It’s a cliché that runs deep in the sport:
Football is a team game.
But, really, it is. The truth of the matter is,
there’s a lot more teamwork that goes into
running the Chicago Bears Football Club
Inc. than the cohesion shown by the players on Sundays.
And that’s where Ted Phillips comes into
play. Phillips, the president and CEO, is in
charge of running the team’s business operations. From the time he was put into that
role in 1999, he’s been focused on getting
his roughly 130 employees to work as a
In his years with the Bears, Phillips has
helped the organization push through to
become a financial success in the National
Football League by working with the city to
fund a large-scale, several-hundred-million-dollar renovation of Soldier Field, where
the team plays home games. He’s also positioned the team to have success on the
field, as the Bears made it to Super Bowl
XLI at the end of the 2006 season — their
first trip to the big game since the end of
the 1985 season.
In the mega-hype world of professional
football, where rookies are often given
endorsements and multimillion-dollar
contracts before they even set foot on the
field or take one snap, one might think
that Phillips’ success would be something
that would come up easily in conversation. That assumption, however, would be
“The biggest thing in terms of being able
to accomplish all of that was I had some
great people around me; I had a great team
of people,” he says.
And that team is what Phillips focuses
his leadership around. In order to do
great things, he believes you have to put
together a team of people who can work
So while the Bears are privately owned,
and guard their financial numbers with a
few of their offensive linemen, Phillips’
team has earned some respect. Forbes put the team’s valuation at $1.1 billion, ranking
it ninth in the 2008 list of NFL teams — not
bad considering the Bears were purchased
for $100 in 1920.
Here are a few tips from Phillips on how
to get everyone to run the same play.
Hire team players
The cover of a football team’s press
guide may be a picture of a quarterback or
a middle linebacker, but the daily blocking
and tackling of everybody on the field is
what makes it successful. Phillips looks at
his team on the inside the same way. And
that starts with scouting the right team
“You have to hire well,” he says.
In order to hire smart people who can fit
in with your team, Phillips says there are
some characteristics you can look for.
“You want to find people who are flexible
in their thinking, not rigid,” he says.
“Everyone always talks about the right fit,
and you want people who can check their
ego at the door and be truly team players.
... That makes your team more cohesive
and better in the long run.”
The key to finding talented people who
can check their ego at the door is in letting
them tell their story. After you vet the
resumes and find people you think are
going to be sharp, bring them in and ask
them to talk about their accomplishments.
As they talk, hear what they are saying to
see if they’re interested in moving forward
the daily tasks of the team or if they are a
needy, me-first wide receiver.
“Some of it is how they answer questions
during interviews,” Phillips says. “As they
are talking, are they using the I language
about everything that they did or are they
talking about how they added to the efficiency or the overall good of the company
or the department that they were working
You can’t do all the hiring yourself, of
course, so make sure that this hearing test
is being administered by your direct reports as they hire.
“I try to instill that in my direct reports
when they’re hiring people,” Phillips says.
“You tell them to be alert for red flags that
go up in someone’s personality. Are they
being arrogant; are they talking too much
The other part of getting that philosophy
down to your direct reports is ask them to
have other people test personalities. When
it comes to hiring, involve different people
and let them know they are looking for
someone who can put the team first and
warn them to look for a personality that
can’t do that.
“You talk to them about it as they’re interviewing to make sure there’s a fit personal-itywise with your other staff,” Phillips says.
“(That’s) not just the person interviewing,
but make sure they get some input from
other people in that department as to
whether the candidate is a good fit or not.
Hand the ball off
In order to have an efficient team, you
have to create systems that give people leeway so there isn’t a bottleneck when it
comes to making decisions.
“You have to empower people, you have
to give them responsibility, you try to create an environment of collective responsibility,” Phillips says.
To get that, you can’t be right on top of
your people all the time. Instead, try setting
up regular meetings with your direct
reports where they can give you detailed
timelines, status updates and bring up
points of note. In between those, don’t
poke your head in every day looking to
take on their responsibilities or have everything done the way you would do it.
“I don’t micromanage,” Phillips says. “A
lot of times, I don’t ask for all the details; I
try to teach people, ‘Have confidence in
yourself. It’s OK to take risks; it’s OK to
make mistakes. It’s just if you make them,
try not to repeat the same one.”
While you should hang back and trust employees, you also
have to make yourself a resource. Phillips has regular meetings
with his direct reports, but he doesn’t tell them to hold off if they
are in need of help.
“I always tell people, ‘If there is something critical, you don’t
have to wait for the next scheduled meeting,’” he says.
But all of that comes with a caveat.
“People want responsibility, but they have to have accountability, too,” Phillips says.
Accountability in a culture where you want to empower people can be tricky. But Phillips likes to use his check-in points
with his direct reports as a teaching example. You can make mistakes like lying or stealing fireable offenses, but make other mistakes a learning opportunity the first time they’re made. That
will let employees know that they can take a risk and, instead of
finding themselves on a guillotine, they’ll get positive reinforcement.
“When they do make those mistakes, they start to realize
that you’re not just bringing the hammer down on them; that
you’re using it as a teaching opportunity,” he says. “And after
awhile it gets ingrained in employees that, ‘OK, I understand
that.’ And it all goes with wanting more responsibility and
being accountable. But being accountable doesn’t mean that
you get fired every time that you make a mistake.”
By giving people the rope to make a mistake, you give them
empowerment. But by reiterating with them that a big mistake
is a one-time thing, you keep accountability. If you can keep
doing that consistently, you will have a culture of empowerment.
“You end up building mutual respect and trust in different dealings, and employees begin to trust you when what you say is
consistent with the actions you take,” Phillips says. “It’s easy to
say, ‘Don’t worry about it; you can make these mistakes,’ but
then when you turn around and act a different way, people start
wondering about where you’re coming from. If you’re just consistent in your approach, then, over time, employees start to
realize that there is some method to your madness.”
There’s one last thing that Phillips says can be done to empower people: Give them a little credit here and there. Whenever he
talks to the company about successes, he lets people know who
handled the project and who they worked with. The end result
is people like to take on a little more responsibility because they
know they’ll get recognition.
“I give them credit when something is done well,” he says. “My
direct reports know that the credit gets shared. They like that.
Understand that everyone needs a pat on the back once in
awhile — a simple thank you sometimes goes a long way.”
Hear all the voices in the huddle
If you want people to feel like they are part of a team, they
have to feel like they have a voice. To Phillips, giving them that
voice comes from two-way communication. That begins with
“Learn how to listen,” he says. “You can learn a lot more when
you listen to people than when you’re talking yourself.”
That process is about pairing the mental and physical aspects
of listening together. The basics are to shut your mouth and
make sure you look attentive and are paying attention.
“You make eye contact, you let them finish their thoughts before you speak, some basic ideas really,” he says. “You let them finish
their thoughts, their ideas — even if you disagree, you don’t immediately criticize. You accept, you try to add other points and give
them a different direction to think about.”
It’s also about giving employees a more comfortable work
atmosphere where they can be heard. It’s always hard for CEOs
to break down walls with employees, but make sure you take
the time to say hello to people in the hallways or during lunch.
“Yes, we have an organizational structure, yes people know
that I’m the CEO, but I like to treat my direct reports the same
as I treat my lower-level employees and try to engage people,
even if its just a couple of minutes during the day in the hallway,
just so they feel that they, too, are an important piece of the
organization,” Phillips says. “Everybody needs to feel they have
some input; everybody needs to feel that their job means something.”
For Phillips, that process sometimes means giving his funniest
two minutes of stand up. When it comes to breaking the ice with
people, it helps to have a few good jokes — or at least jokes that
you think are pretty good.
“People need to enjoy their job every day because people
spend so many hours in the workplace, and so I do believe in not
taking yourself too seriously,” he says. “You have to laugh at
times. You have to use humor — especially in a situation where
you’re negotiating something with somebody. Oftentimes,
humor can be used to diffuse tension in a certain situation.”
The second part of two-way communications is checking for
clarity. You have to ask people questions to make sure that you
heard what they said and they understood your response.
Phillips likes to clarify points when there’s some disagreement
by asking people to repeat their points more concisely and then
follow up by giving summations of his own points.
“I also try to encourage people to understand that just because
you say something, the key is, did the person you’re talking to
hear it the way you intended it to be heard,” he says. “And if you
don’t ask questions of people, you don’t find out those kinds of
things sometimes until it’s too late.”
HOW TO REACH: Chicago Bears Football Club Inc., www.chicagobears.com