Seven Principles of Management I Learned Playing Hockey

26 04 2012

I have spent the better part of my life playing ice hockey — be it on high school teams, a local weekly skate, or some shinny on a pond with friends.

I still play — because I love it, it keeps me physically fit and quick, and because the rink is at once my temple, my gym, my therapy. My mind clears, instincts take over. I focus on only the game. Any work or home stress quickly dissipates. I play each week on Wednesday nights, from 10:45–midnight, and after 75 minutes of hard skating, I am an exhausted puddle of sweat, but I am refreshed; my battery, recharged.

Great lessons in leadership and management can be gleaned from a life in sportsperhaps none more worthwhile than those of John Wooden, the basketball “Wizard of Westwood” and hockey is no different. Here is the crux of what I have learned thus far:

Hard work pays off — The payoff is not always immediate, imminent, or even clear. But good things come of hard work: bounces tend to go your way more often; scoring chances are created; and the numbers, eventually, fall in your favor.
Efficiency, not just energy — Hard work without focus is wasted energy. Play smart, be well-positioned, don’t over-commit. And then skate like hell.
Sloppiness begets sloppiness — Letting mistakes slide creates an environment in which bigger, systemic problems are created as folks work around initial errors. Coaches, captains, and players themselves must hold the whole team accountable for their efforts, and work as a team to ensure better execution.
Communicate — Talk. Especially when you are in the thick of it. You are often your teammates’ eyes and ears — let them know where you are and what’s happening. And when you have a second, let them know how they’re doing.
Lead by example — Growing up in Philadelphia in the early ’70s, my idol was a skinny diabetic kid from Flin Flon, Manitoba, who also happened to be one of the best hockey players on the planet. He was never the most skilled guy, but there was simply no one more determined to win. He led the Flyers to two Stanley Cup championships by outworking every single opponent he faced, and making every single teammate better.
Foster confidence — Keep your team not only motivated, but confident as well. Even misplaced or irrational confidence can — for brief stretches of time — raise the game of a fourth line player to the point where he’s the best guy on the ice.
Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional The injuries I’ve sustained while playing hockey have put my orthopedist’s kids through college. Broken bones, torn ligaments, surgical fixes. And I’ve learned this: Pain is physical, suffering is mental. We are often swamped at work; but we needn’t suffer unduly for it.

All right then. Drop the puck.


The NHL Leads the Way

10 03 2012

I never thought accountability or transparency would be words I’d use to describe how and why the National Hockey League is suddenly so successfully policing its own ranks, but there it is.

In only his first few months in office as the NHL’s Senior VP of Player Safety and Hockey Operations, former player Brendan Shanahan has done one of the best jobs I’ve seen by an executive in any public setting. Sure, some of his success has to do with following on the heels of anemic and ham-fisted “discipline czar” Colin Campbell. But the differences between the two and their styles could not be more staggering, and I could not be any more impressed with Shanahan and his lieutenants Rob Blake and Stephane Quintal.

The three other major sports leagues should take notice and learn some real lessons from the NHL on this. Further, all companies, public and private, big and small, could stand to do the same.

Under Shanahan — among other things — punishable on-ice acts are now reviewed (first independently, by him and his small cadre of associates, then discussed, and a consensus reached) and a decision is made regarding further disciplinary action. Standard operating procedure. But then the video decision/evidence is posted on for all to see. And Shanahan (or at least his Twitter account) sends a pointer to said video.

Simple, transparent, fair. Both the season and Shanahan’s tenure are still young, so we’ll see how well this all works as a deterrent over the long haul. But, it would seem that suspensions without pay are still the most effective means of keeping headhunting and unnecessary thuggery at bay, thereby keeping players safer. And increasing player safety (not simply discipline) as Shanahan’s new title implies, should indeed be the core competency of the position.

Say what you like about fighting in the NHL, it’s old news; what has fans, players, the media talking now is the irrefutable fact that hockey, like football, has a concussion problem. And it’s not going to solve itself.

In the NHL, the problem is three-fold:

  • The players are bigger, stronger, faster.
  • Their “padding” is now made of hard plastic, and feels like armor when you get hit with it.
  • Recent rule changes (like doing away with the red line) instituted to usher out the “dead-puck era” of boring, defensive, trapping teams has had the unintended consequence of creating more possibilities of high-velocity open-ice hits, as players zip across the ice for stretch passes.

Enter Shanahan. His role is one that others have held, all with varying degrees of minimal effectiveness. But no one of Shanahan’s stature has ever taken on the job, and no one — it would seem — has embraced it as seriously or successfully.

Among any new executive’s first decisions, whom to hire is often the most important. And in hiring Rob Blake and Stephane Quintal, Shanahan made some very astute choices. Among them, Shanny, Blake, and Quintal have roughly 4,200 total games of NHL experience — not to mention nearly 6,000 penalty minutes. So they’ve been there, seen, and done nearly everything that comes across their desks.

One mark of a good executive is the ability to adapt techniques from industries outside their own. In this regard, Shanahan and company have seemingly taken a page from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show playbook, where we have all seen precisely how effective and skewering a well indexed video library can be. The NHL’s concise and informative suspension videos are must-see viewing for not just hockey fans, players, coaches, and referees, but for judges, leaders, and corporate executives as well. Take, for example, the following:

Kaleta suspension video

Shanahan himself speaks, emotionless and objective, delivering the key information, the evidence, history (past transgressions/suspensions), end result (was the affected player injured), and his decision. In this era of constant buck-passing, Shanahan’s openness is not just refreshing, it’s remarkable and admirable. And his office — and the NHL — is making the right calls on these infractions. They are actually making the game both better and safer.

I am not a Shanny fan-boy. He was an excitable, emotional player; I hated him early on with the Devils, was indifferent to him on the Blues, but by the time he moved onto the Red Wings, I had to respect the guy and what he continued to do each season. Nor have I ever been a big supporter of the league offices. NHL commish Gary Bettman is basically Bud Selig in David Stern‘s clothing.

But as a middle-aged guy myself, what I have been most impressed with is this guy’s ability to go from an incredibly gifted and determined player with a distinguished career (he ranks 12th or 13th overall in goals scored and 25th overall in total points, and won three Stanley Cups) to an exceptional off-ice executive (same industry, but still) in just a few short years (he last played in the 2008–09 season).

No one is really writing about this yet. But they should. This is how pro sports leagues should operate. Players — not just star players — should not only be revered and marketed, but protected. Not simply by their unions during contract negotiations, but during the season, by their teams, and by the league itself.

And it is precisely this sort of transparency and accountability that the other sports leagues need most right now. Picture baseball dealing with steroids in a similar manner. Or professional cycling cleaning up its doping act. We might actually lose the bulked-up automatons and the cynicism they engender. And we fans might actually care again.

Well done, Shanny. Keep it up.