Lessons on Mission and Purpose From the NHL Playoffs

The National Hockey League playoffs kicked off this week, and they have me thinking about the way talent and culture is managed in hockey, and, what both employees and employers can learn from it.

In good hockey organizations, talent and culture are a shared responsibility across all layers of the org chart.

  • General manager’s fill locker-rooms with the right talent at the right price against the salary cap.
  • Coaches set the right environment for the talent to flourish, make sure players are in the right roles and on the right paths, help the players develop their game, and prepare the team for their opponents and to gel as a group.
  • Players own their growth and mastery over their role and path, own their daily preparation, and own their own energy level and commitment to their team and teammates.

When GMs, coaches, and players are all owning their role effectively, teams become really hard to compete against. However, there is a lot of complexity that makes this easier said than done.

Talents and career pathways in the rink

All players go through a process to find the right role at the NHL level and to master that role. Teams do their best to communicate the process to each individual, justify their analysis, and to track progress.

This increases the likelihood that the player will be aware of his own potential, recognize the path to pursue that potential, and own the skill development involved in fulfilling that potential.

It is challenging but critical for GM’s and coaches to tie the developmental process for each individual tightly into the team’s plans for success, expectations for the timing and extent of that success, and the team’s skill needs in the delivery of that success.

Balancing the individual pathways of each team member against the talent mix that teams need to be successful in all phases of the game creates for very complex analysis.

  • Do we have veteran leaders and voices, Cup hunger and urgency, speed, skill and creativity, size and physicality, jam and grittiness, commitment to team defense, a goalie who can win us tight games?
  • How do specific skill sets and styles mesh from line to line?
  • If we are a little bit heavier on skill and speed than size and physicality as a team, how do we adjust our system to reflect the talent we have available to us and to take maximum advantage of it?
  • What skills mix is needed for a solid penalty kill? Power play?
  • How will our coaching specialties and personas mix with the development needs and personality of the team?

Plenty of engineering behind the analysis – but also plenty of trial-and-error to find the right system and best use of all talent toward the team’s success.

What is the character in the room?

Equally important to having the right talent mix and the right system to set that talent up for success is the “character in the room.’”

This is the commitment to winning as an organization, the “won’t let your teammates down” accountability carried from shift-to-shift, and the commitment to showing up at the rink everyday prepared to handle your role.

Hockey is a high-speed, high-intensity game played on a small rink, with a lot of contact and a lot of puck movement from play-to-play, which demands maximum focus every time a player steps on the ice for a shift. There are a lot of small skill and hustle plays that add up to big differences in execution and momentum, and hockey results are driven by both.

The execution of these small skill and hustle plays is influenced heavily by a player’s drive or “compete level.” Are you bringing your best to the arena every day? Are you willing to engage at a level half-a-step quicker and harder than the guy lining up across from you?

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Check-to-check, pass-to-pass, game-to-game, a little bit more focus, a little bit more energy  — what does that amount to in aggregate across the whole team? What is the value of raising your compete level?

The players own this, and it pays back in a big way in wins, fan interest, playoff appearances, players and coaches a part of building something special, etc.

What is your “compete level” at work?

How much energy do you bring to your job/role on an average work day? How much could you be bringing? What’s standing in your way?

Not inspired by or connected to the company’s mission or purpose? Feeling underutilized? Feeling a bit hazy about your longer-term path at your company? Find a company and leadership that excites you, find a clear and convicted path that fits, take strong ownership over that path, and your compete level will follow.

And imagine how difficult a company with a compete level at its highest is to compete against? One where most, if not all employees, are bringing a full energy level to their roles and paths on a daily basis.

Not that they are working around the clock, but while they are working, their energy to a man/woman is as dialed up as it possibly can be? Task to task, activity to activity, strategy to strategy? What would the impact be on business performance? On your company’s ability to compete in its marketplace?

In hockey, that compete level delivered consistently at all layers of the organization usually means a pretty good shot at winning the ultimate prize — the Stanley Cup.

Tim McDonnell is a Talent Strategies Consultant for Career Engagement Group, where he helps companies deliver higher engagement and productivity through personalized career pathing. Tim has also worked in a similar capacity for SilkRoad, a talent management technology company based in Chicago, and the Corporate Executive Board, a best practices research and leadership advisory firm in the Washington, DC area.


4 Comments on “Lessons on Mission and Purpose From the NHL Playoffs

  1. Great article Tim, love the analogy to hockey and I think sports comparisons are great because they get people thinking about how to view talent from the other end of the spectrum from which most companies operate. While running a company like a hockey team likely won’t work for most, pushing some of their ideas in that direction I’m sure could benefit almost all of them. I hope to see more articles from you in the future.

  2. Fantastic piece Tim. If only we could get the direct correlation into our businesses. In fact only fantastic leaders get this right as they have the right mix of infectious passion and the right reward system. The fact is that hockey and a sport’s triumph have a very short life, 24 hours later it is over and you have to reconstruct the formula again. Business organization need to develop a sustain formula that peaks every year, every quarter and this is a much greater challenge. Lessons to be shared for sure.

  3. Thanks Brian. Thanks Flip. Great and fair feedback. Some
    lessons don’t transfer, others aspirational, others are what the best companies
    are doing. I listened to the Chief Leadership Officer of a large mining company
    speak last week, and some of the same themes came out in his message. They are
    doing half the volume they were at peak in ’06-’07 but are more profitable now,
    with far less safety incidents. He credited their values-based leadership and
    their very ‘intentional’ workforce, more specifically:

    -Values-Driven Leadership – they believe that ‘what
    people value most deeply will move them most powerfully in their work’ and
    leadership at every level obsesses over giving their people something to
    believe in and helping them find ‘their best.’ Engagement follows.

    -Personalized Career Pathing – they wonder whether career
    advancement is about ‘up’ or ‘fully utilized.’ Their leaders believe in
    igniting human potential and do it through very customized pathways for their
    people – tailored to strengths, instincts, and interests. They believe the
    approach increases trust, loyalty, improves communication, and increases the
    likelihood that people find max utility and the company finds max return on
    their investment in their talent.

    -Know Your Story and Live Intentionally – they encourage
    staff toward ‘life on purpose,’ with a focus on knowing themselves, knowing
    their options, creating a plan to pursue options that are best aligned, and
    then taking ownership over their paths.

    Bet that bunch is tough to compete with.

    1. Great topic and conversation. Having facilitated many talent reviews, one thing that has always surprised me is that senior leaders often fail to accurately understand their employees aspirations, what’s important to them and where they want to take their career. Yes they might make some assumptions – but these are not always correct. Of course this is a two way street and ultimately the responsibility sits with the employee, and sometimes they themselves are unclear. In the organisations I have worked with there is an enormous opportunity to assist managers in this area to deliver a much more accurate talent and succession planning outcome, one that meets organisational need AND motivates and engages employees.

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