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In-house Access Insight & Commentary for In-House Counsel Worldwide

Five Things In-house Counsel Can Learn from (American) Football

Posted in ACC Docket

(January/February 2013)

Many of you know that I grew up in Georgia and Alabama. After my father retired from the US Army during my junior year in high school, we settled outside Ft. Rucker, Ala., in a small town named Enterprise. While I never went to the University of Alabama, I am a long-time Alabama football fan. Football is king in the south. We eat, sleep and breathe the gridiron. 

I was lucky enough to watch legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant take his football team to six national championships and 13 conference championships before he retired. Coach Nick Saban has continued this excellent legacy by leading his ‘Bama football team to a third national championship — the second in as many years — in four seasons.

While I will not pretend to know the nuances of coaching football or running a legal department, watching from the sidelines allows some insight that all of us can apply at work:

  1. Know when to stand on the sidelines and when to step in. Successful coaches do not always meddle in team play. They watch what is going on and step in when necessary. Sometimes, they step in loudly, while, at other times, they remain quiet. Their expertise and experiences teaches them when.
  2. Once you hand off the ball, let your teammates do the job. While successful quarterbacks can throw and often run the ball, they would not get too far down field if they had to do it alone. If you do not trust your team, figure out why. Do changes need to be made? Do you have trouble letting go? Does your playbook need to be rewritten?
  3. You cannot delegate where the buck stops. While I am all for committee work and cross-functional teams, someone has to answer for the job. While coaches don’t play the game, it’s their job to recruit smartly, give the team all the necessary tools, improve their skillset, watch how they interact, step in when necessary and give the glory of success to the team. But ultimately, success or failure rests on their shoulders.
  4. If a play is not working, it’s OK to call a time out. How many of us have worked somewhere that is great at starting an idea but never killing it? Create your plan for implementation but also for deactivation. When you sense that something is not working or it’s blatantly failing, stop. Give the team a chance to reassess and come up with a new (or revised) game plan.
  5. Savor the victory, but plan and focus for the next success. Most successful people I know do not rest much, even after victory. Sure, they take some time off or vacation, but it’s never for long. In fact, they often “work” on vacation, even if it’s just jotting down ideas or wish lists. It is often while at rest that your focus can become laser-like, allowing you to connect the dots. While rest is key to refueling, maintaining focus is key to continued success.

As Bear Bryant once said: “It’s not the will to win that matters – everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”