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Coaching the Management Team in the World of Pro Football

New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum is used to working with huge personalities. One of his secrets: Institutionalizing ways for everyone from coaches to staff to himself to keep learning.
COLLABORATORS lesliebrokaw

As general manager and executive vice president of the New York Jets, Mike Tannenbaum works with giants, starting with Rex Ryan, the team’s coach. Ryan’s personality has been described as the most eccentric in Major League Football. The Boston Globe calls him “loud, boastful, arrogant, irreverent, and, by professional coaching standards, exceptionally witty.” Tannenbaum says Ryan deals in “extreme authenticity.”

Tannenbaum joined the Jets in 1997, and has been the GM since 2006. One of the things he has gotten especially good at is finding people outside the business to learn from. Not just sports-industry people, but top managers like Bill McDermott, co-CEO of the business software company SAP. Tannenbaum instituted a professional improvement day, requiring everyone to get out and be someplace else and come back with new ideas.

“I’m really, really big into goals and measured objectives,” says Tannenbaum. At the same time, he says that he and Ryan have a collaborative style that they call “magic and logic” — Tannenbaum’s orderly, systematic, disciplined tone, and Ryan’s intuitive ability to work with all types of people (the magic).

In an interview with The Build Network’s Michael Hopkins and Kristine Kern, Tannenbaum talks about Ryan’s ability to work with players that other teams undervalue, why Abe Lincoln would be his dream coach, and the kick of being able to pick up the phone and get people he thinks of as business “rock stars” to meet with him.

I want to start by talking about the way you have found peers in the business world to learn from. How do you do that?

Let me go back for a minute. My dream was always to work in sports. Choose a job you love, you never work a day in your life. I got into sports as an unpaid intern, in 1991, working the infield for the Pittsfield Mets baseball team. I went to law school and I got into football, convincing the New Orleans Saints to hire me in 1993 as an unpaid intern, and then I got a job with them.

One of the ways I motivated myself was, I kept all my rejection letters. Years and years and years of rejection letters — nobody would hire me. All these people would never, ever give me the time of day. So, when I was fortunate enough to get this job [as Jets general manager], I said to myself two things: First, I know I’m not going to have this job forever. And second, because of where I am now, people might actually talk to me.

There were all these people I always wanted to meet. Jim Calhoun was the first guy. I grew up in Boston, and Jim Calhoun was the head coach for Northeastern University’s men’s basketball in Boston before he went to UConn [the University of Connecticut, where Calhoun has been a national championship winner]. He is such a great coach. I wanted to meet with him partly because of his great success against Duke —

— one of the great college basketball teams, under coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Yeah, obviously Krzyzewski has had a great career, but for whatever reason, UConn has played them very well. I wanted to know, what the heck are you doing? Why can you beat Duke?

So I met with Calhoun and asked him that, and the answer turned out to be very interesting. He used to talk to his team the night before they played Duke, and he used to tell them what Duke’s practice schedule was and what theirs was. And he tells me, “Look, Mike, I don’t really know if we worked harder, or how much harder we worked than they did. But my kids were convinced that they had outworked Duke, and therefore they deserved to win the game. Instead of being intimidated or awed by Duke, they went into the game thinking: ‘we deserve to win this game, they don’t.’”

He was incredible to me. We spent four hours and just talked, about life and motivating people and management. He came down and he spoke to the team.  And I’m like, I’m on to something here. People are talking to me. It was a change.

What did you take away from the Calhoun conversation that you now consciously act on?

I learned the power of motivating people by helping them believe in something. It may not be true, but if they believe it’s true their confidence could overcome bad odds. Again, Duke’s this powerhouse of a team, and yet here’s UConn that’s repeatedly handled them well.

So what happened next?

I’m big into goals and objectives, things you can measure, and we have goals and objectives for athletes, goals and objectives for employees. After the success of the Calhoun meeting, I asked myself, What else? So we instituted a professional improvement day, where you get one day a year to go learn from anyone you want. You can spend the day with the barber, the state police, anyone. My assistant spent the day with [radio host] Howard Stern. Just go learn. And it’s been a home run with the staff, great for morale.

Everyone comes back with two or three nuggets, and then, over a barbecue lunch, we ask, what’d you learn? Everyone gets five minutes and the microphone and they talk about what they saw or learned, things that made that organization good, and what we can pull from it to make us better.

What kinds of things have surprised you that emerged from the day?

Oh, it’s countless, from preparation to the attention to detail. Rex spent the day with Joe Gibbs. Joe Gibbs runs a racing company now, but he won the Super Bowl three times with three different quarterbacks. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. There are things we do in the red zone now were a byproduct of that meeting, and how Rex addresses the team was a byproduct of some of the things he got from Gibbs. And Rex and Gibbs had no relationship before that meeting.

How did you connect with McDermott at SAP?

I had arranged a day for myself to meet with Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour, and he linked me with Bill McDermott of SAP, because Kevin is good friends with Bill. I saw them both in one day. I just took a big yellow pad, one pen, and did a lot of listening.

The CEO of a major sports apparel company and the co-CEO of a $16 billion, 56,000-employee business software company. What were you looking for? Did you have a particular question in mind?

Well, with Bill, I went there just because he runs an incredible company, and I was really fascinated by his success. There’s this expression, “Irrefutable facts keep locating themselves in your proximity.” In football we’d say it about a guy who has a lot of interceptions or fumble recoveries. When I was researching Bill, I saw that success keeps finding this man. He was at Xerox.  He ran a convenience store in high school that blew out 7-Eleven, and you’re not successful at 16 years old by accident. So, is it how he shines his shoes? Does he work out in the morning? How does he brush his teeth? There’s something there. I wanted to know what it was.

That was the big thing, finding the secret.

I was like, I want to get inside this guy’s head as much as I can, and just ask questions, because there’s some secret sauce here that I gotta get. That was the object of the exercise.

What happened, then, when you and he started talking?

The guy’s a rock star. He talked a lot about virtuous cycles, and the power of getting people to buy into his vision, his dream, his reality. He also had a fair amount of chutzpah, cojones. He talked about telling people, “Hey, this is what we’re gonna do, and you’re either with me or you’re not; and if you’re not with me, I’m okay. This is not for everybody. Let’s have those difficult conversations. But if you’re with me, these are my expectations.”

I forget off the top of my head, but there were something like five CEOs in the six years before him. His first speech in New Orleans, he’s up there and some of the senior people are laughing at him when he talked about goals for profitability and increasing sales. So he stops his speech and says something like, “Yeah, and you think I’m going to be like the next one out. But I’m not.” He said that was his defining moment.

I was talking recently with somebody from SAP about watching McDermott give a talk to management. No bullshit, very straightforward, very, “here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how we’re going to do it.” Kind of low-key, almost, but so definitive. That sounds like what you’re describing.

Definitive is a perfect adjective. And there’s a similarity to Rex—despite how different they seem in presentation. You look at Bill, he’s a tall, slender guy, totally custom-made suits. And you look at Rex, he’s all frayed at the edges. But like with Bill, there’s this looseness and tightness. Rex’s style’s really interesting: it’s, like, constant fun with him, but there’s also a line, and if you cross it, it’s a world of hurt.

The one thing about Rex is his extreme authenticity. What you see is what you get. He’s very comfortable in his own skin. He’s so braggadocious and confident, yet likable. If I were to say ten percent of the things Rex does, they’d run me out of town. It’s incredible what he can get away with.

It’s interesting how that works. It’s hard to put a finger on how he pulls it off.

You can’t. It just happens. It’s so unfair.

Two of the things people talk about with the Jets are “brashness” and “transparency.” Brashness I get, but transparency is not typical in professional football. 

A lot of it was, to me, about the “Hard Knocks” decision. HBO has this T.V. reality show called “Hard Knocks,” produced with NFL. They asked us to do it, and, frankly, I was the last one on board to doing a 5-part series on the team, to show us behind the scenes, at practice, in my office, everywhere. I’m a little bit more…I’m closer to the vest.

But a few things convinced me. One was that Ross Greenburg, who was the president of HBO Sports and someone I’m very close with, was like, “Look, it’s only going to make you guys look good.” The other was that I do think we have a great story to tell, our facility is beautiful, so I thought it could really help for recruiting. That was the strategic rationale behind it. We only have a finite set of dollars to entice players to come here, and I thought it would help.

Let’s go back to your early days as GM for a moment. One could argue that every business story is really a problem/solution story. (For that matter, maybe every football play is a problem/solution story.) When you first stepped into this role, what problems did you identify that that you wanted to start finding solutions for?

I was fortunate: for five years before, I was the assistant GM. So when I became general manager, it was kind of a combination of a new head coach, Eric Mangini, and a sense of wanting a little bit of a different way of doing things. There were really good things that had been done by my predecessor, Terry Bradway, who’s still part of our organization, in our personnel department. I just felt like there were ways we could maybe tighten things up, tweak things. I thought maybe some small changes could lead to big results.

So, a need for better discipline throughout the organization?

Yeah, I would say a systematic way of creating checks and balances and accountability.

That’s interesting, because system and discipline aren’t always exactly the same thing. This organization famously does a really nice job of being loose in a world where tight is also required. I imagine that’s difficult to manage.

We have a phrase for that: magic and logic.

Elaborate. What do you mean?

It has to do with working with Rex as a partner every day. I’m with [Jets owner] Woody Johnson and Rex 90% of my day. And we’re in the ultimate people business. Meaning, we could do all this hard work and have a great game plan, but if your starting quarterback’s having some challenges off the field, that could ruin your plan. Rex has an innate ability to be able to relate to all different types of people, backgrounds, socioeconomic difference, and really solve a lot of problems.

He’ll come in here, make fun of my law degree, look at all these binders and be like, “I couldn’t read any of those binders, let alone all of them.” I think we balance one another, which is why we’re great partners. I’ll set the structure, the rules, all those sorts of things, and within that paradigm, he is great at taking long running room to solve problems. And it works.

One of the things I do with the players is have them outline three goals for the off-season. We call it the Big Three. We put them on a card and every player has to know them and they’re held accountable to them.

Can you give a quick example?

It could be increasing your flexibility of your right groin, it could be your shoulder, it could be learning something better.

So, really specific stuff.

Yeah. Anything we could measure. And we look at it very collaboratively. We have a hundred yards of wellness for our players: two football fields, a weight room, all for their development, their wellness, their productivity.

I took that same idea to our staff and said, “Okay, each one of us could obviously improve.” And that’s when I started doing it for myself.

Rex and I have been able to take a lot of calculated risks in our approach because we’ve really maximized his problem-solving people skills. We’ve got a graphic for it.

Can you talk us through that graphic, the four quadrant chart?

Sure. I’m a big Jack Welch guy, and basically a lot of this is Welch, tweaked for football. So with any organization, whether it’s a football team, Build magazine, Procter & Gamble, you can divide people into four quadrants.

Your top-left quadrant is cornerstone people. They’re great people, they’re talented, they’re trustworthy, they have great values. They’re bedrock. They make you a lot of money, they win you a lot of games, they never leave.

Your top right-hand quadrant are people that are really great people, you want to be around them every day, you want to go out to dinner with them. But do they really move the needle? Are they good enough? In our industry, we say we’ll give them three years — we got that number from Tom Landry, Hall of Fame coach — and we’ll try to develop them, we’ll have them lift weights, get them faster, bigger, stronger. But in three years, we evaluate them: are they winning players or not? In a for-profit enterprise, are they helping you make money?

Your bottom left-hand quadrant is the easiest to deal with by far. They’re not good people and they’re not good players. They’re awful for morale. If we make the mistake of letting these people in the building, we’ve got to get them out as quickly as possible.

Where I think Rex brings a tremendous amount of value is the bottom right-hand quadrant. These are great, talented people that, as I like to say, have had bumps in the road. It could be anything that’s happened off the field. Are you familiar with Moneyball, the book and the movie? The fundamental premise is the market inefficiency of looking at one set of stats instead of others in evaluating players in baseball, just the whole statistical analysis of things.

I feel like in football, the closest opportunity we have to Moneyball, to capitalizing on an inefficient market for talent, is those guys in that bottom right-hand quadrant. There, you can get a dollar’s worth of talent for 60 cents on the dollar. And Rex has the ability to maximize that value.

Mike, look at the bottom-right quadrant and imagine you’re talking to a CEO of a $300 million business. This underlying idea of market inefficiency translates into practice outside of football, yes?

Sure. If you’re into, let’s say, industrial storage, and you get a really nice building that’s been in an environmentally precarious place, you can get it for 30 cents on the dollar, and then you spend 20 cents on the dollar cleaning it up, now you’ve got a great warehouse. I think that’s what robust companies do.  They look for opportune situations. In the stock market, you look for companies that are undervalued for a myriad of reasons, and you go in and try to help clean it up. Maybe it’s a regulatory issue, maybe it’s lawsuits that were pending, and you see the end result six months before anybody else does. They’re undervalued for a lot of reasons.

This is interesting also because it’s a high-risk/high-reward move, right? 

It’s a low-risk/high-reward.

Low risk?  

Very little risk.

But those bottom right-hand quadrant guys, the ones with bumps in the road as you put it, they could end up being bottom left-hand quadrant guys, players who are poisonous. 

They could be, but you move on from them. I wouldn’t put us in a high-risk position, because we’re not always going to be right.

In pro football, we have very limited resources. We have the salary cap and we have draft choices. You really can’t screw too many of them up, because they’re precious.

I do believe in conditional trades, because I believe in win-win. I’ve done a few real estate deals in my private life, and I don’t understand those people. They’re win-kill. They want every last dollar. Me, I only have 31 potential trading partners [since the NFL has 32 teams, including the Jets]. I want to make the deal good for us and the team we’re dealing with, because we’re going to deal with them over and over again. Same thing with agents: there’s about 20 agents that control about 80% of the player market. So you always try and find landing spots that both sides can walk away feeling good about themselves.

For a taste of the Jets behind the scenes, see this one minute trailer for the "Hard Knocks" reality show...View video from our Build Live event at the Jets training facility with Tannenbaum and McDermott on: What Makes a Sustainable Leader, How to Hire Senior Talent, What Price Loyalty, and Evaluating Employees: Performance vs. Culture. . . A 2010 ESPN profile of Tannenbaum dug into his willingness "to freewheel it with Ryan" and how 2010 should have been his year: "Tannenbaum needs a winning season in 2010 like he's never needed a winning season. His head coach has effectively guaranteed a Super Bowl victory, and the 'Hard Knocks' series only hardened the league-wide sentiment that the Jets need to go down, and go down hard." (In the end, the Jets made it only as far as the AFC championships.). . . . Rex Ryan has a twin brother, Rob Ryan, who also is a football coach. Rob is currently defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys. . . . Video of SAP co-CEO Bill McDermott on "the true measure of a leader is not what they take from this world, or what they take from their environment; it's, in fact, what they give back."

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