On a Thursday morning in October 2016, I found myself explaining American football to an international group of container ship Captains and Chief Engineers. They were from Denmark, South Africa, Bangladesh, India and beyond. We were in Copenhagen, and had been discussing motivating and measuring staff performance. The things they said reminded me of Alabama football.

I was the only woman in the room and the only American; they were skeptical at first. After several raucous minutes on the relative merits of American football versus soccer (which they call football) I broke it down:

“Look, you know how football (soccer) has offense and defense?”

“Yes,” they all nodded.

“Who scores?”

“Offense!” they unanimously replied.

“OK. This season Alabama’s defense scores more than many teams’ offenses. How do you do that? How do you motivate so much you change the game?”

Between September 3 and December 31 2016, in 14 games, 10 different University of Alabama football players scored 15 non-offensive touchdowns.

Here are three lessons leaders can take from Alabama’s defensive success this season:

1. Create a Game Within the Game

Alabama coaches created a game within the game to address a deficiency. In spring 2015, Alabama’s coaching staff sought to increase the defense’s turnover rate, ranked 65th in 2014.

The plan? Reward the defensive player who creates the most turnovers in Spring practices.
The prize? Coaches ordered a custom-made, wrestling-inspired, fully-blinged-out Alabama branded “Ball Out Belt.”

photo credit: 247 Sports


Explanations of the belt’s name differ, but its aim and prestige are clear. In an April 6, 2015 press conference linebacker Reggie Ragland said, “Whoever’s ballin’ that day is the champ.“ He held the belt during the press conference.

Ronnie Harrison with the Ball Out belt. Photo: Denon McMillan, 247Sports

This season the belt changes hands on the sidelines as player after player forces turnovers. Alabama running back Damien Harris explained the name saying, “the defensive coaches are big on getting the ball out. Strip the ball. Bust the ball. Rip the ball. Do something involving the ball. The ball. The ball. The ball.”

Whatever the explanation, the name fits and the focus is clear to both leaders and players: get the ball out of their hands and into ours.

At Alabama coaches saw potential to improve a very specific task that has had far reaching results. How can leaders translate this technique off the playing field?
What specific actions or tasks could your team improve or increase?
How will you measure these?

Leaders in the workplace often say that KPIs and Objectives do not measure the actions and behaviors they’d like to see from their teams day-to-day. Maybe it’s time to create your own count – like the Ball Out Belt. It’s an old adage: What gets measured gets done. What would you like to count or measure?


2. Let Them Run With It

Did the Ball Out Belt affect the turnover rate? It did. In 2015 Alabama’s defense ranked 13th with 27 turnovers. In 2016 so far they are 9th and playing for the National Championship on January 9.

Alabama’s award-winning defensive players have taken the goal one step further: don’t just get the ball. The new game has become: get the ball and then score.

This new strategy has led to a whopping 11 defensive touchdowns including 6-3, 294 pound Defensive End Jonathan Allen rumbling 75 yards for a touchdown after intercepting a fourth-quarter pass from Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly. AL defensive back Eddie Jackson called this, “one of the funniest things I have ever seen.”

 

3. Reward and Celebrate (Briefly, then Get Back to Work)

With all this talk of measures, it is important to remember to have fun. Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban often says in post-game press conferences that the team will celebrate for a day and then get back to work. He is known for his ass-chewing (his words) rants directed toward players, coaches and the media. All around him, though, people are having fun claiming the Ball Out Belt, seeing who will earn it next, even tweeting about it.


If there’s one overarching lesson here, it is this: Around the world, leaders often see the wrong kind of competition in the workplace – conflict, competing objectives, etc.  How can leaders foster healthy, supportive, fun competition that achieves real-world results and motivates your high performers ?

When you learn to motivate and connect your high performers, you can change the game entirely.

The guys in Copenhagen may not have been fully convinced of the merits of American football; they did leave with robust plans for their own teams. American football must have appealed, too, because as we concluded the discussion, Rob, a Chief Engineer from South Africa, said, “I have another question: What’s an RBI?”

 

Rebecca L. Self, Ph.D. has designed and delivered organizational development programs for non-profit, corporate, & entrepreneurial leaders in over 35 countries on 5 continents. She uses her doctorate in communication to transform cultures through leadership development.