I recently had the opportunity to spend two days behind the curtain observing Head Coach James Franklin and the Penn State Football program. If that wasn’t magical enough, I had the unparalleled opportunity to speak to the team.
To say this was meaningful and memorable would be an understatement. Coach Franklin and his elite staff represent everything that is right about college athletics. Having inherited a once iconic program that had been decimated by scandal and turmoil, they have created, developed, and fostered the type of believe-in, cohesion, and culture every organization on the planet should aim to emulate.
Here are 7 Lessons Every Business Should Learn from Penn State Football and Coach James Franklin:
- That which gets praised… gets repeated. Coach Franklin goes out of his way to praise his staff and players and he does so with specificity (“Your footwork on that route was excellent” instead of the generic and overplayed, “Nice job.”). At the end of practice, he acknowledged the team as whole, several individual players, several coaches and even went out of his way to show strong appreciation for the team managers (the unsung heroes). He does a phenomenal job of balancing praise with constructive feedback so that his team has high confidence… without ever getting complacent.
- That which gets emphasized… gets improved. Coach Franklin has instilled four core values: Positive attitude, work ethic, compete, and sacrifice. But they don’t just have them; they live them. These four values are posted everywhere throughout their facility (locker room, film room, meeting room, weight room, hallways, etc.) and are talked about daily. Most of the praise mentioned in #1 is tied to one of these core values. Every member of the team knows, embraces, and aims to excel in these four areas. He also leads by example. If he expects his players and coaches to do it… then he does it. He has established a Leadership Council where he takes a very deep dive and actually teaches the principles of effective leadership to a select group of players.
- Never get bored with the basics. Coach Franklin is all about efficiency and effectiveness – thus he has developed (and is always refining) frictionless systems and processes. He is monarchial about organization and execution. His practice plans are well organized into 4-minute blocks (with every minute of practice scripted beforehand). Several blocks of every practice are dedicated to the fundamentals (blocking, tackling, throwing, catching, etc.) and they rehearse everything prior to game day (including where everyone is supposed to stand during the game!). He has implemented systems for communication between himself and his staff, himself and his players, his staff and his players, etc. He lives by this mantra, “If you don’t practice it… how can you be trusted to do it correctly during games?” During practice, he brought in giant speakers and played ‘crowd noise’ at a deafening volume while his kicker’s practiced making game winning field goals.
- How we do anything is how we do everything. Coach Franklin is appropriately obsessed with habits, with preparation, and with the process. He believes “If we take care of business from Sunday to Friday… Saturday (game day) will take care of itself.” In other words, he doesn’t focus on winning. He focuses on the daily habits and the detailed preparation required to win. He is constantly reinforcing and holding everyone accountable to having ‘championship habits.’ Along those lines, he isn’t big on rah-rah pre-game speeches. He keeps them short and sweet. “If you need me to pump you up and motivate you to play before a game… then we have much bigger problems to worry about.”
- Focus on the present while you prepare for the future. Coach Franklin understands the key to high performance is avoiding distractions of the past and the anxiety of the future. He wants his players to strive to ‘win the moment’ (W.I.N. – What’s Important Now? and O.N.E. – Only Now Exists). Focusing on the present aligns with his emphasis on daily habits and respecting the process. He gets his team to buy in to the fact that the most important game of the season is the next one (and not to look past the current opponent toward a rivalry game). Despite relentless focus on the present moment, college athletics (recruiting specifically) requires you to plan for the future. So while he focuses on his current roster (current family), he must always recruit new talent (future family) one to three years in advance. Each of his position coach writes hundreds of hand-written notes to recruits each week.
- Relationships are the glue. Coach Franklin is a master at forging strong relationships – with his family, his coaches, and his players. He recognizes that as a leader… his teams will only go as far as the relationships he’s built. He knows he can only hold his team accountable the level of trust he as earned, that he can be demanding without ever being demeaning, and that caring matters… a lot. His relationships are a masterful combination of love and discipline. He also recognizes that it is the relationships – not the wins and losses – that make the coaching journey truly impactful and fulfilling. Coach Franklin works hard to know each and every player/coach personally (which is no easy task when you have 20+ coaches and 120+ players!). His demeanor is a brilliant combination of serious and playful… which makes him likeable, approachable, and confident. And while there is no confusion that he is in charge, he is a master delegator and empowers his coaches (and players) to lead themselves and do their job.
- Don’t meet just to meet… meet to improve. Coach Franklin runs the most well-organized and productive meetings I have ever seen. There is no fluff and no wasted time. The only folks in attendance are the ones that need to be there and each of them is given a minute-by-minute agenda in advance. During a 7:00am Staff Meeting, they discussed all of the following in only 39 minutes: reviewed yesterday’s practice, previewed today’s practice, full personnel update (on and off the field, from injuries to academics), recruiting updates, and each position coach provided a detailed update. Once the Staff Meeting was over they broke into Unit Meetings with the players (offense/defense) and then into Position Meetings (wide receivers, running backs, offensive line, etc.). He make sure every meeting ends in the emotional state that he wants the next item on the schedule to begin with.
Click here to watch a short clip from Penn State Football’s weekly show, Unrivaled (this from Season 6, Episode 1), for some behind-the-scenes footage of my experience.