10 Lessons Your Agency Can Learn From Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish

Chris HeilerBelow is a guest post from Chris Heiler (@Chris_Heiler), a third generation die-hard Notre Dame fan and first generation entrepreneur. He is the founder and president of Landscape Leadership, an inbound marketing agency that specializes in the green industry.

The son of a high school football coach, his fondest childhood memory involves selling the family car for $200 on a Saturday morning so he and his father could buy Notre Dame tickets. He also learned from Brian Kelly himself while taking Coach Kelly’s Football Coaching Theory class freshman year at Grand Valley State University in 1993 (and picking up two very easy credits).

Raghib "Rocket" Ismail Another national championship game has been a long time coming for the University of Notre Dame football team—24 seasons to be exact. That’s a long time to wait for impatient, die-hard fans like myself.

Why the long wait for another opportunity at the title? Notre Dame competes strongly with the other top programs in the country on the recruiting trail; the Irish have never lacked elite talent. In addition, the ND brand has been, and remains, the strongest in college athletics. So what’s the deal?

It All Starts at the Top

On a football field or your boardroom, success begins at the top. Lou Holtz coached Notre Dame to its last national championship in the 1988 season. After Holtz’s retirement at the conclusion of the 1996 season, Notre Dame steamrolled through four head coaches over the next 14 years before hiring current coach Brian Kelly in 2010.

While the previous four Notre Dame coaches struggled to keep their teams relevant, Brian Kelly was winning multiple national championships at Grand Valley State University, and turning around moribund programs at Central Michigan University and the University of Cincinnati.

There’s a reason the top coaches in college football get paid millions of dollars each year. The man at the top matters more than anything else. It’s the same with your business!

Here are 10 lessons your business can learn from Brian Kelly and other successful football coaches:

1. One Message

“The key is to get them to hear one message,” said Paul Longo, Notre Dame’s strength and conditioning coordinator, when asked about Coach Kelly’s ability to build championship programs.

The message to your team needs to be clear, consistent and always start from the top. Your team needs to speak the same language and have the same vision as it relates to those things that impact your business—from goals and opportunities to the challenges you face.

2. Climb Out of the Cave

After accepting an invitation to play in the BCS Championship Game, and with almost six weeks between games, Kelly turned to his peers for advice on how best to prepare for the game of his life. He turned to Les Miles of LSU and Chip Kelly of Oregon. Both played for the championship in past seasons.

Is your agency struggling with a challenge? Do you have a major opportunity at hand for significant growth? Seek counsel from your peers. Reach out to those who have “been there, done that.” You’ll be amazed by who is willing to help.

Marketing Agency Insider, along with its LinkedIn group, are great opportunities to connect, learn and grow with your peers.

3. Relentless on the Recruiting Trail

While coaching on the field is critical, the top coaches in the country, like Kelly, are also relentless on the high-stakes recruiting trail, seeking the top talent in the country.

Get elite talent. Coach ‘em up. Win championships! That’s how it’s done. And it’s the same formula for your business. (Read this post on how to recruit, train and retain top agency talent.)

4. The Right Kind of Guys

While Coach Kelly seeks elite talent on the recruiting trail, he is also looking for what he calls the “right kind of guys,” or RKGs. These are players that will fit within the framework of the team and represent the program the right way. Some will be All-Americans; others may only play limited roles on the field in their careers.

Successful businesses have elite talent and role players, and they understand when to let go of the bad eggs that poison the team.

Here’s a good exercise for you: Define what an RKG means to your agency. What are the desired traits? Do you have your own RKGs?

5. Developing Talent

In the 24 years since Notre Dame’s last national championship, it’s attracted some of the nation’s most highly recruited football players. Talent wasn’t the issue. Developing the talent was the major failure of the previous coaching staffs.

Does your agency have training programs in place, continuing education opportunities, advancement plans and a great culture for your team to thrive?

Are you able to turn your raw, young talent into All-Americans?

6. Play to Your Strengths

At his previous coaching stops, Coach Kelly was known for his prolific offenses that put up big numbers on the scoreboard and stat sheet, and he was expected to do the same at Notre Dame. But when he took over the reigns at Notre Dame in 2010, he found himself with a pretty talented defense, and after three years on the job, he has turned it into arguably the best defense in college football.

He recognized the strengths in his personnel and built his team around those attributes. This was critical this year as the offense struggled early in the season with a freshman quarterback. They relied on the strength of their team—the defense—to carry them.

What are your strengths? What one or two things do you do better than any other business? How can you leverage these unique strengths to build a stronger agency?

7. The Little Things Matter

The most successful coaches set expectations and then hold their teams accountable for upholding them, no matter how trivial some may seem. When Kelly came to Notre Dame, the football team couldn’t even keep their locker room clean. A clean locker room is no small matter to a coach like Kelly who understands what it takes to build a successful program. Every piece matters.

Your team needs and wants you to set expectations for them. High achievers want to be held accountable. How you answer the phone, how you dress, what time you show up… all of these matter; it’s up to the person at the top to set these expectations.

8. More Than One Way to Win

Kelly may have a different coaching philosophy than Nick Saban (University of Alabama) who may have a different philosophy than Urban Meyer (Ohio State University). All are winners. There’s more than one way to win on the football field, and the same is true in business.

You have to find a unique blueprint for you and your agency. Many coaches have failed by constantly changing their offensive or defensive philosophy, and moving assistant coaches in and out. The result: Players never get comfortable; there’s no identity.

What do you stand for? Establish your identity. Then let it permeate every aspect of your business.

9. You Gotta Take It!

“Soft” football teams don’t win championships. The 1985 Chicago Bears are remembered as one of the greatest Super Bowl teams of all time. Why? Because of its great defense. (Super Bowl Shuffle, anyone?) Alabama is playing for their third national championship in four years because of their relentless, attacking defense.

Running a successful business is not for the weak and soft. You better be aggressive. As Coach Kelly has been known to tell (or yell at) his players, “You gotta take it!” No one is going to give you anything. No one is looking out for your best interests.

It’s up to you to get what you want.

10. Prepare Others

Whether a head football coach or a CEO, the most successful prepare others for leadership roles. Notre Dame is playing for a national championship not only because of Kelly’s leadership at the top, but because of the leadership provided by Kelly’s assistant coaches and by the players themselves. Leadership filters down from the top. Are you preparing your people to lead?

Notre Dame has a “Next Man In” philosophy. If a player is lost, no matter how significant a role he plays, the next man in is expected to pick up where the other left off with no drop off and no excuses. If you lose a key employee, are you ready with your “next man in?”

And are you ready for some football tonight? Who ya got? Leave your predictions and smack talk in the comments below. I’ve got ND by 3, baby!

Image Note: Chris Heiler (age 14) with Raghib “Rocket” Ismail at Notre Dame immediately after the players were awarded their National Championship rings in the spring of 1989.

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