3 Lessons Learned (from Football) For Building Successful Teams

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Guest authored by Thomas Scott, Chief Financial Officer at Wrike. Scott has exceptional strategic financial experience with more than 20 years as a top finance executive at startups and publicly traded companies, including Zebra Technologies, Fetch Robotics, Corning Optical Communications, and Spidercloud. Scott is well-versed in building and leading dispersed teams to help support rapidly growing businesses. He is also an avid reader and sports fan.

Do more with less. Attract high potential talent. Exceed expectations. Maximize efficiency. As a long time financial executive in technology businesses these topics are never very far from my mind. I recognize that most of us are constantly competing with larger, better funded organizations in competitive markets so we have to find an edge to deliver value.

The Michael Lewis book “Moneyball” best described this phenomenon in the sports world. The Oakland A’s from Major League Baseball are featured in this story because they used data to identify undervalued players to level the playing field with larger clubs like the New York Yankees. I’ve used this as a metaphor with my own teams to remind them that WE are like the Oakland A’s and always have to identify ways to maintain an edge because we certainly are not going to beat market leaders at their own game.

This year, the sports world has highlighted another interesting lesson in market and talent inefficiencies from the San Francisco 49ers.

3 quarterbacks in 1 year and have not lost since October

You don’t need to be an avid football fan to appreciate that the quarterback position is an integral part of any football team. Teams are willing to mortgage their futures to trade for higher positioned draft picks in the hopes of drafting the next generational star that will deliver playoff success and multiple “big game” titles. Other teams have signed expensive multi-year deals with established quarterbacks to lead them to success with mixed results. The 49ers are no different, but their experience this year potentially highlights an alternative path.

The 49ers are on their third quarterback of the season and will play in the Conference Championship. Their season opening starter, Trey Lance, a recent first round draft pick, was injured in the second game of the season without establishing his long-term value to the team. Enter Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo was the starter for the 49ers for the last few seasons and returned to that role in September before suffering a broken foot in early December that ended his season. This pattern would likely have ended an otherwise successful season for most teams that had to move on to their third string quarterback.

Most fans almost certainly took a deep breath when the ball went to Brock Purdy. Until this moment, Purdy was mostly known for being Mr. Irrelevant 2022. This is the title given to the last pick in the NFL draft each year, and it is a dubious title since most late picks do not even make the team. Instead of disaster, Purdy has stepped into a starting role on a deep and talented team and has played a key role in delivering eight straight wins including two playoff wins.

I would like to see his success continue, but even if he is unable to lead his team to the big game, he has already demonstrated enormous value that was almost completely overlooked by all 32 NFL teams (including the 49ers in earlier rounds). The big question is, what came together to help deliver this result over the course of two months?

Several observations are worth highlighting:

  • Absence of significant mistakes
  • Poise under pressure
  • Not asked to be a hero but to play his role
  • Friendly play calling system that features multiple talented players without undue reliance on just one

I kept looking at these observations and thought they were directly applicable to how I think about finding high potential talent in competitive markets.

What lessons can leaders draw from this?

1. Question conventional wisdom and look for other leading indicators: Brock Purdy did not fit the central casting view of what an NFL quarterback should look like. He was not tall enough. His arm was not strong enough. He did not come out of the right school. He did receive four years of experience playing as a starter against elite competition that provided the ability to stay calm under pressure and avoid costly mistakes.

2. Surround key new “hires” with a strong network: Even the highest potential talents benefit from strong role players around them. The best way to drive a quick, efficient ramp is to quickly integrate with your strongest existing team members. This network cuts down on mistakes and more quickly builds effectiveness and confidence within a new organization.

3. Design and then trust the system: It is tempting to look for that strong unicorn talent who can do anything, but they often are just unicorns. Build a repeatable work system that you can use to identify and quickly integrate talent that gives them and your team the best recipe to become productive as quickly as possible.

My own executive team has challenged the company to help our employees and customers do the best work of their lives in 2023. Win or lose, this example from the 49ers delivers a few lessons worth remembering as we seek to deliver this challenge.



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