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Letter to Leaders

On Business, Leadership & The Stanley Cup

To know me is to know I’m a hockey fan. I went to my first game at the age of 8, in 1970.   I’ve been a fan of Los Angeles Kings, a team that had an unsurpassed history of futility since their  founding in 1967.  To be a Kings fan is to live with a lifetime of frustration, a lot of hope, and not much else.

This spring, however, something unusual happened.  The Kings not only made it to the playoffs, they won the Holy Grail of hockey: The Stanley Cup.  A team that was nowhere in December made an epic move through the last third of the season, culminating in an unprecedented run through the playoffs to win hockey’s Championship.

To know me is to also know I’m a fan of great leadership and management; it’s my career.  Since June 11 (the night the Kings won the Cup at Staples Center), I’ve been thinking about what the Kings did to transform their entire organization from a history of “almosts” and ‘could haves’ into a Stanley Cup champion.  And I realized that what the Kings did can apply to any manager, CEO, or business. 

So, in no particular order, here are the reasons the Kings won the Stanley Cup and how you can apply those lessons to your own business.

#1: Switch in coaches

On December 12, 2011, the Kings fired their coach about one-third into the season.

Sometimes a coach or manager can only take a team to a certain level. And then, you need someone else to take the team to next level. Prior to the season, the Kings were favored to be a contender for the Stanley Cup.  But three months into the year, they were mired in 12th place in the Western Conference and last in the entire league in goals scored.  After losing four games in a row, General Manager Dean Lombardi fired Terry Murray.

During his four year tenure, Murray did a marvelous job teaching fundamental defense to the players. And his calm, professorial demeanor stabilized a young team during their developing years.  By all accounts, Murray was and is a fine person and a good hockey mind.  But by December, it was clear the Kings were struck on offense and lacked passion. Murray had taken the team as far as he was capable of.

Darryl Sutter, Murray’s replacement, came in and immediately changed the dynamic of the team. By demanding more accountability from his players (star defenseman Drew Doughty was the subject of a Sutter-esque rant when the former was caught watching television between periods of a game), Sutter set a tone: no exceptions, no excuses.  Sutter also installed a more aggressive style, including a consistent and frequent forecheck and more strategic attitude. The Kings took a several days to adjust to the change, and then started winning.  A team that was just one game over .500 when Murray was fired went 25-13-11 under Sutter, and then 16-4 in the playoffs.

What’s the lesson?

The first lesson is – Just because a manager was good at one time doesn’t mean they’re the right person today.   Time and circumstances change – we’ve seen fundamental and structural change in business in the past four years.  It’s likely your business is substantially different today than it was 4 years ago.  Have your managers adapted as well?  Adapting to change is critical for management and leadership success.

A second lesson is in management style.  Some managers are capable of starting and developing a team from scratch, and others are better suited for taking an existing team to the next level.

The most success I ever had as a manager came when I took over an existing team of sales people in 1996. The team was good but not great. I was able to take the team to the next level, and they became the top sales team in the company. It’s a lesson I’ve seen through my career.

When was the last time you identified your current needs and criteria for your company that’s aligned with a serious business strategy?  And then when did you ensure those needs were in sync with the capabilities of  your management team?

By the way, one of the best stories I’ve heard was seriously underreported by the press.  After the Kings won the cup, team owner Philip Anschutz personally called Terry Murray to inform him he was going to receive a Stanley Cup ring.  A class move that shows the Kings understood and appreciated the value Murray brought to the team.

#2:  The Trade for Jeff Carter

By February 23, the Kings were playing better but still not scoring goals.  General Manager Lombardi then traded one of his young star defensemen, Jack Johnson, to Columbus for winger Jeff Carter.

This was a gamble.  Carter had been essentially run out of Philadelphia due to differences with management.  And he was desperately unhappy in the hockey outpost that’s known as Columbus.  But he’d also scored 30 or more goals in his previous four seasons, including 46 in 2008-09.  His best friend, Mike Richards, had been traded to the Kings at the beginning of the season.  It was a gamble, but there was reason for hope.

Carter didn’t add much scoring during the regular season – just 6 goals and 3 assists in 16 games.  But he changed the dynamic of the team by allowing players to move into a more natural position.  For example, rookie Dwight King, who had been playing on the second line, moved down to the third line to accommodate Carter.  Other players moved into a position that was a better fit for their skills.

By the time the playoffs came, the Kings were ready.  Carter scored 8 goals and 5 assists in the 20 playoff games, including the overtime winner in game #2 of the finals.  King scored five goals in the playoffs and was a decisive physical presence on the third line.

What’s the lesson?

Do you have the right people in the right positions? 

Aligning talent with need is one of the most fundamental yet underused techniques that human resource professionals’ or executives have at their disposal.

In businesses I work with, we first take a look at the overall business strategy, and then I have each manager rank employees based on employee skill set as it pertains to the needs of the job.  Smaller businesses today need nimble, agile employees who are capable of multi-tasking and enjoy performing diverse tasks.  Larger companies need employees who are skilled at individual positions. 

But every company must constantly re-assess their business strategy and needs with the employees who are doing those jobs.  And then, executives can’t be afraid to make the moves necessary to strengthen the team and better align skills and needs.

#3:  The Kings Went Without Significant Injury Throughout the Playoffs

You might think these sounds like a reason that could only apply to a sports team and not a business. 

You’d be wrong.

Larry Robinson is a winner.  A hall-of-famer player and former NHL head coach, Robinson was named the 24th greatest player in NHL history by The Hockey News.  He won the Stanley Cup six times as a defenseman with the Montreal Canadiens; as a Coach, he won the Stanley Cup as both as Assistant Coach and then Head Coach of the New Jersey Devils.

When he was the Head Coach for the Kings in the late 1990’s, I asked him what the most critical component necessary to win the Stanley Cup.  His surprising response was, “keeping the team healthy for the entire season and playoffs”.

During the 2012 playoff run, the Kings only suffered one injury, when fourth-line winger Kyle Clifford suffered a concussion in the opening series against Vancouver.  Other than that, no player missed any significant playing time due to injury.  In fact, the Kings played the same six defensemen in every game of the playoffs – a feat that hadn’t been done for 30 years.

What’s the lesson?

I’d never thought of the importance of a healthy team to business success until Robinson mentioned it.  But think about it – if you’re constantly replacing employees, you’ll never achieve the momentum and consistency needed for sustainable success in business.  Turnover – especially involuntary turnover – is a killer for any business.  Many businesses have the mentality that “we can always get better employees if someone doesn’t work out”.  That may be true – and there are always people who are willing and in some cases, able, to step up.  But the never ending process of recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and onboarding takes executive focus away from the success of the business; not to mention the significant costs involved.

There is a real need for business today to focus on engagement. That means understanding why you’re hiring, who you’re hiring, and then developing and nourishing a culture where talented individuals can thrive and contribute – and stay long enough to make the impact necessary for everyone’s success.  Don’t get your employees injured – get good people and keep them healthy!

#4: Your Best Players Have To Be Your Best Players

Every sportscaster beat this line to death during the playoffs.  But it happens to be true.  In business, think of it as the old 80/20 rule: 80% of your success is attributable to 20% of your talent.

The Kings’ biggest goals were scored by their best players – Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.  That’s not to denigrate huge contributions by others.  And every Kings player points to one reason the Kings won the Stanley Cup – goaltender Jonathan Quick.  Quick, who carried the team on his 26-year-old shoulders during the regular season, was ridiculously good during the playoffs, with 1.41 goals against average and a .946 save percentage.  Quick was named the Conn Smythe winner for the most outstanding player in the playoffs.

So the Kings best players were their best players.

What’s The Lesson?

What about your players?  Who are your best players, and who are your high potential players for the future?  Do each of your managers know who they are, and what – strategically – are you doing to develop them for the future?

The challenge in today’s business environment is that your best employees can always find a job elsewhere.  The last thing you want is to have them (or your high potentials) get up and leave.  These are your leaders.  Good companies develop special programs to train, develop, and ensure their success.  They frequently conduct ‘stay interviews’ to see what makes those employees engaged and satisfied.  You rely on your best players.  Don’t just hope they stay – make sure they stay.

#5: Adversity Breeds Success

One of my favorite maxims in business is that adversity breeds success.  If your managers and executives know it, they can use it to their advantage.

The Kings certainly have known adversity throughout their history.  One of many people who have had to deal with that over the years is Luc Robitaille.  Now the President of Business Operations for the Kings, Robitaille was a star player for the organization from 1986 to 1994, then from 1997-2001, and finally from 2003 until his retirement in 2006.

Robitaille had his share of adversity. In addition to playing – and never winning – during his Kings career, he was never supposed to be an NHL player.  Due to a (perceived) lack of skating ability, he was selected all the way down in the 9th round of the 1984 entry level draft – the 171st player taken.  Robitaille proved everyone wrong – he was the 1986 Calder Trophy winner as rookie-of-the-year.  No player at at his position (left wing) – in the history of the sport – has scored more goals than Luc.  He was selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.

I had a brief chat with Luc during Game #3 of the finals.  He was slightly preoccupied but told me that the years of losing would make the Stanley Cup even sweeter, more desirable and intense for Kings’ fans.  (During one of his stints away from the Kings, he won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings.)  His point was that Los Angeles fans could truly appreciate winning the cup after 45 years of adversity.  He was right.  And the players fed off the hunger of the fans.  Veteran sports journalists repeatedly said they had never heard a Los Angeles sports venue louder than during the playoff run. 

Barry Melrose, the former Kings’ coach and now ESPN commentator, made a number of insightful points about the Kings during the playoffs.  At one point he was asked if it would help by having three players in their lineup who had previously won the Stanley Cup.  Melrose was emphatic.  “No,” he said.  “It’s more important that the Kings have five players who made it to the finals and lost.  They know what it’s like, having been so close and not winning.  Those will be the leaders.”

What’s The Lesson?

Adversity doesn’t breed contempt; if managed properly, it can breed more success than you thought possible.  Great leaders don’t avoid or fear trouble; they embrace it.  In sports, championship teams often become more closely bound during a losing streak (such as the Kings).  Many great coaches know this and use it to their advantage.

The path to greatness almost always must go through some adversity.  Once a team – whether it be your team or the Los Angeles Kings – hits a snag in the road, it’s up to the leader to direct them out and towards success.  Dean Lombardi and Daryl Sutter did just that, along with players who had character and attitude and the core values instilled in them by Terry Murray.

I was at Staples Center during the decisive Game 6 of the finals.  There was nothing close about the game; the Kings were ahead 3-0 after the first period and cruised to a 6-1 win.  During the third period, I kept looking around in disbelief.  I first got my season seats in 1987.  After 25 years of season seats and spending 40 of my 50 years expecting the Kings to lose, it was a surreal scene.  One fan said he kept trying to see where Rod Serling was.  A team with a history of losing and with no expectation of success had won the Stanley Cup.

The leadership decisions the Kings made changed their culture and won a championship.    Culture doesn’t just happen; it must be intentional.  These are the decisions that transformed the Kings – and that also can transform your business.


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