Gridiron lessons for bank managers

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I often joke with banker groups that I do not believe all business challenges can be analogized to sports.

Of course, I usually say that right before offering a sports analogy to make a point.

In defense of that habit, consider that sports involve coaching, talent acquisition, training, team building, strategy and adjusting to competitive challenges, to name a few. These issues, and more, are areas bank leaders face in one form or another as well.

As a Louisiana native, the recent NCAA football season was one of the more enjoyable seasons I can remember. I attended the same high school as LSU head coach Ed Orgeron and have followed his career journey for nearly three decades.

Rooting interests aside, his leadership philosophy transformation over the past decade can be instructive to bank leaders in an evolving industry.

As LSU’s historic championship season unfolded, pundits seemed skeptical that a team many overlooked, with a coach some discounted as an affable Cajun caricature, was accomplishing what they were accomplishing. Critics seemed to think what they were seeing was a fluke, and that it wouldn’t last.

However, what they were witnessing were the results of a leader who grasped how a changed competitive landscape required new leadership approaches and strategies. A competitive team became a dominant team when its leader realized his management style needed adapting, and his team accepted that long-held strategies were no longer likely to produce successful results.

These changes went beyond the formations and plays that were called on the field on game days. While those were the most visible, it was the changes behind the scenes that set the stage for the great things that followed. And sure, the team featured very talented players. At the elite levels of college athletics, however, talent is everywhere and is rarely the differentiator from one top program to the next.

Similarly, I often remind bankers that their industry is filled with talent. Their competition employs talented, smart and hardworking folks as well.

No organization has the market cornered on talent. It’s how leaders align, support, motivate and empower their people that differentiates top performers from the pack.

In the case of “Coach O,” those realizations seemed to begin taking hold after failing and being fired from his first high-profile head coaching job. He learned the hard way that while a head coach may be accountable for everything, attempting to micromanage large entities is an exercise in futility.

The same is true in most businesses. Anyone who has reported to managers who are not empowered to make even minor decisions know it’s a recipe for disengaged teams, poor performance and finger-pointing.

After working his way back and earning another leadership opportunity, Orgeron focused on recruiting the best staff of coaches (managers) he could find. More important, he then put them in positions to succeed, supported them and allowed them to succeed.

By all accounts, he remained highly engaged, visible and accessible to everyone: from top-level coaches, to assistants, to players, to training staff, to the cafeteria and custodial personnel. He also set the work ethic standard by being the first person in the building each morning and often the last one out.

His approach, however, had gone from one of micromanagement to trust and empowerment.

A championship season did not spring from a sudden windfall of talent or one leader becoming omniscient and making every right call along the way. It was the consequence of a cohesive and empowered team of leaders and team players working toward common goals.

Similarly, it’s been my observation that competent and confident bank leaders at all levels empower their teams more than less effective managers. They communicate a vision, define and protect a culture, and, yes, fairly hold folks accountable for their results.

They are also quick to accept responsibility if anything goes poorly and redirect praise to others when things go well. That cannot be overstated.

Teams will walk through walls for leaders who they feel have their backs and make them feel acknowledged and appreciated.

The more competitive the environment, the more important that talented and empowered team members become. That said, engaged teams and empowered teammates do not occur in a vacuum. Their leaders create and support those environments ... or they don’t.

Bank leaders should strive to staff their teams up and down the line with the most talented people. They should share a vision, protect the culture, and lead by example. Then show the confidence to allow the team to succeed.

In doing so, championship teams are ready to be built.

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