From No. 1 - To No. 1

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When Bill Walsh was named general manager and head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in the late 1970s, a Sport magazine article had just named the team as No. 1-on a top 10 list of worst franchises in professional sports.

"I didn't have time to read it much, because I was so busy with what we had to do," Walsh recalled. "Four years later, we were No. 1 on Sport's list of the best franchises. But in a competitive environment, we were just working to survive. We had to make a lot of decisions, and when we sensed a decision was wrong, we didn't hesitate to make a change. We didn't live with bad decisions, we allowed the organization to move forward."

Walsh, who drew an enthusiastic response from attendees at WesCorp's Future Forum here, advised credit unions that a standard of performance is absolutely critical to any organization, and it cannot be established with one lecture, memo or operational manual. A leader has to condition people's minds on an ongoing basis, in different settings and presentations, to get a commitment from everyone.

Walsh, who built the San Francisco 49ers from the dregs of the National Football League to its pinnacle-winning three Super Bowl Championships in the 1980s on his way to the NFL Hall of Fame-said that one incident early in his tenure in San Francisco taught him a valuable lesson. The team hosted a "select a seat day" at Candlestick Park. There was free food, beer, games, bands and even donkey rides. Approximately 4,800 people attended.

The problem? Despite the large crowd of potential buyers, only seven season tickets were sold.

"No matter how you package a product, if it isn't solid, you can't sell it, no matter how many donkey rides you have," assessed Walsh. "When things are not doing well, it is important for an organization to try to convince people to develop their expertise. In football, I developed drills to teach individual skills. The same applies to the workplace."

Walsh attributed a large measure of his success to convincing every one of his players the role they played on the team was critical, from veterans to rookies, starters to substitutes, "even the man who drove the tractor to cut the grass," he said. "Everyone had to realize any one person could win or lose the game."

The rise of the 49ers coincided with the dramatic growth of technology in the San Francisco Bay Area. Walsh said he often was invited to speak at companies in the "Silicon Valley," where no one knew when a new product was going to be developed that would displace jobs, a company or an entire industry. He and his staff applied this lesson by creating contingency plans for most events likely to occur.

"We developed contingency plans better than our opponents. We won some games just because of planning," he said. "Remember that people don't think better or more clearly under stress. If I had been forced to think of something during the game, I would be wrong more than right. The key is to minimize stress by contingency planning for every event. Hopefully, when you have a plan and things go awry, you can handle changing conditions."

Another key to Walsh's winning ways was his practice of soliciting others' opinions, he said. In the meeting room, every assistant coach knew he was expected to participate.

"No one would leave saying: 'Nobody listens to me. I've been saying that for weeks.' A coach has to suppress his ego and listen to others," he said. "A strong leader is a facilitator: he or she is in someone else's office helping with their job."

As a result of this policy, 14 former Walsh assistants became head coaches in the NFL. Walsh said it wasn't because of him, but the approach.

"People follow a leader who is competent, capable, calm, collected and can communicate under stress," he said.

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