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Lessons Learned from Jimbo Fisher (Not in the Good Way)

By Jim Moody

Lessons Learned from Jimbo Fisher (Not in the Good Way)

I love college football. I love it more when my team is winning, but I literally could watch any college football game and get into it. The raw emotion, the traditions each school brings to the table – it’s just more compelling to me than any other sport. So, I read a lot about it. I was browsing The Athletic one day and found an article about the implosion of Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M that was interesting but also had really important business implications.

If you don’t know, Jimbo Fisher was a national-championship coach lured away from Florida State for a humongous sum of money. The contract was guaranteed – he was going to get the money whether he was successful or not. Ultimately, he was not successful and got sent away with a check for $77 million.

Most of us don’t have that kind of safety net. We also don’t have such obvious ways to determine if we are successful as the scoreboard at the end of a game. Sure, we can know if we are profitable or not. We can even measure if we are more profitable than we were last year. But those numbers are in a vacuum. We frequently don’t know how other similar businesses are really doing. But Jimbo certainly knew his team was not performing well.

After finishing his worst season at 5-7, he was asked what he would do differently. According to the article in The Athletic, he crossed his arms and said, “There’s nothing wrong with what we are doing.”

The implication here is that even when everyone else saw a dumpster fire, he was unwilling to admit that the path he led everyone down went to the wrong one. The environment he lived in changed around him, and he was either unable or unwilling to change.

I see this all the time in our industry. It’s probably true elsewhere, but my experience is in building materials and manufacturing, so I’ll just comment on that.

Typically, there is an autocratic leader who has taken the company great strides. That style of leadership worked for a long season. But as we age, we become convinced that strategies that worked for us previously are going to work in the future. The problem is that the world is changing. The housing market is not the same as it was before. Consumers are not the same as they were before. The home builder has certainly changed. Technology has changed. Competition has changed. Do you find yourself playing the current version of Trivial Pursuit but giving answers that were correct in 1983? It’s not a winning strategy.

When we fail to adapt as leaders, we put our companies at risk.

Jimbo also believed he could do it all on his own. He was an offensive guru at one time, and he made himself the main playcaller for the Aggies. Meanwhile, offensive strategy evolved, and he did not. You can guess what happened to his outdated offense. He failed to recognize that he had too much on his plate and that his ability to keep up with the top offensive thought leaders was less than ideal. He should have hired someone else to do that job, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it until it was too late. Similarly, I see autocratic leaders who become constraints in their companies. You can only slice yourself so thin, and when the company grows you can’t grow your own capacity. Unless you are willing to hire a great team around you and delegate, the company can’t grow beyond your own capacity to juggle balls.

Finally, Jimbo failed as a leader because he was unable to rally the program around a common goal. As one staffer put it, “There isn’t a clear vision. What’s our messaging? What’s our vision? How do we sell it? What’s our program about? Everybody just does their own thing.”

Can you survive in business that way? Yes, we’ve all seen it. But when you do that, are you winning or losing? Unfortunately, there is no scoreboard to tell us. We may score points (meaning we’re profitable), but other teams may be scoring much more than we are. A real leader works with the team to create a plan that everyone can rally around. Everyone knows what role they have to play and what the expectations are. Everyone knows why their position is important to the team, and they all know where the goal line is. Otherwise you have half the team lining up for a pass play while the other half is lined up for a run.

While it may sound nice to walk away with a big paycheck for failing and not have to worry about anything the rest of your life, most of us are not in that situation. We have employees who depend on us. We have families who depend on us. Sometimes we have shareholders or even communities that are vested in our success. Few of us can afford to follow the Jimbo Fisher leadership plan.

If you see yourself in Jimbo Fisher’s mirror, there are some things you can do to get on the right track. Being honest with yourself about your own leadership and skillset is the first step. Creating a strategic plan with your team is certainly important as well. Somewhere in there you might consider creating a true leadership team to create capacity and fill in the gaps you don’t bring to the table (and yes, we all have gaps).

You may not have Jimbo Fisher’s safety net, but you have the emotional intelligence to ensure that you don’t flame out like he did.


Jim Moody

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