There are many models for encouraging people to achieve peak performance. One of these can be found in the work of Bill Walsh. He was a legendary coach for an American Football Team, the San Francisco 49ers.
Bill believed it was vital for everybody in an organisation to deliver certain Standards of Performance. This was more important than striving for ‘winning’.
He believed that, providing people consistently delivered the Standards of Performance, ‘the score took care of itself’. Did it work? Despite not focusing on ‘winning’, his team was hailed as a dynasty.
It took two seasons – 1979 and 1980 – to turn around the ailing team. The 49ers then won the Super Bowl three times – in 1981, 1984 and 1988 – before Bill retired. Let’s explore some of his ideas.
Taking Over The San Francisco 49ers
Bill took over the team in 1979. Interviewed for the book The Score Takes Care of Itself, by Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh, he said that his aim was to create an environment of excellence.
The first two years were difficult. He aimed to build a top-notch organisation, rather than one that was toxic. This called for hiring great people and moving on those who chose not to meet the required standards. Bill explained:
“I came to the San Francisco 49ers with an overriding priority and specific goal – to implement what I call the Standard of Performance.
“It was a way of doing things, a leadership philosophy that has as much to do with core values, principles, and ideals as with blocking, tackling, and passing: more to do with the mental than with the physical.
“While I prized preparation, planning, precision, and poise, I also knew that organizational ethics were crucial to ultimate ongoing success.
“It began with this fundamental leadership assertion: Regardless of your specific job, it is vital to our team that you do that job at the highest possible level in all its various aspects, both mental and physical (i.e., good talent with bad attitude equals bad talent).
“There are also the basic characteristics of attitude and action – the new organizational ethos – I tried to teach our team, to put into our DNA. Of course, for this to happen the person in charge – whether the head coach, CEO, manager, or assembly line foreman – must exhibit the principles.”
This called for commitment to details, such as people having a positive attitude, no shirttails out when wearing the 49ers uniform, being prompt, showing good sportsmanship – no strutting, posturing or cheap shots, controlling of profanity, treating fans with respect and always exhibiting professional behaviour.
The Leader’s Role Is To Focus on the
Strategy and Standard of Performance
Bill believed that leaders must develop the right strategy for delivering success. This included developing the right scripting – the right planning – for tackling various scenarios. People could then follow the strategy, do superb work and achieve success. He said:
“The motto of the Boy Scouts, ‘Be prepared,’ became my modus operandi, and to be prepared I had to factor in every contingency: good weather, bad weather, and everything in between. I kept asking and answering this question: ‘What do I do if…?’
“You must envision the future deeply and in detail – creatively – so that the unforeseeable becomes foreseeable. Then you write the script for the foreseeable …
“Of course, there’s always something you can’t anticipate, but you strive to greatly reduce the number of those foreseeables.”
Bill followed the 80/20 rule. The 49ers focused on maximising the 80% they could control in a game. There may be 20% they couldn’t control, such as a referee’s call, a bad bounce or fortune. The team aimed to prepare and perform properly, however, because this vastly increased the chances of success.
People could then follow the strategy by delivering the Standard of Performance. People were expected to practice relentlessly until their execution at the highest level was automatic – routine ‘perfection’. Bill said:
“Maintenance workers, ticket takers, parking lot attendants, and anyone receiving a pay check with the emblem of the San Francisco 49ers on it were instructed as to the requirements of their own job’s Standard of Performance and expected to measure up.”
Some people chose not to meet these standards. So they were moved on.
“The ability to help the people around me self-actualize their goals underlines the single aspect of my abilities and the label that I value most – teacher.”
He believed in educating people to consistently deliver the basics. They could then add the brilliance.
Looking back at his time at the 49ers, the turnaround did not come straight away. Despite setbacks on the journey, however, he said:
“Eventually – within months, in fact – a high level of professionalism began to emerge within our entire organization.
“I moved forward methodically with a deep belief that the many elements of my Standard of Performance would produce that kind of mindset, an organizational culture that would subsequently be the foundation for winning games.
“The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on the way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners.”
Keep Delivering The Standard of Performance
– Especially When Nearing Success
The 49ers became known for winning games in the last few minutes. Why? Bill explained to Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh:
“Have you noticed that … great players and great companies don’t suddenly start hunching up, grimacing, and trying to ‘hit the ball harder’ at a critical point?
“Rather, they are in a mode, a zone in which they’re performing and depending on their ‘game,’ which they’ve mastered over many months and years of intelligently directed hard work.
“By focusing strictly on my Standard of Performance, the 49ers were able to play the bigger games very well because it was basically business as usual – no ‘try harder’ mentality was used.
“In fact, I believed it was counter-productive. Consequently, the San Francisco 49ers could function under tremendous stress and the forces that work on individuals in competitive situations.”
The team dealt with pressure situations by continuing to do the basics. They could then add the brilliance. But, as Bill said: “That was a natural evolution of what we were already doing.”
He demonstrated a characteristic shown by many great leaders, teams and organisations. They actually do what they say they are going to do.
Bill did this by being true to his philosophy and principles. The key was to ensure that people delivered the Standards of Performance. The score would then take care of itself.