The Toronto Maple Leafs ended up with the worst record in the National Hockey League’s 201516 season. With a new executive group and head coach in place the team has embarked on a serious rebuild. (Cynics in the crowd might add “yet another rebuild”).
Watching the Leafs go through this process provides some interesting team-building lessons for businesses. What does good team-building look like? I’d suggest one of the most successful teams in professional sports, the New England Patriots of the NFL. While they play different sports, there are some truths about building a team that apply regardless—and that all businesses can learn from, too.
Here are four key ingredients for great team-building.
1. Consistent leadership is the bedrock for success
Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000, the Patriots have appeared in the play-offs thirteen times, and won four Super Bowls in six tries. The Leafs, in contrast, who are now on their sixth head coach since 2000,
Mike Babcock, the current Leafs head coach, is signed to a very lucrative eight year contract—a term just about unheard of in the NHL. In a recent interview, Leafs President Brendan Shanahan indicated that players who join the team will understand that Babcock—and the systems he implements—will be in place for the long term. Shanahan also pointed out that in Lou Lamoriello, the Leafs have the only General Manager who is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
2. Successful leaders identify and apply winning systems
Belichick is famous for admonishing his players to “Know your job! Do your job!” The unstated but very clear subtext is to “know your job” and “do your job” within a demonstrably successful system—a system that is bigger than any one participant.The Patriots are well known for the rigour and discipline of their practices and play-calling, all of which are based on the foundation of the winning processes. Babcock’s long term contract is a clear signal that Leafs management believe that he can consistently apply a winning system.
3. Only recruit and retain team members who can work within the winning system
Due to their consistent success, the Patriots have not had high draft picks for years. Their focus has been on drafting or trading for “role players,” athletes who can play defined roles in the Patriots’ systems. The Patriots are also well known for cutting players who are no longer willing or able to do their jobs within the system. The team’s focus is on executing the winning process.
The Leafs have recently parted with two stars, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. This may have been done to create salary cap space, but it was almost certainly also done to audition newer players to see if they can fit into the Lamoriello/Babcock systems. It will be interesting to see if the Leafs will be as unsentimental as the Patriots in parting ways with players who don’t fit.
4. Find, utilize and reward successful champions within that system
The New England Patriots found their champion, one might argue, almost by accident. Tom Brady was a picked in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft—behind 198 other players! Brady became the Patriots’ starting quarterback in his second season only due to an injury to Drew Bledsoe. Since then, the Patriots and Brady have never looked back. Belichick has said, tongue in cheek, that Brady is one of the hardest players to coach. Brady studies and prepares within the Patriots system so well that his coach has almost nothing to say to him. Brady is also known for chastising team mates who have failed to “know their jobs and do their jobs”. Brady is, in short, a champion for the Patriots systems and processes.
Will the Leafs find their Tom Brady? They’ve just signed the very young Morgan Rielly and Nazim Kadri to long term contracts. This is a good sign that the team believes these players can thrive within the Lamoriello/Babcock systems. The open question is: can they provide Brady-style leadership and champion those systems?
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Any business leader can learn something from this winning example of successful long-term team-building: Consistency matters. Think in systems. Recruit team players, turf the rest. And promote champions who thrive in the system you’ve built. It’s too soon to tell whether the Leafs can finally get it together—but the ingredients are in place. Game on!
Martin Birt is the president of HRaskme.com. After serving seven years in the Canadian Army as a combat arms officer, he has enjoyed a thirty-five year career as a human resources manager, consultant and sought-after adviser to business executives. He can be contacted here.
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What other lessons do the Maple Leafs need to learn? Which team or figure from the sports world have you learned the most from? Let us know by commenting below.