05 Jul 2011
The Business of Championsby Garry EmmonsTopics:
Last month, more than one million people lined the streets of Boston for a parade in honor of their National Hockey League champion Boston Bruins. Talk about consumer excitement over a product! On that score (or should I say “SCO-ORE!”), could the Bruins’ remarkable season and first Stanley Cup triumph since 1972 hold lessons for other kinds of organizations and companies?
Sports and games serve as a handy source of metaphors for business. Performance metrics abound, and success and failure are on the scoreboard for all to see. But whether athletic competition offers more usable — or simply more visible — lessons than do other endeavors is subject to debate. (Popular HBS cases include ones about Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, the West Point crew team, and the NFL’s New England Patriots.) Still, Bruins fans can be forgiven for drawing insights and inspiration from the team’s outstanding performance this year.
One fan watching with particular interest was Ken Baumgartner (MBA ’02), investment director at Wellington Management in Boston. He along with Gord Kluzak (MBA ’98) is not only an HBS alum but also a Bruins alum. (Kluzak, now at Goldman Sachs in Boston, has long worked a second shift as a Bruins TV analyst.) Baumgartner, who also served as a Bruins assistant coach for one year, had a twelve-year career in the NHL. He overcame relatively modest abilities by becoming a rugged enforcer and hard-working player. But Baumgartner was also cerebral, earning a college degree from Hofstra during the years that he was a player. Highly respected by his peers, he served as vice president of the NHL Players Association.
I asked Baumgartner to reflect on the Bruins’ season in leadership, teamwork, and organizational terms, and anything else that came to mind. He agreed, hastening to add that he had no special inside knowledge about the team. Baumgartner’s remarks are in italics. They are followed by my own summary “take-aways” that his comments brought to my mind (but in no way are meant to imply that Baumgartner shares my opinion). Please let me know your thoughts on what useful business lessons can be drawn from sports.
OK, let’s drop the puck and get things going:
The Bruins are an organization that’s wanted to win for decades. But for one reason or another, they’ve come up short since the 1970s. A good move was hiring the young, bright, relatively inexperienced GM Peter Chiarelli, who played hockey at Harvard, who in turn hired good people around him.
I think a big step was bringing in former Bruins star Cam Neely as president. His reputation alone from wearing a Bruins jersey demanded a certain level of commitment. It sent a message to the world that this would not be a soft team, nor would it welcome soft individuals.
My take-away: When leadership embodies and lives the desired culture, that culture is more likely to take root.
I don’t think anyone will say the Bruins were the highest skilled team in the NHL this year. But they had a system that could win using the players they had, and the players bought into it. They were well-coached, they played their roles perfectly, and the team became more than the sum of its parts.
My take-away: Chemistry rules. A committed, synergistic team can produce better results than a collection of stars.
Having experienced culture carriers on the team — such as the veterans Mark Recchi and Shawn Thornton, who had been Cup winners with other teams — is important in any organization. A culture that is perhaps unique to athletics is that of winning…that’s something a player can take with him from organization to organization, and help instill within teammates.
Leadership on the Bruins was very decentralized. It came from many individuals and at different times. Even younger, inexperienced players provided a spark, inspiration, or presence that lifted the team at critical junctures.
My take-away: Leadership can be infectious, fluid, and situational. It doesn’t come from designated leaders alone.
When one of their players was lost for the series after an illegal concussion-inducing hit, “Suddenly the Bruins not only wanted to win the Stanley Cup, but they really wanted to beat the opposition.” How, I wondered, can companies similarly sharpen the pursuit of their mission and goals throughout the organization?
My Take-away: If companies can figure out how to get employees to personalize the mission, then the competition has no chance.
Boston’s four major pro sports teams are on an incredible roll. They’ve won a combined seven championships in eleven years. There’s now almost an internal competitive nature between the sports that has created a winning drive among teams in the city.
My take-away: Boston is a cluster of pro sports excellence. The competition continues. Next up, it’s the Red Sox turn, in baseball’s World Series.
Class of MBA 2002, Section E
Class of MBA 1998, Section E