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Management Lessons from Super Bowl Contenders

Because I love any excuse to get together with friends, drink beer and eat gross amounts of fried food and cheese in the middle of the day…naturally, I love Super Bowl Sunday.  Unfortunately, because I’m also a Saints fan, I kind of hate it, too.  I always feel like a bit of a phony, an outsider, the “plus one” guest at the wedding.  This year, however, I feel it my right and my privilege as said fan to “adopt” and root for the long-suffering Cardinals.  I’m hoping their turnaround is a sign that, yes, even my own sad, long-suffering Saints may also make it to the Super Bowl one day soon

Of course, it occurs to me that it’s not just Sean Payton who could probably use some advice from Arizona’s head coach.  Managers everywhere (on the field or off) might want to take some cues from Ken Whisenhunt – and opponent Mike Tomlin, for that matter. After all, what is coaching, if not management?  And both clearly have some success in that area.  Here’s why…

Ken Whisenhunt:  Named head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2007 after spending three years as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, Whisenhunt will face his former employer on February 1. 

Why he makes a great manager:

  • He’s a risk taker: He left the Steelers, a team that is almost guaranteed a playoff spot, for a team that rarely makes it past Thanksgiving. Then, he made the difficult decision of making Kurt Warner the starting quarterback over younger, flashier Matt Leinart this season. And now, he’s attempting to make the Cardinals the first nine-victory team to capture a Super Bowl title since the 1967 Green Bay Packers.
  • He celebrates the small victories, but keeps his eyes on the prize: Though clearly within his rights to brag for making the Cardinals one of football’s greatest Cinderella stories, Whisenhunt is cautious about letting success go to his or his team’s head, or as he put it in an interview before the final playoff game, “getting too big for your britches.” Clearly, the disciplined work ethic paid off.
  • He underpromises and overdelivers: Nobody saw this coming. Arizona had not hosted a playoff game since 1947, so there was little pressure for Whisenhunt to turn the team around – at least not so severely. In just his first season, the Cardinals finished the season with an 8-8 record, a vast improvement over seasons past; this year, however, Whisenhunt exceeded all expectation by leading them to their first Super Bowl appearance in the team’s history.

Mike Tomlin: The youngest head coach in any of the four major North American professional sports, Tomlin led the Pittsburgh Steelers to the 2007 AFC North Division championship with the number one ranked defense in the NFL and a 10-6 record in his first year as head coach.

Why he’s a good manager:

  • He recognizes his team members for their individual strengths: “As coaches, we have to be flexible schematically to what our guys do well,” he has said. He understands that not every player fits a mold and that each has his own special skill. He also makes sure his players understand this: former colleagues have praised Tomlin for his natural ability to communicate with and relate to his players – another indication of good management.
  • He knows how to keep momentum going: Tomlin had big shoes to fill when he took over as head coach two years ago. His predecessor, Bill Cowher, coached 15 seasons, won 149 games, took 10 teams to the playoffs and won one Super Bowl title before retiring. But Tomlin’s transition was hardly a rocky one. Already, in his two-year stint as the head coach of a team that is synonymous with winning, Tomlin has a 22-10 regular-season record and his team has made the playoffs in both seasons.
  • He does employee damage control with grace: When running back Willie Parker took it upon himself to air some of the team’s dirty laundry (venting to the media about how the team needed to get back to “Steelers football” after a string of disappointing losses this season), Tomlin responded calmly. He firmly – but respectfully – reprimanded Parker for talking to the press, stating, “He needs to be a little more careful with things he says and how he says it because it can be misinterpreted as uninformed or selfish, of which he is neither.” Rather than dwell on Parker’s mistake, he resolved the situation right away in order to get back to the issue at hand: winning.

And keep in mind that – as Peter Schrager of Fox Sports mentions in his post, “The NFL Un-Truths” – both men have contributed to the idea that anything is possible. (Tomlin proved that “you don’t need to be collecting Social Security” to have the respect of your staff; Whisenhunt, against all odds, showed that the Cardinals do not in fact “stink.”)  Inspired yet?

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.
4 comments
Dave Mitchell
Dave Mitchell

Good points, Mary, but I think you missed one key strength to both men. I'm a Steelers fan born and raised and have watched the both.

The real interesting thing is that before becoming a head coach with defensive problems, Ken Whisenhunt was an offensive coordinator. Mike Tomlin was a defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach with offensive issues.

They both know and understand deligation and are humble enough to let others around them be experts. Mike Tomlin, a defensive guy even made the smart decision to keep Dick LeBeau.

Dave Mitchell
Dave Mitchell

Good points, Mary, but I think you missed one key strength to both men. I'm a Steelers fan born and raised and have watched the both.

The real interesting thing is that before becoming a head coach with defensive problems, Ken Whisenhunt was an offensive coordinator. Mike Tomlin was a defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach with offensive issues.

They both know and understand deligation and are humble enough to let others around them be experts. Mike Tomlin, a defensive guy even made the smart decision to keep Dick LeBeau.

Mike
Mike

I am trying to figure out if I am inspired or jealous!

What amazes me is the adjustments these guys made! Arizona's defense was a siv...it had holes everywhere giving up 40 plus points several times. They tweaked and tweaked that defense and later came back and beat a team they gave up 48 points too!
Pittsburg's offensive line was a turnstile and Roethlisberger was getting killed but Tomlin worked with his coordinators and made adjustments and fixed that problem and even seem to have the running game back on track.

There are a lot of management lessons to be learned from these guys..Great article!

But I don't want to hear about your Saints team. Try being a Chicago Cubs fan!

Mike
Mike

I am trying to figure out if I am inspired or jealous!

What amazes me is the adjustments these guys made! Arizona's defense was a siv...it had holes everywhere giving up 40 plus points several times. They tweaked and tweaked that defense and later came back and beat a team they gave up 48 points too!
Pittsburg's offensive line was a turnstile and Roethlisberger was getting killed but Tomlin worked with his coordinators and made adjustments and fixed that problem and even seem to have the running game back on track.

There are a lot of management lessons to be learned from these guys..Great article!

But I don't want to hear about your Saints team. Try being a Chicago Cubs fan!

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