From Cleats to Wingtips
Gale Sayers, Roger Staubach, and other sports legends-turned-CEOs use lessons from the playing field to foster success in the workplace.
November 1 2001 by John Steinbreder
It’s been a long time since anyone shouted Gale Sayers’ name over a public address system as he scampered down a football field, or marveled at the tight spirals Roger Staubach threw over the artificial turf at Texas Stadium. Mannie Jackson hasn’t dribbled around defenders to the strains of “Sweet Georgia Brown” for decades now, and Lyndon Johnson was in the White House when Willie Davis played on his first Super Bowl championship team.
But it’s not unusual to hear people talk about how well these and other former professional athletes are faring as businessmen. Sayers, 58, the longtime Chicago Bears halfback, is founder and CEO of Sayers Group, a Chicago-area computer services firm that posted $300 million in sales last year and employs 275. In his office are reminders of his celebrated past: framed jerseys from the University of Kansas (No. 48) and the Chicago Bears (No. 40).
Staubach, 59, the famed Dallas Cowboy, now quarterbacks a $240 million international real estate firm. Jackson, who declined to give his age, owns the Harlem Globetrotters, the barnstorming basketball team for which he played during the mid-1960s. Since taking over eight years ago, he has transformed an outdated and dying franchise into a thriving entertainment business expected to reap profits of $6 million this year.
And then there’s Davis, 67, the former Green Bay Packers defensive end. He’s now CEO of All-Pro Broadcasting, a Los Angeles-based company that owns and operates five radio stations, three in Milwaukee and two in southern California. At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, up from his playing weight of 260, Davis admits he can intimidate people who don’t know him. But underneath, he insists, he’s a “softie,” as his friends call him, as well as a very capable executive.
Unlike many of today’s professional athletes who own companies but leave the daily operations to others, these four men are operational executives who actually run their own businesses. They say there is value to the military- inspired sports clichÃ©s of preparation, perseverance, leadership, and teamwork. At the same time, they say, it hasn’t been easy building credibility as businessmen independent of their athletic fame. But overall, their experiences-and celebrity-as pro athletes have proven a huge help to growing businesses and managing people.
Come to Games Dressed to Play
Long before they ever stepped into a boardroom, these Hall of Famers learned the importance of being prepared and paying attention to detail. For Staubach, that lesson came from Tom Landry, the legendary Cowboys coach who set a National Football League record with 20 consecutive winning seasons from 1966 through 1985.
“He was an engineer by training and a real management-by-objectives person who was very organized and big on preparation,” says Staubach, also an engineer by training. “He believed in having goals that were achievable and measurable, and he believed that you needed to be prepared in order to do what you set out to do.” That was never more clear, Staubach recalls, than the week before Super Bowl VI in 1972. Night after night, coach and quarterback studied videotapes of the Miami Dolphins’ defense in Landry’s hotel room. Together, they devised an imaginative offense that worked flawlessly, as Dallas trounced Miami, 24-3, to win its first Super Bowl. Staubach was named the game’s MVP.
Staubach has applied that same degree of preparation to his real estate career. He knew he would still be a young man when he retired from football (38, as it turned out), so he entered business in the early 1970s, working in the off-season for the Henry S. Miller Co., a Dallas real estate firm. Squeezing in time at the office around his regular training workouts, he studied such topics as limited partnerships, land syndication, and corporate real estate tax benefits until he knew them as well as football X’s and O’s.
Today, The Staubach Co., which specializes in office, retail, and industrial space, has grown so large that it maintains more than 40 offices and a work force of 1,200. Company projects include 65 business locations in the Americas, Europe, and Asia for Netscape, and a major relocation for Mobil that included building 231,000 square feet of office space north of Houston.
But transitioning from celebrated athlete to successful business leader is harder than it looks-for Staubach, and for Sayers. Sayers says respect on the gridiron came easily. “I had a God-given talent,” he says. He was such a star at the University of Kansas from 1961 to 1965 that he was known as the “Kansas Comet.” In 1977, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 34.
But the world of computer business was another story. In 1984, Sayers and his wife Ardythe founded the Sayers Group-and confronted stereotypes. “Many people considered athletes dumb jocks, and I wanted to break loose from that barrier,” he recalls.
To make matters worse, Sayers says, some people believe his company’s success stems from quotas and government contracts. “I wish I could say that the world is perfect, but it’s not, and we still have some prejudice about minority suppliers,” the CEO points out.
Sayers works hard to overcome preconceived notions. He takes pains to keep up on everything related to his business, which distributes computer hardware and software and offers services such as installation and network design. When major companies such as Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM give training classes to Sayers Group employees who sell their products, Sayers sits in. “My name and my history as a halfback for the Chicago Bears may get me in three or four more doors,” says the CEO, whose company has more than 5,000 clients, including All-State Insurance, International Paper, and KPMG. “But if I don’t have a competitive price, a quality product, and great service, it doesn’t matter who I am or what I did.”
Sayers estimates he spends 15 days a month visiting customers. Occasionally he invites clients to Chicago Bears games. He has season tickets on the 50-yard line, 18 rows behind the team’s benches. Although the customers love it, Sayers pays a price for being a celebrity. He is often besieged by autograph-seekers, allowing him little time for his guests or to enjoy the game.
One of the most valuable strengths gained in pro sports, Sayers and other CEOs say, is leadership. Sayers, Davis, and Staubach were all team captains at various times in their careers. Staubach ran the Dallas Cowboys offense when he was on the field. Jackson did much the same as point guard for the Globetrotters, bringing down the ball and setting up plays.
Born in a railway boxcar in Illmo, MO, Jackson reinvented himself many times. He grew up in Edwardsville, IL, and attended the University of Illinois. There he became the first African-American All-American and first black captain of the Illinois basketball team. He graduated in 1960 with a physical education degree, and joined the Globetrotters in 1962. He left professional basketball in 1968 to work for Honeywell as a contract administrator, and ascended the ranks at the manufacturing company. He served in marketing and operations roles, as well as president of two different divisions, one of which he helped grow to $250 million.
Jackson tested his leadership skills when he returned to the Globetrotters as a consultant in 1992. “I gave a speech to the players at that time, and my intention was to tell them that I would be folding the team and turning it into a licensed-products organization,” he recalls. “It was just doing that badly. But as I got into my speech and looked into the eyes of some of the great players from the team’s past, I started telling a different story. I started talking about building a competitive team again, about being known for our charitable contributions and being good to kids. Suddenly, I wasn’t the same guy who had written a business plan in which the team folded. It was like being a point guard again, seeing an opening and going for it.”
In 1993, Jackson led a group of investors that purchased the Globetrotters for $5.5 million, and then, once again, he set off on a mission to establish himself-and the team. He borrowed from the brand-building playbook of Abe Saperstein, who founded the organization in the 1920s, and through a mix of P.T. Barnum and Bill Veeck, turned it from a bunch of Chicago players into a barnstorming team and worldwide phenomenon known as the Harlem Globetrotters. Jackson also used leverage he had built at Honeywell to convince The Wall Street Journal, among other publications, to write about his goal of turning the Globetrotters brand around. Only then did he solicit large corporations for sponsorship.
“I had to get credibility in the business community so that when I walked into the office of General Mills or Denny’s or Target or Reebok, the executives would see me first as a capable businessperson,” Jackson wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review in May detailing his success with the 75-year-old team. Those efforts, and others-including playing the Globetrotters against top college teams to showcase their skill and showmanship and breaking the company into accountable business units-paid off. In 1992, the year Jackson gave his speech, the once-beloved Globetrotters were drawing fewer than 300,000 fans and losing about $1 million a year. This year, he estimates, attendance will reach 2 million, and the business will be profitable.
When Willie Davis went into business, he was amazed that some people wanted to work with him just because they remembered him as a Green Bay Packer.
“Many times, it was kind of strange,” he remembers, “because they would know your whole background, they would give you chapter and verse: €˜I know you’re an All-Pro and you guys played in two Super Bowls. I saw you coming in from that left end and I still remember your number was 87.’”
But Davis realized celebrity alone would not make his beverage distributorship a success. As one of Vince Lombardi’s former players, the executive understood the virtue of perseverance better than most. His former coach was famous for demanding the highest effort from his players and for coining a slew of sayings that have since become clichÃ©. One of his well-known adages is, “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” That’s something the Hall of Fame defensive lineman and player for the first two Super Bowl championship teams took to heart long ago.
The Harder You Work, the Harder It Is to Surrender
“Working hard and sticking to the job you are doing are two things I learned in football, and they are two things that have made me successful as a business person,” explains Davis, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Grambling State University in 1956 and picked up his MBA from the University of Chicago in 1968, two years before he retired from the Packers. “In fact, one of my greatest strengths as a CEO is my ability to stick to something, no matter what project I undertake. You can run into serious problems if you don’t have a strong will.”
Davis put that determination to work immediately after leaving football and entering the beverage business as a distributor for Schlitz beer. “That was in 1970, and I was the first minority to get a franchise from a major brewery,” he says. “Through a lot of hard work and perseverance, I was not only able to build it to the No. 1 position in South Central Los Angeles, but also maintain that position even as the brand started to deteriorate.”
Interestingly, Davis finds that one of his greatest strengths can also be one of his biggest weaknesses. “I sometimes am so dogged, so determined, that I stick with a situation perhaps longer than I should,” he acknowledges. “It’s something I still have to guard against.”
Davis and the others say one of the main ingredients of their continued success is their ability to motivate others. Not surprisingly, the value of teamwork ranks as high as any principle. “The key in our industry is getting smart people, talented people, and then getting them to think of someone other than themselves,” explains Staubach. “It’s not just one person, and it can’t be, because our company is one of the largest of its kind in the U.S., and we have some very strong partnerships overseas.”
But while the experience of leading a sports team prepared them for managing employees, in some respects heading a company requires a different kind of skill, Staubach says. In addition to leading by example and calling out plays, as he did for the Cowboys, he also finds himself spending time on smaller tasks, such as e-mailing staff to compliment them when he hears praise from a customer or manager about their work.
“It’s not just giving them a pep talk and saying, €˜Let’s win one for the Gipper,’” Staubach points out. “It’s a constant process of letting them know how important they are to each other and the company and, obviously, to the customers.”
Of course, regardless of a CEO’s ability to motivate his workforce, establish credibility and name recognition, and prepare for an ever-changing marketplace, the product or service his company sells must be sound. “No one is going to do business with you if you can’t get the job done,” insists Staubach. For years now, Gale Sayers, Roger Staubach, Mannie Jackson, and Willie Davis have proven they can do just that-in a pinstriped suit as well as in a team uniform.