Change / transformation Leadership Management / Strategy

A football legend’s game plan to transforming your business

We talk a good game about change and transformation here at the Business Learning Institute, but we’re no Barry Alvarez.

In 1990, Alvarez took over as head coach for a University of Wisconsin football team that hadn’t had a winning season since 1984 — and had won only seven Big Ten Conference games during that entire span. Three years later, his Badgers went 10-1-1, finished the year as the nation’s sixth-best team, and beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl. They’ve been perennial winners ever since.

How’s THAT for transformation?

Today, Alvarez serves as Wisconsin’s athletic director, but he is still credited with being the driving force behind the Badgers’ transformation. And his philosophies on leadership go well beyond the football field.

“Barry Alvarez isn’t an athletic director,” says Allan Koltin, CEO of Koltin Consulting Group in Chicago, “he’s a transformer of business.”

That’s why Koltin and the rest of the organizers of the 2016 Winning Is Everything conference in Las Vegas picked Alvarez to keynote the event.

And Alvarez didn’t disappoint. His address was packed with punchy strategic one-liners that could have been culled from the pages of Harvard Business Review. Most of them boiled down to a central theme:

Transforming your business starts with transforming your culture.

To that end, Alvarez has plenty of advice.

  • There's no one-size-fits-all plan to leadership. Be yourself and work your plan. Those who buy into that plan will work their tails off for you. Those who don’t will shake out. Either way, your organization is stronger as a result.
  • Make sure your team's roles are clearly defined. For the team to succeed, each player must play his or her part. And remember that every job is important, from the C-suite to the cafeteria staff. Remember the story about the NASA janitor? As the legend goes, President Johnson was visiting Cape Canaveral in the mid-1960s when he encountered a janitor cleaning the floor. LBJ asked the man what he was doing. “I’m helping put a man on the moon,” he replied. True or not, the story has a point: We’re all in this together. Everyone has a role to play. One loose screw can derail the whole thing.
  • If you do the right things off the field, you'll succeed on the field. Preparation, work ethic, education and training, a mindset devoted to doing the right thing — they’re all as important as what you do between the lines. As the old saying goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
  • Recognition works. It's not hard to recognize your people for the work they do ... and they'll kill or die for you when you do. “It doesn’t take much to show your people you appreciate them,” Alvarez said.
  • Positivity works, too. “If you don’t believe you’re going to win the game, you don’t have much of a chance,” Alvarez said. Put another way, courtesy of Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
  • Maintaining a winning program is just as hard — if not harder — than building one. Change is constant. Our change must be up to the task.
  • Perhaps most important: Do your people fit your culture? Hire for culture first. You can teach them the technical stuff, but you can’t teach them how to fit in. “Stop looking for GPA,” Alvarez said. “Start looking for F-I-T.”

Great advice, and well worth heeding. Our success going forward will depend less on technical skills and more on our people, our teams, and our cultures.

Game on.


William D. Sheridan