Playoff Leadership

When sports teams make it to the playoffs they often speak of the need to play at a higher level. Players and coaches refer to it as “the next gear”, ” giving 110%” or “leaving it all on the table”. Successful teams learn how to squeeze out that extra effort when they need it the most.

Imagine if you worked that way. Or if your employees did. All the time!

This was the goal of Bob Hartley, coach of the Calgary Flames hockey club this season. Two years earlier the team traded their superstars and embarked on a rebuilding process in order to be a future playoff contender. But somehow they achieved this goal in year two of the rebuild. Many believe that their success can be attributed to how Hartley trained his team.

So how did he do it? He began with the end in mind! He told his team that he wanted them to think that the playoffs began when the puck dropped in the first game of the regular season. In other words, there were no optional games or a point where they had to learn to dig deep. Instead, he taught them to play that way all year long.

Hartley knows that playoffs are a best-of-seven series of games. So he broke the regular season into twelve seven game playoff segments. His teams’ goal was to win each of these seven-game series. It was a lofty goal for a team whose best line has players who are 20 and 21 years of age! Remarkably, the Flames used this system to win ten of twelve series (they tied one). This feat earned an inexperienced team their first playoff berth since 2009.

What can we learn as we apply this lesson to ourselves or our organizations?

  1. Vision big. If you have the talent, no matter how young, aim high. This team should not have made the playoffs. But their vision was big enough to provide the opportunity.
  2. Plan long. A plan was in place months before playoffs began. We must begin with the end in mind.
  3. Measure short. Large projects can be overwhelming. However, a series of seven game segments keeps it simple. Each small goal had measurables by which to define success or failure.
  4. Make it attainable. Hartley knew that a young team can’t undertake a goal they cannot understand. Large projects can be overwhelming. Therefore, he broke a big goal into several smaller goals. Clear and attainable goals and help create a ‘do it’ attitude.

Planning with the end in mind is not rocket science. However, sometimes it is the simple principles that work best. Just ask Bob Hartley.

Note: The Flames next seven game series, their first of the 2015 NHL playoffs, begins at 8:00 PST on Wednesday, April 15.


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a hockey nut, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational Future-Readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman