Belichick – Top-down support

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

It’s Super Bowl week and what better way to celebrate that dig into the thinking behind one of the coaches (and general manager) at the game? The posts this week come from this short book.

In my readings there were five big ideas that stood out:

  1. Inversion
  2. Pattern recognition
  3. Top-down support
  4. Argue well
  5. Seek counterfactuals

This post addresses the third point, top-down support

Even the best strategies fail in the wrong environments. Company politicking, promotions, or precedents can’t get in the way. Only the truth matters. That starts at the top.

Football hierarchy

If your boss fails to listen to you, any discussion is a wasted effort. Belichick listens to Adams. David Halberstam writes;

“He was one of the very few men that Bill Belichick liked to test his own view of the game against, trusting completely Adams’s truly original mind and encyclopedic knowledge of the game; if they differed in a strategy, if they came out on different sides – which happened rarely – then Belichick took Adams’s dissent seriously. He might not ultimately adapt to Adams’s view, but he would always weigh it carefully.”

It wasn’t only Adams that had Belichick’s ear, wide receiver coach Chad O’Shea said, “he wants you to disagree, he respects that, he listens.” Former assistant Scott Pioli said, “this is why Bill is so different than so many people…when he’s asking those questions, you know that every fiber in his body is about winning and doing what is best for the team, with no personal or selfish motives.”

Former assistant Scott Pioli said, “this is why Bill is so different than so many people…when he’s asking those questions, you know that every fiber in his body is about winning and doing what is best for the team, with no personal or selfish motives.”

Even the players saw this, “We’d say, ‘Why don’t we just go to our base stuff and beat them that way?’” said Rosevelt Colvin, “and sometimes he’d say, ‘Okay.’”

This top-down support held when the roles flipped, Belichick’s boss Robert Kraft listened to and supported him. Michael Holley writes in Patriot Reign that Kraft, “knew he could talk to Belichick without any charges of being a meddlesome owner.” This wasn’t always the case for Bill.

Art Modell of the Browns – the first owner Belichick worked for as a head coach –  didn’t know what was going on. He asked the players if Belichick was treating them well (Bill didn’t like this). He also offered $10,000 if anyone could tell him what Ernie Adams did.  

Bob Kraft is different. In 2001 – Belichick’s first draft with the team – he prepared to tell Kraft about why he was choosing certain players. Kraft said, “Bill, I just want you to do what you think is right.” It was a different kind of leadership for the coach and organization. It was support.

Going to space, piling on

When the Apollo 11 lunar mission was about to begin its translunar injection (trip to the moon), head of flight operations Chris Kraft told flight director Gerald Griffin, “Young man, we don’t have to go to the moon today. It’s your call.” This mattered, wrote fellow director Gene Kranz,  “it removed all political pressure from the decision. Griffin knew all he had to do was make the right technical call.”

This spirit at NASA manifested itself again during the Apollo 13 disaster. Kranz wrote, “With a team working in this fashion, not concerned with voicing their opinions freely and without worrying about hurting anyone’s feelings, we saved time.” That is, they got to the facts quickly.

Culture like this can’t be manufactured. Peter Thiel wrote, “no company has a culture, every company is a culture.” You are what you do.

NASA had the kind of top-down support to make the right choices because even though there was a lot of pressure on the flight crews, each boss focused on doing what was right, not what was popular.

Another demonstration of this comes from how Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz run the venture capital firm a16z. Regarded as one of the better firms in the business, part of the reason a16z succeeds is top-down support.

In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Andreessen explained that anyone in the company can bring a deal to the table, but nothing gets an automatic green light. “We’ll create a red team, a countervailing force of some set of people,” Andreessen said, “to stress test the thinking.”

That’s good, but not enough. Andreessen knows that because he’s the boss (the “a” in a16z is for Andreessen) people might support him just because of that. It’s the same situation as NASA and the Patriots. Employees can’t value pleasing the boss more than finding the facts. There’s a solution to this says Andreessen. “Ben and I do this to each other. Whenever he brings in a deal, I just beat the shit out of it. I may think it’s the best idea I’ve ever heard and I’ll just trash the crap out of it and try to get everybody else to pile on.”

Belichick supported disagreement from Adams and the coaches and created an environment where people are expected to express ideas that lead to wins. NASA flight directors supported their engineers by creating an environment where the most important thing was safety. The venture capital firm a16z supports an environment where no one feels pressure from the boss because the bosses take opposite sides.

In each case the leader sets the tone for hearing the truth. Once this culture exists it’s time to argue well.

Tomorrow we will argue well.

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