How Hawkeyes from Iowa show Heart

Iowa Hawkeye fans wave to patients of Stead Family Children’s Hospital after the first quarter at a recent game. Photo by Jeffrey Becker, USA TODAY Sports Images

There is a new tradition happening in college football and many may not be aware of it. But on Saturdays in Iowa City, Iowa, more than 70,000 fans wearing their beloved Hawkeye black and gold (and probably even the visiting fans too), turn to the east and – if during the day – begin waving, and – if at night – wave and even include their lights on their mobile phones.

However, they’re not waving their team onto the field or participating in a school fight song. Instead, they are waving to those who are already doing battle without any pads on, but with courage in their hearts. The Iowa faithful are waving at patients and their families in the newly opened University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital next door.

A Facebook fan suggestion has turned into one of the coolest, most sincere, perhaps most touching and gentle traditions for a sport where opponents crash and collide into each other with brute force. But at the end of the first quarter, there it is … tens of thousands waving to the tenth floor of the hospital, where the children and their families are watching the Hawkeyes from above. For these children and families, their daily battle may involve cancer, cystic fibrosis and diabetes (read more about some of these brave patients), but for just a moment, they are able to feel like normal kids, joining in with thousands of others on Saturday in the fall, rooting on their favorite team.

Given the theme of the blog, what communication tips can be taking from this sentimental sports story? Three important ones:

  1. The Big Picture: While they play a game below, the patients above are fighting for their lives. Instead of pretending they have a bubble inside the stadium, they realize there are those facing more serious situations right over their shoulder, and pausing during the game day festivities to recognize those brave individuals above. In the workplace, it’s easy to get caught up in just your individual task or what your team is doing. But taking a step back to see how your contribution can be part of the larger picture, or how you help solve a bigger problem, will ensure you always have a profound perspective.
  2. Inclusion: It would be easy for the football program or even the fans to forget about what building is looming over them or the tenants inside. However, instead of turning their backs, they turn their hands back and forth, helping to include the children and their families as part of the larger game-day family, providing a brief bit of normalcy in their daily fight. At work, don’t forget those who may be on the periphery as well. Ensuring the broader team is updated and feels they are part of the project will help ensure that everyone is not only on the same page, but an invested part of the process – and success.
  3. It’s Never Too Late: Usually traditions have been something already occurring over time. However, Iowa’s new tradition is just a few weeks old and one that is sure to have staying power. In our jobs, just because it hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean something new cannot be created with a lasting impact. Stay innovative and keep thinking of new ways to enhance any experience. The best traditions may be ones waiting to be discovered at any moment.

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The K-State Way: Improve A Little Bit Every Day

K-State's 'family' ties propelled the team to a 2016 Texas Bowl championship. Photo by Bo Rader, Wichita Eagle

K-State’s ‘family’ ties propelled the team to a 2016 Texas Bowl championship. Photo by Bo Rader, Wichita Eagle

Kansas State (K-State) Coach Bill Snyder did it again. He took a team with little to no expectations – picked 8th in the 10-team Big 12 – along with having the youngest squad in his 25 years with the school and finished fourth in the league, capping the season with a win in the 2016 Texas Bowl. Their 9-4 season marked the 14th time in his 25-year tenure with K-State in which his football team has won 9 or more games. That’s 56 percent of the time; not bad for regular winning percentage, but almost unbelievable for a percentage of winning nearly double-digit games for a quarter of a century.

Fans may also point out that the 2016 team is also the unofficial Texas State Champs, defeating all five Power 5 conference teams they played from the state: Baylor, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech and Texas A&M.

So how does he (and K-State) do it, and what can any company or organization learn from it? The secret is not one at all, but rather very public: 16 Goals for Success:

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16 goals. In our daily world, it may be a lot to remember. But I believe if you focus on one in particular, the rest will follow: Goal No. 4: Improve Every Day. Or as Coach Snyder often says, “Improve just a little bit every day.”

This helps large tasks seem manageable and puts you on a path of continued improvement, constant focus, and relentless determination.

Not sure how you’ll achieve a 365-pecent increase in sales for the year? “Improve just a little bit every day” and aim for only 1 percent per day. By the end of the year, you’ll have met your goal.

How do I even start putting together a strategic plan for 2017? “Improve just a little bit every day” and start with only three objectives you want to accomplish; it will build momentum and likely spur more ideas for a well-developed plan.

How do I keep up with the trends in my industry when new items are developing seemingly every day? “Improve just a little bit every day” and pick one to focus on; you’ll become a specialist on that item, carving out a niche for yourself and your newfound expertise.

While we embark on a new year many will inevitably attempt resolutions to stop something, start something, or try something else. However, focusing on measurable ways of “improving just a little bit every day” will truly show you how far you’ve come and 2017 will be marked as a year of growth and accomplishment instead of possible regret and underachievement.

And while you may not make 16 goals for yourself in the new year, or lead a team to a bowl win, by “improving just a little bit every day” you will accomplish one thing: become a resounding success.

How Paint Made People Lose Their Minds

HOF Pres David Baker_Cantonrep.com Scott Heckel)

Brow of Embarrassment. NFL Hall of Fame President David Baker wipes his forehead prior to an interview. Baker and the Hall of Fame had to cancel their preseason game to due poor field conditions created by using the wrong type of paint. Photo by Cantonrep.com, Scott Heckel)

This is what happens when an exhibition is supposed to be played by athletes making millions of dollars in an organization worth billions of dollars. When the game cannot take place, analysts call for others to lose their jobs, calls of ineptitude abound, and finger pointing runs rampant.

Sunday, Aug. 7 was a busy day in sports which included baseball players Ichiro Suzuki reaching 3,000 hits and A-Rod announcing his retirement,  golfer Jim Furyk hitting a PGA Tour record round of 58, and U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky smashing her own world record in the Olympics, which looked something like the image below; note: she’s on the far right.

Katie Ledecky_ESPN

She gone! U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky blows away the field in her Olympic race as she breaks her own world record.

In addition, there was a furor created when the NFL had to cancel its “Hall of Fame” preseason game in Canton, Ohio between the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts.

The stadium was brand new, the field was brand new, and unfortunately, so was the paint, which the wrong kind was applied just 12 hours earlier. This proved to be key sticking point, literally. Players and coaches complained that parts of the field either felt like concrete or felt like running in tar. In technical terns, the paint congealed and wouldn’t allow a cleat to penetrate it. As a result, the game was canceled.

Yes, fans paid their money and spent their time to be there. Yes, the game was supposed to be the culmination of celebrating the latest Hall of Fame class of players inducted the night before. Yes, there is no excuse to not have a field ready when the date has been determined a year in advance.

When a crisis like this occurs and an audience needs to be addressed – in this case the millions watching at home and the thousands in attendance – it can be a complicated dance. However, here are three things the NFL Hall of Fame actually did well in announcing the result of their crisis, taking the hit head on*:

  1. Front and Center: Often when things go awry, it’s easy to blame outside factors or even hide your organization’s top leaders. The NFL HOF had their President, David Baker, address the crowd directly and then proceeded with follow-up interviews.
  2. Simple Messaging: Instead of listing a complicated technical explanation of why the field wasn’t ready or how paint couldn’t dry, Baker simply did the following:
    1. Explained to the crowd why the game was being cancelled (poor field conditions created by the paint)
    2. Reinforced key messages (safety is our main priority)
    3. Informed customers how they would be compensated (refund policy)
    4. Outlined what actually would take place that evening (still honor new Hall of Famers, previously scheduled halftime performance would still take place, just earlier).
  3. Rinse and Repeat: In subsequent interviews, he stayed on point – admittedly and rightfully embarrassed – to explain the situation, express regret, and vow to correct the problem in the future.

Even with these three “rights,” there was one awkward matter that still occurred. Those closest to the action were the last to know … it was announced on TV the game was being cancelled nearly a full hour before fans inside of the stadium were told. Oh well, as they say in sports, there’s always next year.

 

*Pun not intended; the NFL has serious concussion issues which is a whole other topic altogether.

The Play That Helped the Tide Roll

Bama

Alabama’s tide rolled to is fourth title in seven years. (Photo by AP)

Last night we saw the University of Alabama Crimson Tide capture their fourth national title in the past seven years. However, it boiled down to one play based on planning and communication; both what was said, and what body language tried to hide. It went a little something like this (via SB Nation):

A routine kickoff became a trick play that turned the game’s tide solely in Alabama’s favor. Read this breakdown of how many things had to go right to pull it off, including the player catching the pass actually dropping it half the time in practice.

Special teams may sometimes be considered the stepchild to the offense and defense in American football, but more often than not, it plays the biggest role in shifting momentum within the game.

The Alabama coaches had a plan if they saw Clemson in a certain formation on kickoffs. Sure enough, with the game tied in the fourth quarter and just over 10 minutes to play, it was time to try it. In summation:

  • The kicker began his approach just like any other kickoff; then suddenly altered the direction of the kick at the last second.
  • The receiver – who is actually a defensive back on the team (don’t worry, this stuff happens on special teams) – started running his route like a normal kickoff. He suddenly altered his route to the outside just after the ball was kicked.
  • The ‘receiver’ caught the kick in midair and then bolted out of bounds to secure the ball for Alabama.

Simply, they saw a different formation that matched their trick pay, so they executed their plan. Some may call it genius, but at its core it is about having a plan for different scenarios. When the opportunity presents itself, implement the plan that gives you the advantage.

This is true for any communications plan. In this instance, they not only verbally communicated on the sideline, but the players also had to master their non-verbal skills until the right time to help pull the play off.

While many things have to go right in those scenarios, ultimately the better plan, and the core practice it has been given, prevails. Even if it only works half the time in ‘practice,’ from Alabama’s football team to your communications team, anyone can follow the same game plan:

  • The stakes are high
  • You trust your players and have instilled confidence in your team
  • You communicate the plan and the players understand their important roles
  • It catches your opponent by surprise
  • Take the shot

Hockey player Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” Alabama took their shot and once again, the ‘Tide is Rollin.’

 

 

 

‘Fear Nothing, Attack Everything’

EBerry1
(Photo: kcchiefs.com)

Two hundred and forty-seven days. That’s how long it’s been since Kansas City Chiefs defender Eric Berry went from beginning his journey against cancer to, remarkably, reporting back for training camp. After their game against the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 20, it was discovered that a lump in Berry’s chest was not just an injury from the field, but rather a much larger affliction: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Fast forward to this week on July 28 when Berry addressed the media after practice on his first day back. He sat at a table with his father, James, and his mother, Carol. He took his audience through a journey that none of us had any insight on, until now. Berry described the tears, the struggles, the challenges of six rounds of chemotherapy (Dec. 10 – May 13), and the goal of just trying to do five push-ups a day.

Berry also talked about his decision to take chemotherapy directly into his veins so that he could still work out and stay in shape for football. As a result, his veins now have track marks all over them, but Berry knew that was going to happen if he chose that option. This is a person who amazingly gained a pound during treatment.

After hearing the initial news, many rallied around Berry to support him on his journey, not knowing how long it would last. At the same time, I couldn’t but help feel a personal connection to him, only because I had begun a similar journey as well. On Nov. 20 – the last game Berry would play that season – I had just undergone my seventh (of 19) radiation treatments for testicular cancer. Of course Berry is an elite athlete playing at the highest level. My athletic career has peaked at adult soccer leagues and corporate challenge events. However, we do have several things in common: being young, healthy, fit individuals, who didn’t see it coming, but yet tried to attack cancer with the same vigor, and having an overwhelming support system behind us.

EBerry2
(Photo: CSM/Landov)

In June, I had my second round of checkups to see how the treatment and my body’s resolve were fighting off cancer. Turns out my blood levels were looking great and so far, there was no emergence of additional lymph nodes that looked like trouble. Still, I have four more years of checkups just to be sure. Later that month, on June 22, Berry also received good news at his checkup: he was cancer free.

Just 36 days later, incredibly, he was reporting to training camp for another NFL season. Only this time, he was starting the year as not the biggest, but perhaps the toughest player in the league.

There are many great takeaways from Berry’s last nine months. Sticking with the theme of this blog, here some great communication learnings stemming from the messaging he provided upon his return:

  • Address the Issue Up Front: Rather than let any questions linger, Berry and the Chiefs smartly held a press conference for media on Day 1. This helped everyone hear from him, ask the questions they needed, and to collectively begin moving forward with the season. Most importantly, it let his audience know that he is okay.
  • Include Your Support System: Berry included two of his main champions of support: his mom and his dad. Having them also describe what they went through helped to provide additional perspectives and insights into the positive network they helped create for him during treatment.
  • It Can Pay Off to Get Personal: Berry opened himself up on his personal feelings, thoughts, and struggles during treatment. In doing so, he humanized himself even more, connected with his audience, and perhaps whether he knew it or not, helped others cope who may also be facing similar challenges.
  • Let Your Story Provide Natural Speaking Points: As far as Berry knew, he was just telling his audience his experience over the past nine months. However, in telling that story, the audience heard so much more. They heard a message of shock, concern, struggle, and being scared. But they also heard a message of support, strength, resilience, and recovery. Yes, there are times when prepared “talking points” are certainly needed, but sometimes the most impactful points are ones that others interpret for themselves.

Finally, many who heard or have read Berry’s words on Tuesday took away some of the same things, but they also most likely each took away something different. Personally, four words stuck out to me that I feel not only summarize his journey, but that I can use as I continue on my own. They serve as a final takeaway no matter what struggles or obstacles any of us may face in life. When in doubt, just remember: “Fear Nothing, Attack Everything.”

Seattle’s Fine Line of Risk and Reward in Super Bowl 49

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas, USATODAY Sports

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas, USATODAY Sports

Twenty seconds left to go in the game. One yard to go for the game-winning touchdown. The possibility to clinch back-to-back championships with a running back nicknamed “Beast Mode” on the field. Given this scenario, it seems like a simple play call: with three downs to go, hand the ball to the running back until he gets into the end zone…or until he doesn’t, but at least give him the ball.

Instead, during Super Bowl XLIX, the Seattle Seahawks elected to attempt a risky inside slant pass to try to beat the New England Patriots. Their reward? An undrafted rookie for the Patriots broke on the ball, intercepted it in the end zone, and essentially sealed the victory for New England. If there was ever an instance of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, this was it. In those few seconds, the emotions of two teams, two cities, two fan bases, and the millions watching on TV changed instantly.

What followed was shock and dismay at what seemed to be the most mind-boggling play call in Super Bowl history. However, if that play works, Seattle’s Coach Pete Carroll perhaps looks brilliant, calling a “gutsy” play (football term for risky) that no one expected. Now, we’re talking about one of the “dumbest” play calls in recent Super Bowl memory.

The same situation can occur in your business. You may have a great track record and look like a genius. However, if you take huge risk that doesn’t work out – one that looks like a super blunder – you suddenly appear to be woefully under qualified. In this situation, people may react in many different ways. Coach Carroll took the admirable route, and quite frankly, the best route to take: he put the blame on himself.

“That’s my fault, totally,” Carroll said after the game.

Marshawn Lynch, the Beast Mode waiting for the ball in the backfield also took the high road. When asked if he was surprised he didn’t get the ball, he responded: “No…because football is a team sport.”

Two of the biggest leaders on the team refrained from pointing fingers. These individuals and the rest of the team may get back to the big game next year. They may never reach it again. But even though the risk they took didn’t work out, costing them the game, it’s how they handled it that showed the true measure of their championship character.

After all, this is a franchise that took a risk on a twice-failed NFL head coach (Carroll) and drafted a 5’11” quarterback. Seattle’s reward? A combination that has helped them reach back-to-back Super Bowls and – even after that stinging loss – has made them favored once again to win it all next year.

Three main takeaways from Seattle’s situation:

  • Measure Your Risk vs. Reward: Businesses are based on taking risks; just be sure if your risk fails, there’s a backup plan so you don’t bottom out.
  • If it’s your fault, shoulder the blame: No one like being thrown under the bus and it’s pretty hard to accomplish your goals if you’re the only one left standing.
  • Fail fast so you can recover quickly: Getting in the same position again – and doing it differently – is the only way to get over it.

Why ‘DeflateGate’ is Dumb

Brady4

Is this a face you can trust?

This week sports channels, social media, and even news sources like CNN, The Huffington Post, and TIME Magazine (!?!) are weighing in on what is being called “DeflateGate;” the latest term to be presumed a scandal because “gate” is used after the root word. For those unfamiliar, the premise is this: The NFL found that the New England Patriots used 11 footballs that were underinflated in their AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.

A game that resulted in a 45-7 victory for the Patriots sending them to the Super Bowl and the Colts home to a state split into two different time zones. The brouhaha or hullabaloo producing the outlandish outrage is that the Patriots, who are no stranger to controversy (Google: Spygate), purposely cheated to gain an advantage. While the head coach may not have known, Tom Brady, the quarterback, probably, likely, should have known the balls were not up to game regulation.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I write this, there are 8,040,000 results that populated when Googling the term “DeflateGate.” There have been press conferences, current and former players weighing in, and endless chatter … all about the amount of air in a ball. First-world problems, much?

From a communications perspective, much is being made about Tom Brady’s press conference, where he stated:

  • “I didn’t alter the ball in any way … I have a process I go through before every game.”
  • “I would never do anything outside of the rules of play.”
  • “This is a serious thing.”

All while trying to keep a straight face while wearing in a stocking cap with a fuzzy ball on top, indoors.

Sometimes he couldn’t’ help himself such as when he was asked if he was a cheater. After finally cracking, he pauses, licks his lips, and then answers “I don’t think so.” Body language experts would tell you this reaction means two things: He’s lying! Or he’s just nervous. (Never mind the ironic “Flexball” sponsorship in the background during an issue in which the pressure of the football seems to be exactly that: flexible).

Maybe Brady was laughing not because he was lying (maybe he was) or nervous (despite his ability to calmly stare down 300-lb men trying to do him bodily harm every Sunday). Maybe he realized how ridiculous Deflategate had become and was laughing at the lunacy of the whole spectacle; the same way most of our six-year-old selves chuckle every time we hear something about “deflated balls” while this is being discussed.

But the bottom line is this: The Colts lost by a 35-point pounding. Not by a controversial “tuck rule” fumble (also involving the Patriots). Not by a narrowly missed field goal. Not by that one touchdown pass that could have only been thrown and caught because there was a smidge less air in the ball.

The Patriots blew the Colts right out of the barn. Even if you take the 18 points off the board from the touchdowns that Brady threw, the Patriots still had a commanding 17-point victory.

So from a communications standpoint, what can be learned from Deflategate? Simple: Any and everything can and will be used to fill up a 24-7 news cycle leading up to “the big game.” Just be smart enough to block some of it out and keep things in perspective.