Does Your Culture Breed Success? Four Lessons From Michigan’s Brady Hoke

What a difference a year makes! Almost exactly one year to the day, I wrote a blog article titled What Killed The Coach? for LeaderChat.org, where I detailed the cultural missteps taken by Rich Rodriquez that led to his firing as head football coach at the University of Michigan.

Since that time, Brady Hoke was hired to come in and turn around the program and he just finished his first season with an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. One of the main reasons that Hoke was hired at Michigan was his former ties to the program as an assistant coach and his appreciation for the culture of the school and football program.

Hoke used the power of Michigan’s culture to reverse the course of his team and set them on the path to success. Here’s four lessons we can take away from Brady Hoke’s experience that can help us in our own leadership journeys:

1. Respect the past – Brady Hoke always speaks in glowing and reverential terms about the history of Michigan football. He shows a deep respect and appreciation for those who came before him, and he understands that he and his team have an obligation to continue the winning tradition at Michigan. We should honor those who have laid the foundations for our success and help our people understand that we have a responsibility to continue the winning ways for those that follow us.

2. Enlist the support of team leaders – When asked about the keys to his success this year, Hoke repeatedly mentioned the influence of the Seniors on the team. He spoke about how the Seniors bought into his philosophy and served as examples for the rest of the players on the team. When implementing change in our organizations, it’s critical that our team leaders, whether they hold formal leadership positions or not, are on board.

3. Create team rituals – Shared experiences build the bonds of culture and help to reinforce the ideals that we’re trying to foster within our organization. Hoke ended each of his team practices or meetings with the cheer “Beat Ohio!” in reference to Michigan’s end-of-season game against their biggest rival, Ohio State. Hoke also had a countdown clock installed in their training room that counted down the days, hours, and minutes to the game with Ohio State. Team rituals reinforce what it means to be a part of our organizations, the expectations we hold for each other, and the common goals that we strive toward.

4. Keep the focus on the team, not the leader – Unlike most football coaches, Brady Hoke doesn’t lead his team out of the tunnel before the game, he runs behind them. It’s his way of keeping the spotlight on the team and not himself. He knows that it’s the team that actually plays the game and they’re the ones that deserve the attention and focus. We as leaders need to remember that our role is to set the vision and direction, then prepare, train, and coach our people to higher levels of performance. But at the end of the day, they are the ones who are performing on the front lines and deserve the limelight of success.

Organizational consultant Stan Slap likes to make the point that the original sin of leaders trying to implement organizational change is failing to respect the power of the culture to bury you. A culture is the simplest operating system in the world and it makes all decisions based on a shared belief of survival and prosperity. It makes those decisions based on the actions of leadership and whether those actions support or contradict their stated values. If the culture believes supporting those values is in the best interest of their survival and prosperity, they’ll give everything they have to make it happen.

16 Comments on “Does Your Culture Breed Success? Four Lessons From Michigan’s Brady Hoke

  1. Randy, A great case study in leading and building a team with a winning approach. There always seem to be sound lessons that can be learned from the sports world, and this one fits that approach. In these transitions, it is “easy” to focus on the individual leader, the new person coming in, yet it is much more than that if you want success. Excellent points to absorb and apply! Thanks! Jon

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    • Hi Jon, thank you for your comments. It has been refreshing to see Brady Hoke’s emphasis on the team rather than himself. He operated the same way here when he was the coach of the Aztecs so it seems to be part of his character.

      Take care,

      Randy

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  2. Excellent article — thanks! As a Wolverine alum, I’m biased of course, but I really do believe Coach Hoke is the real deal.

    Aneil Mishra, Ph.D.

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    • Thank you Aneil! I’m a native Michigander so I too am biased, but I do believe Brady Hoke is a genuine, trustworthy leader. I appreciate the work you do in the field of trust.

      Best regards,

      Randy

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  3. Great insights in the article Randy, well done. Pardon the obvious commercial, but I think you would enjoy the book, “Follow to Lead” which is all about organizational culture, how to identify it and implement it by following 7 principles. Everybody has a book on leaders and leadership, but very few people write about great followership. Well, now there is one and you can read more about it at http://www.follow-to-lead.com.

    Don Mercer

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    • Hi Don and thank you for your comments. No apologies needed for your commercial. I think followership is a critically important element in creating successful organizations, and from the servant leader perspective (which I ascribe to), I think the best leaders have learned how to be good followers.

      Best of luck with your book. I look forward to reading it.

      Randy

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  4. Perhaps a review of the lack of administrative leadership that the previous coach took on would be a better study or at least a part of what this coach took on. The former coach, Lloyd Carr acting as a retired coach & associate athletic director making $388K annually at M was undercutting kids and the football program. School President Mary Sue Coleman was well aware of this. Current athletic director Dave Brandon was working with Carr to undermine the former Athletic DIrector to free up the spot for himself.

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    • Hi Edgar. Thank you for your comments. I would imagine there is quite a bit of drama, rumor, and organizational politics that exists in high profile situations such as this.

      Take care,

      Randy

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  5. I lost a lot of repect for BH when I found out he was working behind the scenes with former players to get RichRod fired & himself hired. Mott Childrens Golf Outing was used at 2010 event when Carr, J Feely, Hoke & others had secret meeting to strategize to undercut RR and 2010 team.

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    • Thank you for your comments Michael. I don’t have any knowledge of the specific incidents you mention, but I know at any large, high profile organization there are organizational politics at play. From the outside looking in, this type of behavior doesn’t seem consistent with what I know of Brady Hoke and the immense respect he has for the University of Michigan.

      Best regards,

      Randy

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  6. Thanks Randy for the great study !

    I’m a Senior Organizational Management student scheduled to graduate this May. I’m hoping to continue my master’s education in organizational leadership.

    I find the topic of building trust in the workplace very interesting. It sounds like your consulting job is very entertaining and rewarding! I look forward to reading more of your studies and following you on twitter.

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  7. Randy–here are a couple ‘tweets’ from former M players at Mott golf outing of the meeting that Hoke attended in a strategy session to get RR fired and himself hired!!

    Michael Taylor • It seems that Lloyd Carr’s players planned the hiring of Hoke and the firing of RR at the Mott’s Hospital campaign this summer according to Jay Feely’s.. I wonder how many Bo’s Boys were part of the discussion.. Seems like the current NFL players were the only ones consulted…IMHO

    jayfeely Jay Feely
    When I was at the Motts Chrildens hospital fundraiser last year in Ann Arbor, 2 things were clear 1) RichRod needed to go 2) Hoke was wanted

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  8. Your four lessons are quite accurate for any new leader. In any large organization, office politics and rumors are quite common. We can talk about how RR was undercut by Hoke / Carr royalists but the reality is that RR was not prepared to win over the Michigan organization due to

    1. Lack of understanding of the history and core of the program
    2. Failure to properly assess the existing leadership available at his disposal
    3. Ownership of leadership

    Besides Hoke, a better example of to be used for your four lessons would be Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh Steelers. When he took over the team, he was following a popular head coach who just finished a down year but still quite capable of coaching. Tomlin was successful in the transition by utilizing the four lessons you have described, by properly and accurately assessed the team’s history, support structure and leadership before taking the reign.

    Instead of overturning the whole coaching staff, he retained most of the staff because they were “good football people”. Instead of revamping the defense into what he is familar with, Tomlin chose to work with, and learn from, Dick LeBeau on how to continue the historic success of his defensive system. Instead of being firm and rigid, Tomlin chose to listen to his team leaders to create a better practice enviornment for the team. Instead of earning millions with face time opportunities, Tomlin chose to assimilate into the culture of Pittsburgh. His transition resulted in two Super Bowl appearances the four years, became the youngest winning coach by working with mostly inherited team.

    Many say that successful leadership transition is mostly luck, but luck usually favors those who are prepared. In Tomlin’s case, he was more than prepared.

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    • Excellent insights, Fred. Mike Tomlin is another excellent case study. Leaders walking into a new situation need to strike that delicate balance between keeping what works, respecting the culture, and yet infusing it with new energy and direction. In the specific case of Michigan, I think Rich Rodriquez was behind the eight-ball to start with, partially due to his own mis-steps, and partially due to the lack of organizational support.

      Thanks for your comments,

      Randy

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  9. Isn’t it true that Lloyd Carr was telling M recruits to go to MSU and working with admissions to prevent recruits from being admitted? Isn’t it true that LC was working with his media cronies to hurt the M brand at RR expense? Isn’t it true that LC was telling the current players–many of whom he recruited –to transfer from M? Isn’t it true that LC gave info to Free for their investigation? Isn’t it true that LC was a M employee at time of doing this? Isn’t it true that M has phone records of LC to support this?

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