Oswald Letter

7 lessons for better managers from Alabama coach Nick Saban

by Dan Oswald

Some of you might get tired of my use of sports stories to illustrate good management, but when I see something like the recent 60 Minutes piece on University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, I’m struck by the parallels between coaching a sport and managing people. In the end, people are people. Successful strategies to manage, mold, and motivate them are consistent across the playing field and the workplace.

If you want to learn how to manage from a winner, look no further than Saban. His Alabama Crimson Tide are looking for their third straight national title and fourth in the last five years. You may not be a football fan or a University of Alabama fan, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons you can learn from the man who runs the most successful football program in the country today.

Here are seven lessons I took away from the 60 Minutes interview with Saban.

1. Create a standard for how you want things done—and then get everyone to buy into it. Saban sets high expectations for the way things will be done in his program, and then he relentlessly holds everyone to that standard. His expectations aren’t a sometimes thing; they’re an all-the-time thing. And everyone is held to the same high standard—no exceptions.

2. Team chemistry is critical. In the interview, Saban says, “Mediocre people don’t like high achievers, and high achievers don’t like mediocre people.” By seeking out as many high achievers as he possibly can, he doesn’t leave much room for mediocre people. And for those who might find their way onto his team, it isn’t likely they’ll last long because they’re held to the high standards he has created.

3. Spend time making sure you’re adding the right people to your team. Saban says that if he likes a high-school recruit, he will watch every single play of his high-school career. He doesn’t rely on the highlights or what someone tells him about the player. He wants to see every play for himself so he can evaluate the overall body of work. Imagine if you put the same time and effort into recruiting for your open positions. You might just end up with a world-class team like Saban has.

4. “The process.” Saban has created what he calls “the process.” For him, it boils down to this: “Focus on doing your job at the highest level every single play. The wins will follow.” Again, great advice for anyone in the workplace. How often do people get caught up in office politics and what’s going on in other departments instead of focusing on doing their job exceptionally well? As a manager, creating an atmosphere and expectation that people must focus on their job and doing it at the highest level should be at the top of your priority list.

5. Be on time. When a player arrives late for a meeting, Saban reprimands him by saying, “Be on time because it shows you care.” And he makes other points by demanding that players be punctual. It’s a reminder about the standard he sets for his players and that they can’t focus on doing their job at the highest level if they aren’t on time for the meeting. In the end, Saban’s consistency and attention to detail are what allow for his success.

6. Invest in those you manage. As a coach, Saban speaks of making an investment in his players. He puts time and effort into each of them, helping them realize their potential. And he talks about how gratifying it is when he sees progress and, on the other hand, how frustrating it can be to see a lack of progress. We all should consider the investment we’re making in each of the people we manage—not just in salary but also in time. Make sure you’re investing the time necessary to allow them to succeed.

7. Give back. When a tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the University of Alabama, Saban and his players volunteered to help rebuild the city. The coach called on his players to “serve the people who have always supported us.” Even in his relentless pursuit of perfection, Saban understands there are other things that are more important than his job, and he took time away from it to give back.

Nick Saban has built a program that is unmatched in its success in college football. He has done it by relentlessly pursuing perfection through attention to detail and creating a high standard for those who work and play for him. And there is plenty that every manager can learn from him and apply to the workplace.