Month: September 2011

The Art of Leadership, Pittsburgh Steelers style


On Thursday this week, I was lucky enough to be invited to an event in Derry where the great Dan Rooney was talking about leadership.  Dan Rooney is Chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers (his father Art Rooney founded the team in 1933) and current US Ambassador to Ireland.  Last time I ran into him was in the White House in March – he was standing next to me.  Anyway – this is what he had to say.

He started by remarking on how much he likes the Hewlett Packard story – which endeared him to me straight away.  One of my favourite bits of the Jim Collins book, Good to Great, is the description of Level 5 leadership as demonstrated by Dave Packard & I just love the fact that his eulogy pamphlet described the great man as “Rancher, etc”.

As you would expect from someone with a lifelong immersion in competitive sports, Dan uses sports analogy to make all his points.  He talked about the 3 levels of leadership in his own sports world as being:

1.       The President as leader – the president’s role is similar to that of any business CEO.  They are responsible for setting the scene, making sure everyone’s doing their job, actually getting the players…I can relate to that.  I see recruitment as one of the most important things I do as a small business MD.  Dan himself was President of the Steelers from 1975 until 2002 & it’s clear from the way he talks about the role that it was something he enjoyed very much.

2.       The Head Coach as leader – the coach is responsible for all player related issues and for making sure the team is ready & able to play at their best on a Sunday.  The coach deals with any people issues and keeps everyone focused on winning.  The Steelers had only 3 coaches in 30 years.  Their legendary head coach, Chuck Noll, was there for 23 years (1969 to 1991)and 4 Superbowl wins, more than any other head coach in NFL history.  Impressive.  Noll is known for his meticulous attention to detail which included going back to basics with new players to the extent that he would re-train them in basic fundamentals that they would already be familiar with.

3.       The Player as leader – this one is interesting as it’s less obvious than the other two.  Dan Rooney cited the example of the intelligent player in the locker room that knows what’s going on & is willing to do what it takes.  He used the example of Steelers stalwart, (Mean) Joe Greene – leader and anchor of the “Steel Curtain” and one of the most dominant defensive players in the NFL during the 1970s.  A player with an intense desire to win, no matter what that would take, and who would rally everyone else on the team.

Dan Rooney left us with a great quote about leadership – “when things are good, always be at the back; when things are bad, always be in the front” – a variation on Jim Collins observation about the window & the mirror I believe.  Eloquent & to the point – rather like Ambassador Rooney himself.

What does the startup founder director want from team members?


Working in a small business is not for everyone.  The working environment is transparent to a degree that many people find uncomfortable (your colleagues and manager, maybe even your directors are likely to be aware of your every move – which is great if you’re performing).  New business is rarely turned away so the only way quality can be maintained and delivery deadlines met is by team members working longer hours; this happens a lot when your small business is growing.  Your founder directors, although appreciative of everyone’s efforts, are always looking for “more”.  Performance issues are likely to be addressed sooner rather than later and perhaps more bluntly than many people are used to or prepared for.  The runway between joining as a newbie and being deemed to “fit in” may be viewed as too short by most.  Also, the swift exit if your colleagues decide you aren’t going to work out is brutal.

Of course – there’s a lot of upside too.  If there wasn’t, no-one would bother putting themselves through startup discomfort & pain.  But that’s not the topic of today’s blog.  Today is about what I as a founder director expect from team members as a minimum.  Here’s my top 10:

1.       Commitment to our customers, to the business and to our common goals.  This covers everything from being on time for meetings, doing your prep, being reliable and a host of other stuff.  Real life recent commitment examples from our own small business are being in the office on a bank holiday because a project review must take place, giving up a Sunday to travel to a company event – even though family plans had already been made, changing plans and flying to see a customer the next day because they needed you to.

2.       Passion about our company, customers, products and mission – this has to be real, it can’t be fake or people can tell.  See my accompanying blog photo of Eddie Ryce from Learning Pool’s sales team if you don’t believe me (photo credits to Paul Clarke & Ruth Cassidy).

3.       Honesty – about where you are, what you’re doing, why something failed, what you think about something.

4.       Hard work and an eye on the prize – yeah – long hours sometimes but an outcomes focused approach where you can easily prioritise what’s important and make sure that’s done first.  Linked to this I expect you to travel in your own time and to make sure all your follow ups and admin are done without anyone having to check or nag you.

5.       Self-sufficiency.  Not everyone has this on Day 1 but everyone needs to strive towards this.  Spending time managing team members’ performance is an overhead I’d rather do without.  You should make it easy for your line manager to manage you.

6.       Self confidence but with it the ability to know when you need help and the confidence to ask for it.

7.       Self-awareness – required to be a good team player.  It should be obvious to you before it is to anyone else when you’re verging on asshole behaviour.

8.       Enjoyment of the here and now.  Everyone wants to and will move up – but try and enjoy what you’re doing to the full when you’re doing it.

9.       Responsiveness – if I’m trying to get hold of you out of hours it’ll be for a good reason.  If I can’t reach you despite having provided you with every device known to mankind (at your request usually) that’s annoying.  Please note – being available in this way isn’t for everyone.

10.   A desire to improve.  Everyone should have this although in truth, some need it more than others.  That’s life!

They’re my top 10.  I’m sure there are loads more.  Keep your comments coming.  I love to receive and read them and so does everyone else.

10 Annoying Behaviours of the prima donna CEO


We’ve all seen it – the nightmare behaviours of the prima donna MD/CEO.  These are my personal favourites & I can’t wait to hear yours – so please add them in at the comments section below:

1.       Travelling in a different class to everyone else & expecting special treatment everywhere they go.  I used to work for a CEO that travelled business class when our start up could hardly make payroll some months.  Even worse – his PA was sworn to secrecy & if any team members happened to bump into him at the airport or getting on or off a plane, he used to pretend he’d been upgraded.  Pathetic.

2.       Being unable to as much as fart without the involvement of a long suffering PA.  I followed up with a Northern Ireland executive that I’d met in Washington DC about a mutual opportunity we’d discussed when we were in the USA.  He referred me to his PA to book a meeting with him.  I’ve never been back to him since.

3.       Going on & on about how brilliant they are & being the big “I am”.  Linked to this is telling everyone constantly that they are the CEO.  I used to work for a CEO in Belfast (some of you may know him, dear readers…) who at least once a day we would hear shouting from his office “But I am the CEO”…Boy how we used to roll around laughing at that.

4.       Hideous uncalled for temper tantrums.  One CEO I used to work for threw a chair at me one day – and I mean a proper typing chair with a solid metal base.  Had I physically attacked him.  No – I’d caught him in a bad moment & made some comment that he didn’t like & that was the result.  I managed to dodge the chair for anyone who’s wondering.

5.       Spending their investor/shareholder/VC money recklessly – how many times have we seen that?  $50k on a domain name, $150k on a booth used twice a year at conferences, flashy company car, unused apartment in Palo Alto that no-one in the team but the CEO is allowed to use and so on…complete waste of money & no-one dare say anything.

6.       Getting team members to do non job-related stuff for them.  One MD I worked for used to come in late to work & ring in for someone in the office to come out & first of all wait in the car park queue & then park her car.  If I ever get even slightly uppity, Paul says to me – “you’re getting more & more like X” – that puts me straight back into my reality box.  Same MD used to take a taxi from central London to Heathrow airport because she “didn’t like using the tube”.  Other examples of this might be asking members of your team to book personal travel for you or take your cleaning to the dry cleaners.  CEOs – do it yourselves!

7.       Dominating team brainstorming meetings with their own brilliance so that no-one else gets a look-in.

8.       Always hogging the limelight instead of encouraging others to have a go & try taking a lead every now & then.

9.       Leaving meetings when they’ve had their say – their time is clearly so valuable!

10.   Having ridiculous amounts of the latest technology gadgetry – half of which they don’t even know how to use.

I’m sure there are loads & loads more so let’s get them all out there.  This was an easy blog for me to write as I seem to have worked for more than my fair share of CEO assholes over the years (if you’re reading this John Thornton, you are not included in that pile!).  Having said that, it was one of my main drivers for starting my own business as I thought to myself, this really can’t be too hard if that asshole can do it!

Every cloud has a silver lining – oh yes it does


Last week, dear readers, I nearly killed my Mum.

Don’t worry – I haven’t started some peculiar matricide pursuit; it was an accident – but unforgivable never the less.

I took my family to Rome for a break & the temperature last Wednesday in the square in front of St Peter’s Basilica was a scorchio 44 degrees C.  Poor Mum collapsed with heat stroke inside St Peter’s & I eventually had to send for the doctor.  All’s well that ends well & she’s fine since returning to Donegal where our Irish summer temperatures are a good 30 degrees lower.  It didn’t half give me a scare & the stuff that went through my head in that hour & a half I’ve pushed away somewhere so I won’t have to think about it again.

The outcome was that Mum couldn’t go back out in that heat for the next few days – so my sister & I (that’s all of us in the photo) took it in turns to stay in our apartment with her.  No internet, no books apart from Rome guides in English, no English speaking programmes on the tv – how on earth would we pass the time?  Guess what – we resorted to conversation & I have to tell you it really wasn’t that bad.

I spent hours lying on the sofa listening to Mum telling me stories about things that happened in her lifetime & stuff she’d heard about when she was a child.  Some of it I’d heard before but a lot of it was brand new.  I heard about:

·         the Donegal friend of my grandmother who’d gone to see someone off to America and got on the boat herself, taking her mother’s elastic sided boots that she’d borrowed with her – my grandmother had to go back & break the news to the girl’s mother (I remember the same woman returning to Donegal for the first time in all those years when she was an old person when I was a child)

·         the day the soot fell down the chimney covering my sister who was in her cot beside the fire – moments before my grandmother was due to arrive to visit us in Yorkshire

·         all the jobs my father did as a teenager between leaving school & moving to England

·         the details of my parents wedding which had a guest list of 6 people plus the priest – my Mum is the only one of that group still alive

·         an escaped prisoner that my grandmother had given sanctuary to whilst my grandfather was in hospital in the early 1960s

·         stories from Mum’s working life as a clippie on the buses of South Yorkshire Transport between Doncaster & Barnsley in the 1950s

and loads of other interesting stuff.  We covered a lot of ground & it was thoroughly enjoyable.  So it’s true – every cloud has a silver lining & being offline for a few days really isn’t that bad.  Tell me some of your silver lining stories please.