Pete Carroll

The serendipity of life is marvelous.

On a family visit to the library I saw Grit (which I recently wrote about). In Grit there’s a story about the Seattle Seahawks, who Ryan Holiday had just visited. Head Coach Pete Carroll started Win Forever with Michael Gervais, who hosts the podcast, Finding Mastery, which has some great episodes, among them one with Pete Carroll. Here are my notes.

1/ Leaders need to support their troops. Carroll said that a fork-in-the-road moment (circa 1973) was when he started to ask his players what they thought they should practice.

“I’d just had a night meeting with the defensive backs and I had decided to ask the guys what they needed to work on. We had a great discussion. I was filling up the board with stuff that we could figure out in their individual periods. It was the best meeting I’d ever had. I was so fired up. I ran into Chester Caddus (the head coach, “as old school as you could get”). He said, ‘you don’t ever ask your players what they want to work on. You tell them, you’re the coach. I don’t want you to ever do that again.’ I was just crushed, but later I thought, maybe he doesn’t get it.”

Carroll had found the idea of decentralized command – when a leader trusts individuals to make the right choice. Note, this only works when there is top down support from those leaders. Caddus didn’t provide this, Carroll does.

During the Apollo 11 moon landing there was a lot of pressure. The Mission Control Flight Director Chris Kraft told Gerry Griffin “Young man, we don’t have to go to the moon today. It’s your call.”  That was important, wrote Gene Kranz, “The impact of Kraft immediately removed all political pressure from the decision. Griffin knew all he had to do was make the right technical call.”

Carroll does this too:

“When I help guys in our organization I’ll give them guidelines. ‘When we’re in a situation, it’s okay to do this, if it doesn’t work out I’m fine with that.’…If I’m not making the call, they’re making the call for me and I’m going to try to bolster their confidence to go for it…If you called it on my team, I’m the one that ultimately takes responsibility for it. So go for it.”

Having leaders that create this environment isn’t easy, but it’s often fruitful. Phil Knight created it at Nike. It’s how to build the world’s greatest airplane. It’s how you find Russian submarines. It’s how Jocko Willink teaches leadership.

Decentralized command is paramount when times are tough. In his book, Only the Paranoid Survive,  Andy Grove explains the value of engineers, salespeople, and factory managers having a say.

“They (middle management) usually know more about upcoming changes than the senior management because they spend so much time ‘outdoors’ where the winds of the real world blow in their faces.”

Ed Catmull echoed the value of decentralized command. He said about the University of Utah, “It was completely free and open. Great professors, and they weren’t micromanaging. It was like, okay, we’re at the front of the easter egg hunt, cut the line and let’s go.”

If you don’t know exactly which way to go, trust your people.

2/ Be there. “If I’m not living it, how can I expect anyone else to. It’s trying to be as involved and available as possible. You can’t sit on your butt and do that.”

Carroll has an open door policy. A lot of great leaders do, though it may not matter. A lot of great leaders aren’t ever in their office. They’re out there.

Coca-Cola people do this a lot. Neville Isdell went all over the world and into some harry situations to see what people were buying, how, when and where. In For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, Mark Pendergrast writes, “Doug Ivester liked to prowl the back alleys of the world to see where Coke was or was not. He spent a third of his time on the road.”

You have to go see it, smell it, eat it, and talk to customers between bites. (Not talking to customers means death).

Percy Fawcett had to be there to discover things (unlike what he called “armchair archeologists”.) John Nagl wrote about how being there is great military strategy. Samuel Zemurray was there to create a banana empire.

After John Chatterton found a U-Boat off the New Jersey shore, he walked through a similar one at a museum to get a feel for the ship.  Stanley McChrystal did the same thing, only substituting Afghan vineyards for the submarine.

3/ Process is greater than product. “The winning/losing thing. The judgment at the end of it. You can’t focus on that. If you focus on that you’re missing all the things that happen in the meantime. What really gets you there are the good plays, one after another. One step at a time. One thought at a time. If you believe and trust in that, the outcome will turn out the way you want it to.”

Process is more important than product because product is a liar.

Well, maybe it doesn’t lie, but it clouds the truth. Product is a touch random.

In this Michael Mauboussin post we looked at the role randomness plays. Randomness (alias: good/bad luck) is to some degree in everything. When that’s the case, we can’t know absolutely how our effort leads to an outcome.

fork-in-the-road-585348_640.jpgIt’s easier to figure out how you messed up chicken cacciatore than how you lost a football game. Carroll’s career has a fair bit of randomness and he needs to be especially careful. Attributing an outcome to skill when it was luck is like misreading a hiking sign and going down the wrong path.

Carroll avoids this by shifting his attention to process.

4/ Be relentless.  “When you’re a competitor you don’t rest. You’re either competing or you’re not. We’re in a relentless pursuit of finding the competitive edge in everything we’re doing, and that’s a mentality. You’re either competing or you’re not. You’re either working at doing better or you’re going in the wrong direction. You’ve got to be on. You can’t be too comfortable, you have to keep pushing.”

People who succeed are relentless.

Gary Vaynerchuk observed:

“The people that win with my content are the ones who suck out everything I say for a year or two, then put their head down for 18 hours a day and then pop back up 3 years later and start reading more content from me because they’ve taken the first step and now they’re looking how to get from one thousand to one million.”

Walt Disney was relentless. The girlfriend of an early animator said Disney “had the drive and ambition of ten million men.” Later on, when he married, Disney and his wife would go for a drive through the country that always ended at his studio. She would take a nap while he worked, but as she slept he would turn the clock back an hour. Then, when she woke, he would point out that it was still early and they could stay longer.

Anson Dorrance “despises nothing more than holidays,” and has for a long time. A schoolmate remarked, “the rest of us just wanted to make good enough grades to stay in school, play sports, drink beer, and pick up women, but Anson’s goals were greater. He was not just another guy in the dorm. He was very busy doing Anson things.”

Stephen King jokes that he only takes off three days a year (Christmas, July 4th, his birthday) because it makes for good copy. He really doesn’t. “The truth is that when I’m writing, I write every day.” Peter Thiel wrote that there are many secrets to find, “but they will only yield to relentless searchers.”

Why do you have to be relentless?

In absolute terms you need to get better at the thing you’re doing. Disney had to get better at animating. Dorrance better at communicating. King better at writing.

In relative terms you need to get better than anyone else. Catmull’s work on computers had to be better than everyone else’s. Grove’s microprocessors had to be better too. Carroll’s team is very vulnerable to relative changes.

One more thing, have you ever been to

5/ Culture. Given the right environment people “will function at a higher level. They’ll come in earlier. They’ll stay later. They’ll be more on it. They’ll inspire those around them. That’s the subtle way of improving an organization.”

Culture is a multiplier. Good culture is a 2.25X boost. Bad culture is a 0.8X drag.

Carroll talks a lot about good culture (like #1, how leaders support their troops; and #3 a focuses on process).

Thiel wrote, “no company has a culture, every company is a culture.” Early Nike, for example, was a group of “butt heads.” Culture is not offering Yoga or ping-pong. Culture, says Auren Hoffman is what makes you different. Culture can create things like Grit.

If you try to transplant culture like an organ it’s going to be rejected. I liked how Shane Parrish put it:

“You can’t just add 20% innovation time to your organization and expect you’re going to be Google. No, you have to understand what Google was doing. How it fit in their culture. Why it was part of their culture. Why it worked as part of their culture. And now why it’s stopped. And you further have to map it to the base rate.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

17 thoughts on “Pete Carroll”

  1. […] Pete Carroll also praises the value of getting the right conditions, noting that people, “will function at a higher level. They’ll come in earlier. They’ll stay later. They’ll be more on it. They’ll inspire those around them. That’s the subtle way of improving an organization.” […]


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