For an organization to begin the turnaround process, the leader has to observe the team, learn where the failures lie, and then expose those failures. One team that knows this process all too well is the Philadelphia Eagles. It took the help of Jeffrey Lurie, a Hollywood producer with a Ph.D. in social policy, to get the organization to see what was wrong before it could turn itself around.
In 1994, when Lurie decided to buy the Philadelphia Eagles for $185 million–the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise up to that point [editor’s note: Forbes now values it at $1.16 billion]–he knew that the team had underperformed over the previous decade. The team was coming off a 1994 season in which it had logged 7 wins and 9 losses, and over the previous twelve seasons (1982-1993) the team had accumulated a record that barely topped .500, at 100 wins and 98 losses. In the same twelve years, the Eagles advanced to the playoff s only four times, winning only one playoff game out of the five it played.
Given the team’s on-field performance, Lurie knew he was buying a franchise that was accustomed to mediocrity. What he didn’t know was that the organizational problems extended far beyond actual wins and losses. Not only did Lurie spend a record amount of cash on the ailing Eagles, he also bought the team sight unseen. Once he saw what he had bought, the extent of the franchise’s issues quickly became apparent.
One of the primary concerns for Lurie was the facilities. The Eagles operated and played out of Veterans Stadium, a Philadelphia landmark that had slowly decayed into a relic of the good old days. For Eagles employees other than the players, the Vet had become an awful place to work.
The dingy lighting, the basement-level work area, the broken elevator, the rumors and fears of rats, and the windowless offices were depressing morale busters. For the players and the coaching staff, the cramped quarters made it nearly impossible to interact, and there wasn’t a single room in the facility where the entire team could meet to discuss strategy or where team members could just get to know one another. And for the fans, watching a game at the stadium was disruptive and uncomfortable.
As real as the issues at Veterans Stadium were, the problems with the organization were far more complicated than poor sight lines and a few rats. But the stadium was an easy target. It couldn’t get off ended, argue, or react to the criticism, and its failures were shared by everyone. Nevertheless, as Lurie continued to explore what was keeping the Eagles from succeeding, he started to look past bricks and mortar and deeper into the dynamics of the actual team.
He explored further, watching the departments and personnel interact, and concluded that there was “clearly a large wall between the football operations and the business operations, or the rest of the operation.” There was no unity and there was no shared purpose. Each camp fought for itself, blaming the other camp for failures and mistakes. If the team was losing, it was the football side’s fault, which led to poor ticket sales and anger on the business side of the organization.
If the business side didn’t fill the house, the football operations wondered how any team could perform with a weak crowd. As Lurie continued to watch and gather information, he unearthed more and more types of behaviors and interactions that would have been destructive to the success of any team. For Lurie, the Eagles were fighting an illness that had permeated the whole organization, and the dysfunctional interactions were symptoms of an unhealthy culture.
“I felt like the biggest challenge, by far,” he says, “was changing the culture to one where you expect to be very good and proud of your franchise, both on the field and in the community. ”
Lurie had seen enough. After collecting information about what was wrong, he set out to establish a blueprint for correcting the problems. He wanted to sell the organization on what it could be, on where it could go, and what hard work and focus could lead to, but first he had to paint a picture of what success was.
He knew that between 1981 and 1994 the San Francisco 49ers had been among the most dominant teams in the NFL. Out of a 16-game season, the franchise had won ten or more games every year but one (the 1982 season had been shortened to nine games because of a strike). The 49ers had missed the playoffs only once, and they had reeled in five Super Bowl championships. As a new owner, Lurie was intrigued. He wanted to study success, and the 49ers were as successful as any team going. He reached out to San Francisco and asked if he could meet Bill Walsh, the 49ers’ head coach from 1979 through 1988. Walsh, who died in 2007, was largely credited as the architect of the 49ers’ dynasty, and Lurie knew that Walsh would have plenty of insights into what makes a franchise good.
“I spent a lot of time with Bill Walsh and those guys out there because I admired them,” says Lurie. “During the first six months of owning the team, I spent more time with those guys than anyone else, just because I admired what they had done, the culture, the expectation to be very good. I wanted to understand the approach they took to their own players, their employees, and their scouting systems, and I had a feeling hat they did want to be the best, and recognized that they were the best. ”
In this early period of turning an organization around, a leader simply has to take stock of what’s wrong. Lurie began by watching quietly and noting deficiencies in the facilities and the team dynamics as well as taking note of concerns with the larger culture. On the ground in Philadelphia, he attempted to understand why the organization was failing, but he also worked to define success by talking with Bill Walsh and the staff of the San Francisco 49ers. Lurie took hold of opposite ends of the performance spectrum, and he grasped the stark differences between the two. Eventually he worked to bridge the gap, but before taking action, he studied, watched, asked questions, and worked to define both what was wrong with the Eagles and what they should eventually be doing right.
The Eagles turned the corner in 2000 and have been one of the most dominant teams in the National Football League ever since. From 2000 through 2010, the Eagles have amassed 113 wins against only 62 losses. They have advanced to the playoffs nine times, to the NFC conference championship five times, and to the Super Bowl once. Their 2004 Super Bowl run ended in their loss of the championship game, but the Eagles have established themselves as a perennial Super Bowl contender and as a dramatically different organization from the one Lurie purchased in 1994.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Team Turnarounds: A Playbook for Transforming Underperforming Teams by Joe Frontiera and Daniel Liedl. Copyright (c) 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.
[Image: B Calkins via Shutterstock]