”
These skills of showing your employees you can help them, that you can push them to be the best they can be, even to achieve beyond their wildest dreams, are what it takes to be a great coach. It’s well known that Steve Jobs was a mediocre engineer whose coding skills were minimal at best. Like the best football coaches, he had the eye for talent, the ability to recruit world class talent, and unmatched ability to sell his vision and push his team to excel. Top NFL coaches who never played in the league surround themselves with great assistant coaches, many who have played in the league, but few who starred. Head coaches learn to delegate. Today there are almost as many coaches and staff on the average NFL team as there are players!
Business and technology are getting more complex by the day. The rate of the rate of change is accelerating. Keeping up, or preferably ahead of, these changes is paramount for a CEO’s success. Just like the rise in popularity of pro football has meant more opportunities for people who never played in the NFL, infrastructure for startups like Amazon’s AWS and far better tools for developers have lowered the bar for tech entrepreneurs.
So if you have ideas of starting and leading company, don’t worry if you aren’t up on the latest programming languages or aren’t an expert in artificial intelligence. As CEO you are like a football coach who stands on the sideline calling in plays or an orchestra leader whose instrument is a baton. Focus on learning to recruit, motivate, engage, and retain great talent. If you aren’t already, learn to be a great communicator. And if you don’t come from a sales background learn how to sell. You will need to sell your vision to your team, to investors, to partners, and to the media. None of those constituencies will care one bit or one byte about your technical abilities. They will care about your team, your CTO, your VP of Sales, your engineering leader and director of marketing and your vision for the company. Just like in pro football, it’s great teams that win, not just a collection of great individuals.
Finally, create a culture like that of pro sports, where athletes have one goal every day: to get better at the job or jobs their coaches ask them to do.