Winners in Defeat: Business Lessons from the New England Patriots

by | 6 Feb, 2016

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Well, here we are again. The New England Patriots nearly made it to the Super Bowl . . . again.

They may have fallen two points short of the big game, but guess what? They’ll be vying for the Super Bowl next year. New Englanders from Boston to Bangor certainly know it, as does the rest of the world.

How does this always happen?

This question, rhetorical to winking local fans, has been cursed outside New England in somber living rooms by those who’ve watched frenzied Foxborough fans parade down Boylston Street year after year.

But the answer is easy. How it happens: they win. The more important question is why?

They win because from quarterback to place kicker and club owner right down to those rascally ball boys they do things a certain way — the New England Patriots Way. New England small businesses can learn a lesson from their favorite franchise.

What It’s Like to be So Good It’s ‘Unfair’

There’s no magic involved, no devil deals made behind Boston beer houses. To the contrary: Anyone who seriously suggests that the Pats success stems from luck is wrong.

Nature of the company notwithstanding, the Patriots franchise isn’t “playing” at success. It’s organization isn’t just the standard, it’s also setting the standard.

The experts doubted such a run of success was possible. Hadn’t the NFL made rules to ensure parity? A strict salary cap, free-agency and balanced scheduling? In NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s world, every team in the league would be given a three-year window in which to win a championship before being forced to dismantle and start from scratch, every fan an equal chance of watching their team hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February.

The Patriots — most franchises, probably — had other ideas. But to the league’s collective embarrassment, New England has somehow become exactly what the rules were designed to prevent: a true dynasty.

Consider that since the year Tom Brady and Bill Belichick first partnered together the Patriots have:

    • Won double-digit games in 14 of 15 seasons.
    • Made the playoffs 13 times.
    • Appeared in 10 AFC Championship Games.
    • Played in 7 Super Bowls.
  • Captured 4 Lombardi Trophies and still counting.

And the franchise hasn’t even had to run itself into the ground to do it. Its commercial valuation of just over $3.2 billion made the Patriots the second-most-valuable team in the league in 2015. Foxboro has sold out 239 consecutive games.

So how did it all start?

The Rounding of Robert Kraft, Chairman of the Board

After Robert Kraft, a smart local boy, went to Harvard and proceeded to buy the New England Patriots in ‘94, he quickly grew a reputation as a meddlesome owner.

He had earned it. For two years Kraft clashed repeatedly with head coach Bill Parcells, infamously going so far as to demand the team select wide receiver Terry Glenn in the ’96 draft despite the coaching staff’s insistence that it needed a better defensive lineup. Owners like Kraft weren’t unheard of, but haranguing a franchise’s most important team strategists over personnel decisions was a faux pas in most professional sports, especially football.

A future Hall of Fame member, Parcells would quit at the end of the ’96 season, but not before delivering a classic line directed squarely at his boss: “If they want you to cook the dinner, they should at least let you shop for some of the groceries.”

The internal discord and subsequent fallout provided what we’ll gently refer to as a learning moment for Kraft, who had by the time he hired Bill Belichick in 2000 enthusiastically embraced a completely new leadership style. The so-called “trenches,” he understood, were better left occupied by football men, not businessmen.

And so he handed over all personnel duties to Belichick and his staff, stepped into the shadows and started acting as an owner of a growing franchise with infinite potential should: a sounding board, business advisor and, when necessary, devil’s advocate.

As former VP of Player Personnel Scott Pioli, put it: “We’ve got an owner that asks questions — but doesn’t question us.”

Now not only does Kraft let Belichick and his staff cook dinner, he insists they shop for all the groceries, too. The resulting meal, to put it mildly, tastes like a winner. And as much attention as Belichick and Tom Brady receive, none of their success would have been possible without the trusting, nurturing approach to leadership displayed by the man in the upstairs office.  

So what exactly does the New England Patriots Way look like?

1) Always Look Long-Term

Conventional wisdom in the NFL goes something like this:

Strike while the iron is hot! In a league designed to promote parity, an organization will only have a few opportunities to win it all. When the opportunity presents itself, go all in no matter the long-term cost. Banners hang forever, after all.

The Patriots have the opposite philosophy. Rather than allocating big dollars to name-brand free agents and push the team “over the top,” New England continually restocks its roster with long-term investments, targeting undervalued players who fit its system and securing them for minimal financial cost over multiple years.

This keeps the Pats from the usual peak-and-valley cycles of most NFL teams by allowing them to stay perpetually under the salary cap and avoid roster overhauls that set them back for years at a stretch.

It’s not always easy. Sticking to the New England Patriots Way sometimes means making hard decisions. Take, for example, former Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy. In ‘03, Milloy, a Super Bowl hero and fan favorite, was entering the tail end of his career. The Patriots, hamstrung by the salary cap, asked the aging vet to restructure his contract “for the good of the team.” When he refused, Belichick had no choice but to cut him a mere five days before the regular season began.

The reaction from fans and media was harsh. Things got worse when Milloy joined the Buffalo Bills, a division rival, and helped his new team defeat the Pats an embarrassing 31-0 in the opening game of the season.

Long-term, however, the franchise used the extra capital to shore up its deficiencies and went on to win 15 straight games that season, including its second Super Bowl.

Small Business Takeaway:

    • Invest in people, not prayers.
    • Be proactive. Plan not only for tomorrow, but for all of your tomorrows.
    • Success isn’t something that happens once and hangs around forever; you either have it — or you don’t.
  • The team is more valuable than the individual. An organization cannot remain tied to its past or base tomorrow’s decisions on what happened yesterday.

2) Take Calculated Risks

As careful as the Patriots are in assembling their roster, they’re not above taking risks when the right opportunity shows up. It’s part of Kraft’s leadership style.

As he told the gathered media before last year’s Super Bowl:

“The only way that you can sustain success is if you encourage your managers to be bold and take risks. The key to life when you want to excel in something is you’ve got to be able to see things that other people can’t see.”

This ideal led to two big deviations from standard operating procedures: The first was bringing on malcontented running back Corey Dillon before the ‘04 season. In desperate need of a primary “bell cow” rusher, Belichick arranged a clandestine meeting in a Foxborough hotel with Dillon, at the time a disgruntled member of the Cincinnati Bengals.

They asked Dillon point-blank: Tell us why you’re not a bad guy.

Encouraged by his explanation of past transgressions and comfortable the Patriots had built the tools needed to keep a talented-but-emotional player like Dillon in check, Belichick took a risk and traded away a high-round draft pick.

The result? Dillon finished the year with over 1,600 rushing yards, the third most in the league.

And the Patriots won their third Super Bowl.

Three years later the franchise made an almost identical deal to bring Randy Moss, an even more aggrieved talent than Dillon, into the wide receiver slot. The script played out in almost the same fashion: After a lengthy meeting with the franchise brass, Moss assimilated into the team’s culture and went on to catch an NFL record 23 touchdowns as New England finished the year with an undefeated regular season.

Small Business Takeaway:

Everyone wants to be a riverboat gambler, shoot from the hip and take the consequences as they come.

When it pays off, everyone involved in the decision feels like the smartest person in the room. When it doesn’t, heads roll.

A better way — the New England Patriots Way — involves staying cautious and true to the long-term business plan but at the same time remaining open to calculated risk. When a possibility does arise:

    • Do your homework.
    • Make sure you can still compete if the bet doesn’t pay off.
  • Don’t shy away from arranging a meeting in order to ask the tough questions.

3) Know the Rules, So You Can Bend Them

For some, stretching the rules is always cheating. That kind of moral adamancy is understandable — admirable, even.

For others, it’s more likely to be cheating when it’s the Patriots. We’re talking about perpetrators of “Spygate” and “Deflategate,” after all. Rumor even has it that Belichick’s use of electronic eavesdropping equipment rivals that of the NSA.

But stretching the rules isn’t the same as breaking them, a fact proved no more positively than by the Patriots knack for causing rule changes. And in order to stretch the rules to your advantage, you first have to know them inside and out.

During the Patriots third Super Bowl run in ‘04, they so manhandled the Colts offensive players near the line of scrimmage that the Rules Committee implemented a bylaw preventing contact beyond two yards. (At one point, if you squinted, I swear you could see Rodney Harrison take a folding chair to Colts tight end Marcus Pollard’s back.)

More recently the committee addressed the Patriots ingenuity by retroactively prohibiting a never-before-seen formation the team ran in its ‘14 divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens on three successive plays of a touchdown drive, a game New England won 35-31.

Why the league’s reaction? Once played, the “trick” formation could be prepared for. It’s not as if Belichick and his staff had drawn up the play between quarters. More likely they practiced it all season and waited for the perfect opportunity to run it, knowing full well the opposition would be confused as hell when they did.

Small Business Takeaway:

Bill Veeck may be the originator of the quote: “I try not to break the rules but merely to test their elasticity.” But it’s Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots who embody the principle in today’s sports world.

As a small business owner, the better you understand the rules that govern your industry the more you can:

    • Use them to your advantage.
    • Find the wiggle room therein.
  • Think outside the box to operate in ways your competitors haven’t considered.

As for the detractors — and there are sure to be some — haters gonna hate, as the kids like to say.

4) Recruit Versatile Employees

Specialized skills are all the rage in business these days, and the NFL is no exception. If a player can run really fast, turn on a dime or bench press a bus, he’ll find a job with some football team.

It just won’t be with the Patriots.

In addition to favoring undervalued players over literal brand names, Belichick and the Patriots instead seek intelligent, hard-working players with flexible skills. As former Pats defensive lineman/special teamer/linebacker Tedy Bruschi pointed out: “If you can only do one thing, it won’t be a long career in New England.”

This emphasis on flexibility extends all the way up the organizational ladder, from Robert Kraft and his willingness allow football people to make decisions to Belichick and his ability to maximize available talent. Rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, Belichick creates an entirely new hole that can fit many shapes: Think wideout Troy Brown handling slot-corner duties during his final year with the Pats or outside linebacker Mike Vrabel playing red-zone tight end.

Small Business Takeaway:

Employees with specialized skills can do great things, but what happens when Bob from payroll misses three weeks of work after surgery? Can Timmy from accounting step in to help, or must the staff simply go without paychecks until Bob is strong enough to make it back? Remember that:

    • It’s not good enough to hire people with one specialized skill and rely on them exclusively to perform it.
  • Rounding out your employees’ skill sets creates a versatile workforce that can stay productive when the team loses an important player.

5) DO. YOUR. JOB.

Perhaps the least appreciated key to the Patriots’ long-term success is the emphasis they place on the little-appreciated parts of the game, a philosophy summed up by Belichick’s favorite motto: Do. Your. Job.

When team members bring all their focus to each role and unify behind a single goal — well, you’ve seen the results. The strength of the wolf is in the pack, as Belichick has been noted to say.

One way this shows is in the Patriots uncanny ability to hold onto the football. Nothing is more costly to a team than when the offense hands the ball to the opposition: It puts the defense in a tough spot, leads to bad field position, and worst of all gives the other team another scoring chance.

It’s no coincidence that the team who turns the ball over least usually ends up winning the game. So it’s not surprising, then, that nobody turns the ball over less than the Patriots: only 14 times this past regular season and 13 times the year before.

And people wonder why they’re always in the Super Bowl conversation.

Small Business Takeaway:

Do. Your. Job. So simple. So obvious. Yet often so ignored.

Great teams can’t achieve greatness with underperforming individuals. Every employee, no matter what their role, has a specific job to do. If done correctly and consistently on the individual level, then the collective effort coalesces into something even greater.

It’s the New England Patriots Way.

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Tom DiSilva
Tom DiSilva has been providing professional human resource services for over 30 years. As the CEO of Navigate PEO, he actively partners with organizations of all sizes in the Greater New England area and across the country to help their businesses grow. He has expertise in HR and Labor Management, offering guidance and support for key areas of business such as negotiations, operations management, employee coaching, and employee benefits design. . He is an active member of The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), The National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (NAPEO), Professional Association of Co-Employers (PACE), and The American Payroll Association (APA). He is deeply committed to giving back to the community both personally and through Navigate Cares, which provides support for several nonprofit organizations such as the USO, The Boys & Girls Club, and the 3Point Foundation.

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