Sunday, May 22, 2011

Losing the Locker Room

For those of us who play, have played, or are fans of sports, there is a phrase that is used when a coach or player has lost the trust and/or respect of her/his teammates: Losing the Locker Room.

In the 2010 NFL season, Brad Childress lost his locker room. Some say that he lost it long before that, but it came to a head midway through November when he was fired from his job as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

Poor decision making and the inability to effectively communicate cost him the respect of his team, the team owners, and the fans. "Without a foundation of trust and loyalty, Childress watched as his players reached near-mutinous levels at the first sign of adversity this season", wrote Kevin Seifert on

It also resulted in an abysmal collapse of the team that, during the previous season, was a coin-toss away from advancing to the Superbowl. It resulted in failure.

Unfortunately, this phenomena is not limited to realm of sports. It exists in every profession. Once it occurs, it is often irreversible.

As Product Managers, a great deal of our job is achieving buy-in from colleagues across the organization, most of whom are managed by someone else. We have to be excellent communicators, solicitors of ideas, and be able to concisely articulate the goal, its purpose, and the tactics we intend to use to accomplish the goal. We need to lead with inspiration and earn the confidence of others.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares this view. Some people do not solicit ideas but instead impose their own ideas and fail to listen. Some people who do hold either managerial authority or political leverage within an organization wield it like a weapon, implying (or directly stating) that repercussions shall befall those who don't fall in line.

While these industrial-revolution era management tactics may still be effective in some enterprises, especially those in which the tasks are menial and/or straightforward, they fail miserably in contemporary professions that require analytical, critical, or creative thought. (For an excellent book on this topic, I recommend that you read Drive, by Daniel Pink.)

In a high-technology workplace, the vast majority of roles fall into the latter categorization. Product managers--and all managers, including executive leadership--must understand this and recognize that success will not be borne from mere persistence, insistence, or simply because you say it's important and that's that.

If you take this approach, the likelihood is that you will fail to get maximal results from your colleagues, lose their respect, and ultimately lose the locker room. It might not be immediate. You might squeeze out a few successes in the short-term. Even Childress won a couple of games before he was sacked.

But if you want sustained success, and you want to get the most from your teams, then it's crucial to communicate effectively, engender trust, always be ready to listen or help, solicit and give advice constructively, and always remember that you are working with peers, not mindless minions. To be an effective leader, you must have dedicated collaborators. To borrow a quote from the West Wing series: A leader without followers, is just a guy taking a walk.