Jim Rooney highlights leadership lessons learned from his father, Dan Rooney

 

Jim Rooney set out to write a book about his father in part because he saw Dan Rooney as someone who could be both a good person and a winner.

“I also thought about this idea that there are a lot of conversations about empathy in the workplace,” Jim told a capacity crowd at the Smart Business Dealmakers Conference in March. “And then there are a lot of conversations about winning. What I saw my father do well was blend the two. He was able to really find the balance between setting the highest standards possible and achieving outcomes, while also integrating having that respect for everyone who was involved in the process.”

In writing “A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney’s story from the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule,” Jim — co-partner of Rooney Consulting — highlighted his father’s approach through major, transformational initiatives in his father’s life. And he distilled leadership lessons he learned from his father’s philosophies and approach.

“He was always looking at the big picture,” Jim said, noting that his father was known often to broaden the question. “If things were going well, he would ask the deep questions about what could go wrong. And when things were wrong, he always talked about what’s going well.”

Dan kept the long-game in perspective, making decisions based on the impact as far into the future as could be considered, and was focused on doing the right thing, or making decisions based on a larger set of circumstance than his own self-interest. From an organizational standpoint, Jim said, his father was disciplined in always trying to make decisions through the prism of those foundational philosophies.

“Going from values to output, for him, was pretty straightforward,” he said. “There were values, which centered around his beliefs. And the culture was about his set of beliefs but also other people’s beliefs and how people really embody those.”

Finding a fit

For Dan, the team — whether it was a management team or a football team — was responsible for execution. And in his eyes, there’s a direct pathway from buy-in to driving outcomes. In that process, culture is the engine.

“If we’re running a company, we want it driven by our beliefs, and then we want execution,” Jim said. “But this was the engine where things were held together, in terms of culture. I think that he understood that. He also understood that culture is always dynamic, and it’s never static. And so if you say these are your beliefs, every day your behaviors have to back that up.”

The most important aspect of any endeavor, according to Dan, is the people.

“If you’re going to get something done well, you need good people around
you,” Jim said of his father’s approach to organizational management. “And they’re probably going to do more work than you are as the leader, so make sure they’re qualified. Make sure they have the same beliefs as you, that they’re competent.”

This philosophy manifested itself in Dan’s hiring of three head coaches for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 50 years — two of whom are in the NFL Hall of Fame. During a process that’s as competitive and nerve-testing as hiring an NFL head coach, the urge is to work fast before the best candidates are gone, Jim explained. But not Dan. His process with the hiring of current Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was methodical, starting with 37 candidates, then cutting down to 12, then to four before landing on Tomlin.

“Taking that time, being that deliberative in the hiring process, he really got to see the fit — the social fit, the cultural fit, the fit from a moral standpoint, a belief standpoint — that he was going to fit into our organization,” Jim said.

Creating a collective future

Jim had a front-row seat to see his dad work through the process of creating the Rooney Rule. At the time it was being developed, there were few blueprints in terms of diversity policies. So in its earliest stages, there were many conversations around ensuring merit was involved in the hiring, overcoming obstacles of bias and removing barriers.

As chairman of the diversity committee after the policy development, Dan continued to press owners to interview more diverse candidates for jobs that the Rooney Rule didn’t even require because he understood that the pipeline is important, Jim said. That required conversations around why this would be good for an organization or for the future of football. There was also the negotiation of a tangle of related issues — from legal items to developing the candidate pool — all of which had to be systematically addressed.

“You hear the Rooney Rule and you think it’s one policy, but it was much more of a process of facing the challenges of diversity,” Jim said. “And my father would be the first one to say the challenge is still here. We still have a lot of work to do. But his contribution, at least from what I saw, was pretty significant and pretty in-depth.”

Prior to the Rooney Rule, Jim said there were seven minority hires from 1920 to 2003. Since then, there have been 30. And there have also been significant increases in the number of minority assistant coaches and on-field officials.

Further, Jim noted, the Rooney Rule now has influence outside the NFL. Organizations like Goldman Sachs and Amazon have developed hiring rules at least in part modeled after the Rooney Rule. The legal profession developed the Mansfield rule, a sort of next-gen Rooney Rule that calls for 30 percent diversity in lawyers being considered for key firm roles, including leadership.

Stepping into trouble

Negotiating ambitious change, such as the Rooney Rule, meant stepping into a situation without the ability to have a clear sense of the outcome.

“But he stepped into them fully,” Jim said. “He dealt with the mess. He always felt that going through a mess was better than going around it, that you were going to get a better solution. You didn’t fear something because it was going to be hard. In fact, if you went through it you probably would come up with a better solution.”

That sentiment was there when Jim’s father started going to Ireland in the late 1960s during what was known as the Northern Ireland Conflict — a 30-year period of violence and civil unrest.

Dan funded education programs designed to put Catholics and Protestants into the same schools and funded business incubator programs. He would talk to entrepreneurs, teachers and the principals of these programs, bringing together people engaged in serious conflict and building relationships.

“He had conversations with people on both sides of these initiatives over and over again, but he just believed that you had to be there,” Jim said. “You had to be in those difficult situations if you were going to make any progress. And then you had to do that over a long period of time if it was going to be effective.”

Follow the leader

Jim said his father had great foresight. He was able to envision a future and then get people to rally around that vision. But he also had what Jim refers to as great peripheral vision.

“He had this great rigor,” Jim said. “He took time and really tried to understand all of the consequences. It was sometimes slower and sometimes more tedious and sometimes created some level of frustration, but he really tried to understand not just where you want to get to, but what are the ramifications of it? And then re-factor how he was going to get somewhere by the more information or the more perspective that he had.”

And so from Jim’s standpoint, the most important quality of his father’s leadership is what he called followership.

“You do things that people want to follow,” he said. “And absolutely, unequivocally, the thing that I have seen that works the best is authenticity.”

To be an effective leader requires that people believe in you, and they believe in leaders based on leaders’ behaviors, how they present themselves.

“If you are more type A, that’s fine, but be authentic,” Jim said. “If you’re in a leadership position, you’re going to have some profile and some degree of attention on you, but be who you are and people are going to be much more willing to follow.”

 

Takeaways:

Keep the big-picture in mind.
Tackle challenges head on.
Be authentic.