These 3 Self-Inflicting Wounds Made Atlanta Falcons a Fast Growth Failure

Cliff Oxford

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

It is one thing to start a company and never really get any traction but it is shear gut wrenching agony when you start with fast success, build high expectations and then the leadership just absolutely blows it with self-inflicted wounds spiraling the company downward.

I know we read a lot on why companies can’t grow and the usual top three reasons are: can’t scale, no structure, or never systematized the business. While there is some truth to these reasons, they are mostly academic and way over analyzed. The self-inflicted wounds that cause many fast growth companies to become fast failures are far more about ego and almost a heroes-like complex that drives the need for entrepreneurs to be a popular figure more so than a strong leader.

I am not talking about blowing a major sale or product launch. I am talking about the unraveling of the whole company or team where you have blown the franchise and competitors now easily eat your lunch every day of the week.

It is humiliating just like on Dec. 8 when we left legendary Lambeau field in Wisconsin with our heads hanging low as the Green Bay Packers beat our Atlanta Falcons. Oh yes, we heard the nice condolences from the Green Bay fans who stroked our disappointment even more by saying, “at least you made a game of it.”

Since being four yards away from the Superbowl in 2012, the Flacons have blown it and imploded into an embarrassing record of nine wins and 20 losses. They were an up and coming elite team that blew it exactly in the same kind of ways that I see fast growth companies blow up after a blazing start when everybody in the company is proclaiming they will be the next Facebook or Google. Instead, they flame out and become the next Myspace which ran out of ideas and customers after getting outclassed and outplayed by a superior competitor.

Just like the Falcons, these rising fast growth stars fall hard due to three self-inflicted wounds shot straight from the top of the leadership team starting with the CEO. Each self-inflicted wound is totally avoidable if the CEO will let go of their ego of wanting to be popular among the team: 

  1. You can’t let up in the oversized demands in the midst of all the winning and smiling by the team. Vince Lombardi often said he was the toughest and hardest on his team after wins not losses. He felt the whole city was cheering the team on after wins so his job was bring them down to earth so they could work harder than ever. This is one of the hardest things to do as a leader because it’s human nature to want to cheer and celebrate with the team. Bill Gates remained tough and combative at Microsoft and he was thought to be a crazy mean nerd. It’s so much easier to choose to be the nice guy CEO than a nerdy crazy guy who demands even more from the team. After the Falcons got so close to the throne in that 2012 NFC championship game, players have said and Falcons Coach Smith admitted on the HBO series Hard Knocks they accepted less demands and a lot more excuses in missing daily routines and activities than they did when he was a rookie head coach demanding everything be perfect at practice. He let up as the wins came and the Falcons rose in stature. For example, Falcons star tight end Tony Gonzalez retired and both the General manager and coach begged him to come back and agreed he would only have to participate in a light training camp, a self-inflicted wound straight to the head. I did this with a star sales person one time. To get them to come back, I loaded him up on house accounts and was easy on him in sales meetings. The result was that I created an environment where the next house account was more coveted than a new account. Everybody wanted the same rules as the superstar I had anointed. What you are doing with these little sidebar deals tells everyone you will compromise your values and everything you preach about team work is phony.

  2. Getting too big for your britches as the Flacons did when they announced in training camp that they would go to the Superbowl in 2013 is another self-inflicting wound. For the Falcons who had only won one playoff game in 10 years, and for fast growth companies, focus on winning one game at a time is a much more productive strategy. To make matters worse, the Falcons invited HBO’s Hard Knocks into their 2014 training camp after a disastrous, disappointing 2013 season. It appeared that Falcons management have craved so much to be America’s team that they accepted temporary stardom over the hard work and bonding needed to reclaim a winning attitude and ethic rooted in all champions. Hey, I am all for PR but sometimes you need to dial it back when the company is going through a rough sales season or slump.

  3. Fast growth leadership gets a big head and starts to think the system and process are more important than the talent. They begin to think it is easy as we will just “plug a person in” and we will automatically win. It’s actually even more than just the system and process when management thinks like this. What management is really saying is, winning is more about us in management than the players playing or the employees doing the work. A fatal self-inflicted wound. Every fast growth CEO needs to learn a lesson from Jimmy Johnson, an unconventional, creative coach and leader who won the Superbowl and national college championship. Johnson remarked, “it’s great players who make coaches great, not great coaches who make players great.” In short, focus on demanding world class talent on the team and less on the process as the Falcons did when the coach decided in 2013 to map out all the logistics from the first day of training camp through the final hotel arrangements at the Superbowl.

To keep growing and winning without shooting yourself in the foot is a matter of how well you handle success. In fact, being hard on failure can be easy. Being hard on success takes an extraordinary leader and fast growth success stats show there are not many around.