by Michael Goldberg

Management Lessons from Bill Belichick

Jan 23, 20087 mins

Watch Bill Belichick pace the sidelines of the upcoming Super Bowl championship game, and you might wonder what there is to learn from a guy known for his “hoodie” sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves. Listen to the coach of the New England Patriots speak to the media, with his taciturn answers for sports reporters’ questions, and you might want to reach out and call a PR maven to help him.

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick

But pay attention, even if you hate sports in general or loathe football in particular. If you take the time, you will find management gold nuggets in Belichick’s approach that will help your work, no matter your style: tactical minder of details, manager and motivator of people from different backgrounds, corporate strategist. Even though professional sports is a business, business is not a sport; there are differences in the way we do things (maybe you don’t have weekly tests, maybe they are daily or monthly; and you probably don’t have press conferences after you finish a project). But there’s something here for everyone.

Lesson No. 1: Immaculate Delegation.

Preparation is a given in any field, and football gurus love to discuss and dissect the pre-game work that goes into every week’s match. And this point is certainly about identifying your organization’s relative strengths and weaknesses compared to the competition–something that Belichick does with regular superiority. But he takes the effort to a higher level.

What Belichick does is to dissect situations so that every member of his team knows what they are supposed to do and when. And he explains that clearly and simply, so they understand their responsibilities and how they fit into the bigger picture. If you watch this laudatory video from NFL Networks, you will also see Belichick practicing these concepts, changing situations for his players so that they be prepared to adapt and perform when circumstances change.

This approach puts the players in a position to succeed. As a byproduct, Belichick uses this approach to emphasize teamwork and esprit de corps: no star employee can do the job alone. It takes a commitment from everyone to win.

Lesson No. 2: No Shortage of Manager Feedback.

On Jan. 13, the Patriots played the Jacksonville Jaguars in a playoff game. Jacksonville was very good. They were scoring points. Belichick met his defensive players on the bench.

“Do your job,” the coach said in microphone range. “We talked about this all week. Everybody do your job!”

Belichick wasn’t smiling. And notably, he wasn’t using a clipboard to make his point visually. He was bringing his employees’ minds back to their job responsibilities. No PowerPoint slides. Human connection, a blatant reminder about individual responsibility and each individual’s accountability to the organization.

The employees noticed. The defense stiffened in the second half and the Patriots won the game. The project was a success.

Lesson No. 3: A Clear Focus on the Task at Hand, and Only the Task at Hand.

The Patriots have won every game they have played so far this year. But even in past seasons when they have not, the message from Belichick and his players is the same: we tackle our jobs one project at a time.

This is the mindset that earns Belichick his reputation for being a sourpuss on camera. Even after finishing the regular 16-game season without a loss, Belichick would not bite at reporters’ questions asking him to reflect on his organization’s accomplishments. We “take it one week at a time, get ready for next week. I’m sure that’s what you were looking for,” he said, cracking a rare press conference smile.

Unless you play in the National Football League, your work likely is not about weekly units of production. The point Belichick makes is applicable to any goal-oriented work, however. Know your task. Stick to it. There will be time to reflect on the whole endeavor later.

That’s the public face. In private, it’s a different matter altogether, as some Patriots players pointed out with “humble pie” printed on their t-shirts this season. This refers to reviews of game films between contests in which Belichick points out what the players did right and wrong. Every game, even those won by large margins, contains lessons for later. That kind of reflection is an imperative for improvement. (See Lesson No. 2.)

Lesson No. 4: Creating a Culture of Collective Responsibility

Football is a media spectacle which relies on stars. There’s a tradition of introducing players one by one as they run out of a stadium tunnel onto the field. Belichick eschews this kind of treatment in favor of the collective.

When the Patriots appeared in the Super Bowl game in 2002, the whole roster ran onto the field together like the food was served at a company picnic. The image was notable for its difference from the norm.

This culture carries over to the way the Patriots employees behave. The expectations are high, and clear. Players who had reputations for inappropriate incidents (think of wide receiver Randy Moss or former running back Corey Dillon) enter Belichick’s organization and appear to feel the pressure to match their coach’s expectations, and those of their teammates. They are, in short, excellent. It’s a culture where you don’t want to let your colleagues down.

Lesson No. 5: A Love for the Work, Self-Knowledge About the Role to Play.

The late writer David Halberstam wrote a book called The Education of a Coach, about Belichick’s approach and how he learned to love football from his father, who was also a football coach. It’s a romantic story line, but it contains an important subtext, as Halberstam noted in this online chat in The Washington Post.

Halberstam said: “It was interesting to me when I interviewed him to find what a born teacher he is, that again and again he would get up in the middle of the interview and try and draw a play or a coverage to explain it to me and I think that that is critical to his success, that he loves to teach and in a way it’s not surprising because both of his parents were teachers.”

Belichick played football in high school and college, but was not a professional caliber player. He loved the work so much that he dedicated his life to understanding it inside and out so he could teach others how to do it well. At some point, he had to know that he wasn’t going to be a player. He found the perfect role for himself and while it took him many years to find his current, perfect job, he dedicated himself to this career.

One Last Point

Belichick is not perfect. There’s certainly reason to be disappointed in his performance very early in the season when the NFL fined the Patriots and him for violating rules about videotaping opponents at a New York Jets game. This incident is a permanent blemish on Belichick’s resume.

But it’s interesting to note how he moved on, and how the team rallied to his support. Other leaders and managers might have suffered a different fate. And if Belichick had not stuck to the approaches described above, he likely would have seen a different outcome. And then there wouldn’t be management lessons to discuss.