In his seminal work on business management, “Good To Great”, author Jim Collins’s most significant insight was that true organizational greatness is not merely a function of circumstance, but rather the result of the conscious decision to become great combined with the discipline to undergo the rigors necessary to achieve such a goal. Few organizations exemplify proof of this concept better than the Boise State University Broncos football program. Over the last decade, it’s hard to find an organization anywhere that has risen faster from relative obscurity to the pinnacle of its field than Boise State.
The Broncos have amassed an astounding 84-8 (.913) record over the past seven seasons, winning two BCS bowl games and finishing ranked in the Top 25 in six of those seven years. While such consistent success is an impressive feat in and of itself, what makes Boise State’s accomplishments even more extraordinary is that the program has made these achievements on a budget that amounts to a fraction of the schools that it competes with on a regular basis. In 2012, the university spent approximately $8.5 million on the Broncos football program. For comparison, the University of Alabama, winner of the last two BCS national titles, spent almost $37 million on its program in the same fiscal year, a difference of over 400%!
Moreover, the program is situated in the middle of Idaho, the 39th largest state in the country by population and far from a fertile recruiting ground for blue chip football prospects. As a result, 86% of players on the Bronco’s roster stem from outside the state. Coming out of high school, almost none of these players were very highly rated by the myriad of recruiting services that evaluate such prospects. In fact, Boise State’s last seven recruiting classes have on average been ranked 69 out of 120 Division I FBS institutions. During that time, the program signed a single “4 star” prospect, whereas the aforementioned Alabama Crimson Tide signed seventeen prospects rated 4 stars or higher in 2013 alone.
How, then, does Boise State, with fewer resources and what many would say are less talented recruits, win on such a consistent basis against high level competition?
The answer, in its most simple form, is culture. Yet to explore Boise’s culture by itself is not enough. One must also understand the steps its leaders take to protect the program from the mortal enemy of organizational greatness – stagnation. Head Coach Chris Petersen realized early in his tenure that for any organization to have success, its leader must be wary of the inherent dichotomy between understanding the need for strong organizational culture and implementing it correctly.
“If you go into an organization and the culture is way off from what you’re all about, you have to take drastic measures quickly,” says Petersen. “You have to run things with power instead of authority. In college athletics, you have a very short amount time to get things done. If you’re doing it with authority, you end up trying to massage people into changing their bad habits and that just takes too long. With power, you can force people to do what you need them to do to change the culture or you risk losing it entirely because you run out of time,” he adds.
Building upon the rich traditions of the past, Petersen has managed to create a pervasive culture at Boise that has become endemic to the core of every decision and process that occurs within the program. From hiring staff, recruiting and developing players, to the very plays the team calls on the field, each and every facet of the program follows the same set of principles. The foundation of this culture is built upon three core values:
- Accountability – Make decisions with the knowledge that your actions control not only your own destiny, but the programs too.
- Unity – Understand and embrace your role; use it to lift others.
- Integrity – Do unto others as you would have them do to you; free yourself of pride, arrogance and falseness.
As with any organization, its culture only goes as far as the individuals who make up its sum total are willing to carry it. To that end, the program’s entire recruiting philosophy is based around finding what Petersen calls, “OKGs (Our Kinda Guys).” In fact, Boise State might be the only sports program where the first criteria in recruiting new talent is not how well they play the actual game, but whether they align with the program’s core values. According to Petersen, instead of focusing on raw football talent, the emphasis is on intangibles.
“If you fall in love with talent, you’re making a big mistake. You have to fall in love with the person first and foremost because you can only change someone so much. We have to be mindful of falling into the trappings of looking for great [football] talent and instead go recruit an OKG and make him a football player.”
This approach, both in college football and the business world, is almost entirely foreign. Yet, the Broncos have been so incredibly successful at it because they have made a conscious commitment to being the best in the world at one thing – developing football talent. By taking the traditional notion of recruiting the most gifted individual available for a specific position and forgoing it in favor of intangible characteristics, the Broncos have insured above all else, the student-athletes who come play for them embody the beliefs inherent to perpetuating the culture.
Every Boise recruit is evaluated in a number of areas, including: Character, Attitude, Effort, Toughness, and Football Intelligence (FBI). More particularly, Petersen seeks both players and coaches who exhibit a “High Performance; Low Ego” work ethic.
When it comes to determining whether a recruit embodies such traits, it is obviously difficult without having prolonged interaction during an actual game time situation. As a result, the Boise coaching staff leans heavily on a recruit’s transcripts to determine if they have the mental edge necessary to acclimate to the program’s culture. This is why even though Boise State University is not known for its academics; strong performance in the classroom is a prerequisite to become a member of the team, regardless of how physically talented a football player the recruit may be.
It is certainly not a coincidence that Boise State consistently ranks in the top 10% of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Report (APR) for football programs, and in 2012 was the only school in the country to finish in both the Top 10 of the final football and APR rankings.
Even if an organization develops a superb talent evaluation system, the fact remains that finding personnel who are capable of embracing the organization’s core values is simply not enough without a concerted effort to indoctrinate those concepts on a continuous basis. At Boise State, Petersen has made the program’s mission as much about producing great football players as he has developing them into even better people. To this end, every week the student-athletes meet to discuss the values and principles of the organization, as well as listen to guest lecturers from a cross section of professions outside sports that provide unique perspectives on a particular topic.
Nancy Napier, Professor of Strategy and Executive Director of the Centre for Creativity and Innovation at Boise State University, has worked alongside Petersen as part of her leadership think tank called “The Gang” that includes a sheriff, a dancer, and several business CEOs. According to Napier, “Chris doesn’t just preach the culture, he makes sure players know and live the culture. He even tests players on it! Chris also uses what he calls the ‘Whole-Part-Whole’ instructional method, where he teaches players the big picture, then has them go do ‘the parts’ with their respective positions coaches and learn how individual elements of the team’s culture apply to them, and then brings them back to the whole again.”
Petersen believes that while the concepts of coaching and teaching are inherently similar, there is an important difference that most leaders lose sight of.
“Coaching is competitive, but there is no bell-shaped curve on the football field. If the athletes fail, we fail too. Instead, you have to teach players by striving to have compassionate interaction with them. When your player [or employee] makes a mistake, you have to have the mindset that you’re as much at fault as they are.”
Every year, photographs of Boise State’s senior players adorn the walls of the locker room, not just to commemorate their contribution to the program but, as Petersen says, “To honor those who remain after the fat has been strained out along the way.”
One might conclude that Boise State has proven that building an organization based upon strong moral values and filled with individuals that fit within a predetermined cultural framework is a formula for success. Of course, any experienced management consultant would point out that this is not novel concept. The truth of the matter is that while such a strategy may be a necessary part of the success equation, it by itself will not be enough to maintain greatness once an organization has reached the top of their respective field. To be successful at a high level, and to do so with an uncanny consistency as Boise State does, an organization must prevent the proverbial flywheel from stalling once it has gained momentum.
“It is so damn hard to keep winning”, exclaims Petersen. “Which is why every year we go back to square one, look at our philosophy and say ‘does this make sense or do I need to change things?’ We have to get into a ‘good groove’, we have to know what to expect. But you can’t let that groove turn into a rut. You have to pay attention to energy levels and make sure that things are not getting old. We always question ourselves, and sometimes we change things just for the sake of doing it, even though it might be working,” he elaborates.
In a new book that Napier and Petersen co-authored with others in The Gang (Wise Beyond Your Field), they refer to this strategy as, “Doing things differently to get better“. In many ways, it is the ultimate application of Jim Collin’s theory that for any successful organization to maintain greatness, it must preserve the core while also stimulating progress. Without progress, culture stagnates and the competition passes you by. Napier explains that, “Many organizations hit a crest in their growth where they hit a wall and then slip. Petersen is always on the lookout for ways to do things differently, long before they reach ‘the top.’ He epitomizes aggressive learning, always asking questions about how to think and do things differently to improve.”
While Boise State’s on-field success may seem like pure magic to many, in reality it is the end product of a fine-tuned system of evaluating and recruiting talent, built upon a rock-solid core of moral values and driven by a willingness to swallow one’s pride and create change when it appears as though it is least needed. More importantly, it is about never losing sight of exactly what your organization is trying to accomplish. Petersen and his staff know they are successful not because they play on a blue field or that they find overlooked talent, but rather because each and every individual within their organization believes in the same concept of greatness. When your vision of greatness and your strategy to get there no longer align, failure is soon to follow.
As Petersen puts it, “If you take your eye off the culture ball for too long, it will be gone before you know it.