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Management Lessons From The Leafs' 'Winning' Season

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"Not a chance will you see us deviate from the plan."

This is what we were told by a senior executive at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) about half way though the Leafs 2015-16 hockey season. While this declaration would have been met with extreme skepticism virtually any time in the last five decades, this year it had a ring of truth.

Ever since Brendan Shanahan was hired as team president before the 2014-15 season, he has chanted -- and lived by -- the same mantra: The Leafs will rebuild the franchise in a slow, disciplined way, developing young talent from within, giving them time to mature in the minors, and not being distracted by any shiny penny, over-the-hill stars being dangled in front of them by other teams looking to dump big salaries.

And the result? Toronto ended up dead last this year in the NHL, 30th out of 30 teams. So how could this be a winning season, especially since their last place finish only gave them a 20 per cent chance at the #1 draft pick (which they got), you may ask? Because there weren't riots in the streets or people lighting their hair on fire in the most hockey mad, and Stanley Cup starved, city in NHL hockey even thought they didn't make the playoffs...again. Because with the worst talent in the league, the Leafs actually played pretty well, in spite of their dismal record. And because, for the first time since the early 90s, the mostly respectable on-ice performance by this band of hockey ragamuffins, even in a losing cause, is a harbinger of good things to come.

There is a different feeling in the hockey air in Toronto. It is a feeling infused with hope, not just for making the playoffs in the not-to-distant future, but because people -- lots of people -- are thinking that this is the management team that could return Toronto to the hockey glory it was accustomed to in the 40s, 50s and 60s. This is why we are declaring this a winning season for the Leafs. We attribute the team's success to three qualities, ones that can be emulated by senior executives in organizations of all shapes and sizes:

A realistic long-term plan and the discipline to stick to it.

There is nothing unique or clever about the Leafs' long-term plan. Building from within with good draft picks is one of the oldest game plans in the book for professional sports teams. It has been proven effective for decades by teams around the globe, not to mention that it just makes sense. The basic and proven logic of the approach made the plan believable. What also made it believable is, after years of Leaf management regimes making the same promise, only to break it come the first shiny penny, Shanahan consistently resisted the temptation to deviate.

He walked the walk. He made it clear he was willing to live through horrible hockey for a couple of years in order to stick with his plan. And he did. And while most nights this season, to everyone's surprise, we didn't get horrible hockey, we did have a horrible record. His resolve in staying the course was important because it sent a message that, unlike the past, this wasn't a "flavour of the month" plan, as so often happens in organizations.

By sticking to the plan, Shanahan was sending a message to everyone else at MLSE that they had to stick to the plan, too. If he had strayed from the plan, it would have sent a message to the organization that it was back to business as usual, as defined by the last 50 years of Leaf performance, or lack thereof, in the management suite as well as on the ice.


This might seem like a strange quality to associate with this year's Leafs but we aren't talking about the players, we are referring to the executive team. Shanahan hired leaders who he knew were better than him. As talented as he is, he understands the limits of his own ability and, putting his ego aside, he hired executives who were best in class. Mike Babcock is generally recognized as the best coach in hockey. Lou Lamoriello has a long history of success as general manager with an under-funded, under-resourced franchise in New Jersey, including winning three Stanley Cups.

There is a long list of Shanahan hires whose names aren't as familiar but who are recognized within the hockey community as top notch talent. Shanahan's success in building such a strong management team was due primarily to his ability to repress his own ego in favour of what was in the best interest of the team. This is one of the critical leadership qualities identified by James Collins in his bestseller, Good To Great.


"There will be pain," Mike Babcock said many times about the Leafs rebuilding process. When he was hired last summer as general manager, Lou Lamoriello said "There's no question you have to build a foundation before you can go anywhere. Yes it could be slow, there could be more pain, because there could be more subtraction than addition to get that foundation, to get the right culture going forward." Nobody in the Leafs front office has sugar-coated the difficulty in building a strong, sustainable franchise.

This was a classic -- and bold -- example of perception management: tell the truth about what's ahead, present a believable plan for success, surround it with a credible management team and people will buy in. Considering how critical the Leaf fan base is and how hungry they are to win, how quiet they have been this year in the face of the team's worst winning season ever is a testament to management's transparency and perception management.

Whether or not Shanahan is successful only time will tell. But the foundation is in place, he is making all of the right moves and he is being supported by Leaf Nation.

As you look at your own plan, management team and internal/external communication, can you say you are following the same formula? The best way to answer this question is not from your own perceptions, but from those around you.

Does your management team -- and everyone else in your organization -- feel they are united around a clear, concise and compelling plan or is there a lack of clarity around who you are as an organization and where you are going? Have you got the right people in place or is politics, friendships and legacy holding you back from making critical talent moves? Is the communication from management authentic or spin (never underestimate people's ability to see right through spin).

If your answers to these questions aren't aligned with the Shanahan formula, your company isn't likely performing to its potential.

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