Next Man UpFeb 2012

“Next Man Up” has been the mantra for the 2011 Houston Texans.  Injuries are common in the NFL but the number of star players injured for the Texans is significantly above the league average.  Yet the team persevered and although they would be unlikely Super Bowl participants this year, they are playing in their first ever NFL playoff game this Saturday.  I am excited about this playoff game and believe their teamwork may be an advantage in the playoffs despite their injuries and late season losses.  Win or lose – they have shown us how a “Next Man Up” approach is not only a model for sports teams but also for business teams.

Even if the Texans built their team expecting key injuries to occur, I doubt they would have considered that the number of star players could all have significant injuries in one season.  Their No. 1 quarterback, Matt Schaub, and #2 quarterback, Matt Leinart were injured in successive weeks and not available for the second half of the season.   Their top pass rusher, Mario Williams was injured in week 4 and lost for the remainder of the season.   One of the top receivers in the NFL, Andre Johnson, pulled one hamstring muscle was out for 6 weeks and then when he returned to play, he pulled the other hamstring muscle was out for 3 more weeks.   They also lost the NFL’s leading rusher in 2010, Arian Foster, for the first two games of the season with a pulled hamstring.   Although not injured, they even lost their defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, for two games so he could have kidney and gall bladder surgery.  Wade Phillips has been widely credited for turning around the worst rated defense in 2010 to becoming the #2 rated defense in 2011.

Their offensive production has been down without their top 2 QBs and Pro Bowl receiver.  They lost games to mediocre teams while their defensive coordinator was in the hospital.   But they have made the playoffs with a third string QB for almost a third of the season.  

Like most teamwork successes, their effectiveness in working as a team may not get the recognition it deserves.  But teams in business can learn from the Texans about how to utilize a “Next Man Up” philosophy for the men and women on their team. 

How “Next Man Up” Applies to Teamwork in Business

  • Employee turnover – departing employees or transfers to other departments can result in a reduction in the team performance metrics, especially when it is a “star player” on the team.
  • Succession planning is become more common but its importance is still underestimated.  Helping the likely successor become ready for the next job is just as important as identifying the successor
  • Recruiting and selecting your direct reports should not just be about the job they are recruited for but also for the job they might advance into. 

How “Next Man Up” Can Succeed in Sports and in Business

  • Great teamwork helps the next person up succeed.  The Texans clearly see themselves as a team and don’t see it being up to the new player, individually, to replace the production.  They see the team being responsible for replacing the production -- to collectively step up.  DeMeco Ryans, a Texans inside linebacker and captain of the defense, said it best, “This is a team.  The true definition of a team.  Every man pitching in and making plays, it’s not just about one person.  We’ve come together as a team and you never know on any given Sunday, who is going to step up and make that play for us.  I love having it like that.  Guys are very unselfish in our locker room which is key.  Don’t have any ‘me guys.’”  Gary Kubiak, the Texans head coach, summed it up well after the loss of the Texans starting QB, Matt Schaub, "The key is that the team rallies around him. Matt (Leinart) doesn't have to win a game. The team has to win a game. We'll rally around him and get him ready to go."  In business, it is important for the team to see themselves as a team, to achieve a common goal, not just individual goals.  In sports, it seems easy to identify with the team goal of winning a game or a championship as a team.  In business, it shouldn’t be any different. 
  • The team and its leader need to believe in and be confident that team members, and their possible replacements, can deliver.  Gary Kubiak, the head coach of the Texans, has set the tone for this with his very clear expressions of how he believes in struggling players and new replacements.   Even when players are not performing well, he believes in them.  When the defense was ranked last in 2010, Kubiak made this comment,  “I told the players I believe in them, and I want them to get better every day.  You can’t go from 32nd to 5th in one game, but it’s important that we improve every week.  I believe in him (defensive coordinator Frank Bush in 2010).  That is why he is here with me.  We’ll figure out a way to get it done.“  As we have learned this year, he had reason to believe in those defensive players.  Yes, Frank Bush was not the right guy to lead the defense but that doesn’t make Kubiak wrong for believing in him.  I believe he was sincere in his belief in that coach and those pl ay er s.    Be li ev in g in someone doesn’t guarantee they will succeed but it says yo si nc er el y believe in their potential.  Expressing that you believe in someone is a priceless gift -- one that can’t be measured in quantifiable te rm s.    ES PN ’s  Paul Kuharsky in the AFC South Blog on 12/9/11 reflected on Co ac Ku bi ak “He’s got a team that believes in itself as much as anyone in the league outside of Wisconsin.”  In business, how often does the team’s leader and members express their belief and confidence in each other in a public  manner?
  • “Next Man Up” in business or in sports is difficult without a great system, method or strategy.  The Texans have a complex offensive system that is difficult to defend when the right players are in place.  The defensive system brought in by Wade Phillips helped transform the league’s worst defense in 2010 to one of the best in 2011.  Great systems can absorb a player loss easier than teams that are dependent on great players.  In business, a team member is easier to replace when you have a great strategy, great processes and great information systems.  They may not be as good as the star player but the team may still perform at a high level, higher than they would if there was not a great system. 

Recommendations – “Next Man Up” in Business

Recommendation 1: Improve Teamwork Competency

A team that has processes, behaviors and systems for teamwork is more likely be able to leverage a “next man up” philosophy when a key team member is lost.  Adopt a teamwork competency model (such as our TeamSceneTM Model) as a common framework for the team.  Then commit to behaviors and principles that will develop those competencies.  An example of a commitment might be to address a relationship issue in a straightforward, factual and timely manner directly with another team member – without involving the team’s leader unless absolutely necessary.  Another example might be to admit mistakes or failures to the team in a public setting without trying to hide the problem or make excuses.  The team can also institute teamwork processes (steps or activities) that will lead to a team being more competent in the way it works together.  An example might be a process for debating an important issue, problem or decision.  Another example may be a process for reviewing progress, as a team, against the goals and plans so adjustments can be made to deliver more as promised.

Recommendation 2: Make the Team a Preferred Place to Work

Compensation, incentives and recognition are important underlying factors to keep team members happy.  But making your team a great place to work starts by being inspired with a higher purpose – in addition to making a profit.  In sports, winning a championship as a team is a purpose higher than any individual success a player can have.  But other higher purposes might be making the city proud of the sports team or dedicating the season to an injured player.   Consider reading the Harvard Business Review article “Building Company Vision” to learn more about developing a Core Purpose and Vision in business.   Making the team a preferred place to work requires leaders to set high expectations and be clear about what they accept/don’t accept.  But it also means that leaders need to make their team members accountable to deliver as a team with some freedom to do what it takes within the system to succeed.

Recommendation 3: Recruit Team Players

In an interview, most interviewees will describe themselves as a team player.  It is probably a phrase that most interviewees learn to say, like when they describe their greatest weakness as “being too much of a perfectionist.”  You can’t determine if a team member is really a team player just by asking them “yes or no” if they are. 

Being a team player is an attitude.  As many of you know, I have played competitive or recreational sports all my life and currently play baseball on a “45 and over” baseball team.  You can quickly see who are the team players and who aren’t.  It is easy to think that the highly confident or even arrogant player is not a team player and the player who just goes about his business is.  But that is not necessarily the case.  I played on a team when we won the championship.  One of my teammates was not just confident about his abilities.  He could be downright arrogant talking about how great he was all the time.  Team members want other players on the team who are confident -- as long as they put the team first.  I learned more about him when we played for the championship with less than a full team.  This guy was the one you wanted in your dugout in that situation.   He instilled the same  confidence he had in himself with everyone else on the team.  I also have played with those teammates who don’t say much and who everyone likes but they are just quieter about getting accolades for themselves, even if the team fails.  

A team player is concerned with handoffs and interdependencies on a team.  They are concerned with how the team can deliver, irrespective if they deliver.  If they are a star player, they only see that as being valuable if the team has success.   In business, it is the same.  A team player puts the team’s success over their own.  They are willing to debate/communicate openly about the facts (without being defensive) of an issue impacting the team’s results.  They also  have a short memory about own/others mistakes.  They are committed to building relationships with other team members so the handoffs and interdependencies are leveraged for the benefit of the team.

Recommendation 4: Help Your “Next Man Up” Be Ready

 Sports teams have bench players.  Those bench players have an opportunity to practice with or against their teammates who are starters.  They might not to get to play in the games much but it is important for the coaches to get them ready.  In business, there are generally no bench players – just waiting for their turn to contribute.  Succession planning is a mechanism that many companies use for identifying and developing people before their opportunity arises.    I have seen some great succession planning processes where there is a plan for the “next man up” to not only get the training they need but also some developmental experiences.  Some examples may be to participate in the leadership team meetings of the person they report to, giving presentations to the executives that their leader reports to, being responsible for a key initiative for his/her leader, etc., being “in-charge” while the leader is on vacation, etc.   I have some clients that ask me to help their “next man up” prepare for the job they may be promoted to.  They ask me to coach the “next man up” to prepare him or her for a possible step-up 6 months to a year down the road.  This is a great opportunity for that person to prepare both through learning and application of what they learned. 

*          *          *

I am really looking forward to the game this Saturday.   There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about the Texans chances.  They are on a 3 game losing streak, none of which were playoff teams.  They have a 3rd string quarterback.   The key to the team, the defense, will have the architect and leader, Wade Phillips, in the press box instead of his usual place on the sidelines.    But I believe in them.  Teamwork is in their DNA and they have a system that helps the “Next Man Up” be successful.  They may not win but their chances of winning are a lot greater because of their “Next Man Up” philosophy.  I will be proud of the Texans one way or the other.   But the greatest gift they have given us is to show us the value of teamwork.  Watch the game this Saturday at 3:30 CT.  Teamwork and the “Next Man Up” may just be on display.

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2012

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