Keeping yourself “Above the Line”

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Winning the game both on the field and in the showroom depends on the right mentality

Early in 2016, I decided to go back to coaching and accepted the Head Coach role for a Midget AA Boys hockey team.

For any of you familiar with seventeen year-olds, you certainly understand the challenges I was about to face.

With testosterone levels at an all-time high, teenage attitude is just part of the game, as it were. These young men typically know everything; and somehow, in some way, they were determined to prove it to me.

No matter what I did, I couldn’t get them to focus on playing right. Instead, they would come up with excuses about why something happened instead of focusing on what they needed to change to play better as a team.

Their excuse mechanism seemed to be embedded in their brains: if it wasn’t the referee’s fault, then it was our goalie’s fault, or the defence’s fault, etc. Most of the time, though, the real reason was staring right back at them in the mirror.

I wound up sharing some of my frustrations with a good friend in Cincinnati who proceeded to send me a gift in the mail — a book of all things.

But it was the right gift, at the right time.

This book not only helped our team turn the season around but also provided everyone with some great life lessons.

Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Season helped us see that by simply taking accountability for our actions, everything just became much easier.

Written by college football championship coach Urban Meyer, his story chronicles his 2014 season at Ohio State where his entire team and coaching staff lived and breathed what he calls an “Above the Line” mentality.

Meyer shares how despite winning two championships in six seasons in Florida, he had chosen to step back from the game amid health issues and an unhealthy pursuit of perfection.

In 2012, Meyer returned to the game with his “Above the Line” mentality which he was going to coach the Buckeyes.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve shared this book with family, friends, and colleagues, including my own team at SCI, and believe that Meyer’s words have merit both on and off the football field.

Meyer’s message is clear and powerful, and while it’s a complete mindset shift, it has the ability to change your life and that of your organization.

First off, let me say this: Meyer gives credit where credit is due. And while the term “Above the Line” is not his, his acute understanding of the power of that statement and how it can ignite a team, both on the field or in the boardroom, makes his lessons relevant and relatable.

In a nutshell, living life “Above the Line” means doing everything with intent, purpose and skill. It is about honesty and above all, taking accountability for your actions.

Living “Below the Line” is the antithesis of that; it is a way of being that implies resistance, impulsiveness and being on autopilot.

To remind yourself of which side of the line you’re operating on, just remember your ABCDs: Accountability means your are above the line; Blaming, Complaining or Defending your actions means you are below it.

Meyer speaks to the “Power of the Unit” as a core element that shaped his above the line mentality. He says that people do not experience your intentions, they experience your behaviour. He also lists the following: Competitive Excellence — elite performance requires elite preparation; Creating Culture — Leaders create culture; Culture drives behaviour/Behaviour produces results and the “Think Like a Leader Playbook” — leaders think deeply, originally and usually bravely.

While all add value and have merit, the two ideas that resonated with me the most focused on The Necessity of Alignment and The R Factor.

The R Factor was the most influential idea Meyer wrote about and the one I believe encapsulates the challenge of our industry. “It’s not what happens that matters. It’s how you respond,” he writes.

The R Factor is a powerful equation: E + R = O.

The “E” is the event, the “R” is the Response and the “O” stands for Outcome. Events happen and in most cases, are out of our control. Outcomes are also, to a certain extent, typically out of our control. All we have control over is the R — our Response, which influences the Outcome of any situation.

I consider the R Factor to be one of the most powerful, yet simple, principles I know.

Consider our industry: over the past decade, it has been turned on its head with the introduction of digital technology. It’s no longer the world we once knew, but has been profoundly changed by emerging technologies, a more educated customer and the fear of being left behind.

These three “events” took place relatively quickly if you span the 100+ years our industry has been around.

The outcome for some has been a decline in business, while others have flourished in the Internet Age.

The reality is that any business’s response to events will determine that organization’s outcome. One only has to look at Kodak, Blockbuster, Pan Am Airlines, and JC Penny to understand that a company’s response to an event (or events) will be the determining factor in its inevitable outcome.

While embracing the digital age has come easier for some, for many it remains a misunderstood area of business. Unfortunately, ignoring its existence is not the answer.

Being Above the Line means that as the business owner, you need to take accountability for the success of your business and not lay blame, complain or defend.

Taking accountability means asking yourself: “What can I do to change the outcome? How can I make a direct impact on our team and the business’s success by changing my mindset? Does our culture support an Above the Line mentality and, if not, what can I do to change that?”

As Meyer writes: “Average leaders have quotes. Good leaders have a plan. Exceptional leaders have a system”.

In an aligned organization, everyone has a purpose and understands — this is key says Meyer — how their contribution matters to the strategic goals of the business.

On the field, Meyer’s team fully understood that each player played a critical role to the success of the team; in fact, the Buckeyes captured the 2014 inaugural College Football Playoff Championship with the team’s third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones, at the helm.

This was Jones’ third start but he had embraced living Above the Line all season by practicing and preparing as if he were the starting QB. He understood that if he were called upon, he had an obligation to his team.

Off the field, an organization’s alignment is just as necessary.

In my case, I know that it’s critical that our strategy is understood and embraced by every individual in our organization, from myself and our entire Leadership Team to our senior and junior developers to our entire front of the line customer service team and junior accountants.

When we are aligned and understand that we all have a critical role to play, then we are like a well-oiled machine and charge forward towards our goals; our actions are purposeful, intentional and mindful.

And in the case of someone who is not aligned, it’s critical to find the kink in the chain and address it quickly. Ask the question “Why are they not responding and what can I do differently?”

This approach is a skill that takes time to learn; unfortunately, some just can’t adapt.

Meyer explains this as the 10-80-10 Principle. You have 10 percent of your team who are the stars, and 10 percent who underachieve. The rest fill in the 80 percent — those who are engaged but not to the fullest capacity. Therefore, task your top 10 with elevating the 80 percent to Top 10 Percent status.

And as for the bottom 10 percent, stop wasting time trying to motivate them. You have more important business to focus on so make the difficult choice and move them on. Your business will be better for it.

And for those curious, by playing Above the Line, my team turned things around and won our divisional championship, a great way to end a challenging season.

But most importantly, the lessons we learned last year have laid a foundation for a lifetime of success, no matter where we go.

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