Winning Cultures Worlds Apart
At first glance, it doesn’t seem there’s much common ground between the National Football League and the high stakes world of carrier aviation. However, when it comes to winning, they share a lot.
Between 2005 and 2011 the New York Giants made five NFL playoff appearances and won the ultimate prize — the Super Bowl — twice. By any objective measure it was a good run for a storied organization. However, in the next eight years they made only one post-season appearance. Between 2017 and 2019 the team went through three head coaches and never won more than five games in a season. By January of this year it was clear the problems within the organization went much deeper than mere Xs and Os. The Giants lacked a clear identity and their organizational culture was on life-support.
Last July, and thousands of miles away from MetLife Stadium, I took command of a navy jet squadron that hadn’t deployed in almost three years. Following that deployment the team received many awards for effectiveness, efficiency, and combat excellence. But that wasn’t the team I inherited. Due to normal rotations, I was preparing to take my 200 teammates into one of the most daunting environments known — an aircraft carrier — and nearly 80% of them had never done it before. Eighty percent of my team were “rookies,” with almost 50% having served less than four years in the Navy. Averaging 23 years old, many had been with my team for less than six months. My challenge was abundantly clear: I needed to get to building a team. I needed to build a culture.
In early January, with preparations and training complete, my team moved across the country and onto an aircraft carrier where we’d live and work for the next seven months. At about the same time, the New York Giants hired Joe Judge as their next head coach. At first, his hiring barely registered on my radar. However, after a few weeks at sea I came across a transcript of Judge’s introductory press conference. I read it and smiled, immediately realizing the high pressure/high consequence worlds of professional football and flying jets at sea are strikingly similar. How Judge described his approach to his new job was almost a carbon copy of how I’d envisioned leading my team through this deployment. We were both focused on the processes, the team — the culture. We were both putting faith in the fact that with a strong culture, the rest (the wins) would take care of itself.
What first caught my attention about Judge’s introductory press conference was his answer to an early question from the assembled media:
Question: “What culture do you want to have in the locker room, and how will you go about making sure that it’s there?”
Answer: “The only culture we’re going to have in that building, period, is a winning culture. And what that means is everybody comes to work every day, regardless of how they feel, and puts the team first, period…We’re going to ask our players at times to do things that necessarily may not be what they have in mind for themselves. But if it’s best for the team, they have to be willing to go forward with it, because that’s what a winning culture is.”
Judge and I unwittingly outlined almost identical mission statements with one nuanced difference. He sought to win; I sought to win in combat. Like Judge, I asked a lot of my team. Many of them found themselves working in areas outside their traditional areas of expertise. This was particularly true for those few who had previously deployed. Of course I needed them to be excellent mechanics and pilots. But, I also needed these experienced “vets” teaching, leading, and mentoring the “rookies”, even if that placed them outside their comfort zones. Judge and I both needed to repeat the “team first” mantra so often we’d likely tire of hearing ourselves say it.
But it’s important to recognize what “team first,” means, and the many ways that philosophy can manifest itself. There’s a phrase often repeated in military leadership circles, “mission first, people always.” On the surface these two objectives seem at odds with one another. In practice, the two aren’t in conflict at all. They actually compliment one another. In order to accomplish the mission, winning football games or winning in aerial combat, we must always tend to the wellbeing of individual team members.
The truth is we’re ensuring the team’s success when we care for the individual. This too may seem contradictory: which is it, the one or the many? It’s both, but regrettably many leaders get hung up in this false dilemna. We’re building faith, trust, and confidence throughout the entire organization when we do right by the individual. Sailors and football players talk, and news travels quickly when the coach or the commanding officer does the right (or wrong) thing.
Leaders and coaches can go on all day about the ideas of team and family, but if they don’t demonstrate empathy and compassion on a personal level, there’s no locker-room pep talk capable of salvaging their credibility. They’ll quickly learn the difference between wearing the same uniform and actually being a team.
By November, with a record of 1–7 it would have been easy for Judge to hunker down and do everything (anything!) to scratch out another win. But preparing for their ninth game, one of Judge’s star defensive players’ personal life was in turmoil. Cornerback Logan Ryan’s wife was rushed to an emergency room with stomach pain. She was suffering from an ectopic pregnancy and emergency surgery more than likely saved her life.
Judge told Ryan, “If you need to go to Florida, don’t worry about football.”
Ryan was moved:
“I’ll do everything I can to play for a coach like that and play for an organization like this because if that wasn’t the case, I don’t know if my wife would be here today. Honestly, I’m extremely grateful for this organization and for Joe, and for everyone to understand that there are things bigger than football, especially this year.”
A few months earlier, and on the other side of the world, I stood on the flight deck at two in the morning talking to one of my young Sailors. His father was grievously ill. He knew he needed to be home with his father, but he also felt a strong sense of commitment and obligation to our team on the ship. The night before the last transport flight left the ship, we learned his father’s condition had deteriorated further. We bumped him to the top of the list and, though he took critical experience with him, we got him home just in time. He was there in time to say goodbye. He recently wrote me about the decision to leave:
“I felt a sense of shame knowing that I was leaving three weeks early, but that shame washed away the moment I got to see him. I remain extremely grateful for what you did for me.”
In both the case of a standout professional football player and that of a young Sailor thousands of miles away form his dying father, compassion and empathy mattered. Our actions showed our teams we valued each of them on a personal level.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest both my Sailor and Judge’s player would move mountains if we asked them to. We each demonstrated with actions that we had their backs. In the course of developing our teams, we each built cultures that recognized the keys to unlocking faith, trust, and confidence were compassion and empathy.
In the end we each built a culture where the improbable became real. My team completed a record setting 206 consecutive days at sea, and we brought all of our jets and personnel home safely. And Judge? He and his team, amidst a late season winning streak, rolled into Seattle this weekend to upset my Seahawks. And, as long as the two don’t meet again for the NFC championship, I’ll be rooting for Coach Joe!
Views expressed are mine alone and do not represent those of the National Football League, New York Giants, Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.