What Tom Osborne Taught Me About Sales & Business Leadership

What Tom Osborne Taught Me About Sales & Business Leadership

Growing up in Nebraska provides a unique perspective on many topics ranging from the weather, work ethic, Midwest values and yes – college football. For a sparsely populated state, Nebraska has produced some notable figures including Warren Buffet, Johnny Carson, Henry Fonda and former President Gerald Ford. But few over the past few decades have had more of an impact on the lives of others than Nebraska’s former college football coach, Congressman and NU Athletic director Tom Osborne.

As many may know, Tom Osborne was the head coach for NU football from 1973-1997. At the time of his retirement, Osborne was the winningest college football coach in division 1-A and the fifth best of all time. Osborne won over 83.6% of his games in a state not well known for its sunny weather, beautiful mountains and beaches and large population. In fact, the total population to produce and recruit players from in Nebraska was less as a state than many of the largest cities in the country. So how did Osborne do it? How did he outperform and win against all others with the odds largely stacked against him?

I have read a number of books, articles and listened to Tom Osborne speak throughout the years about his work and all throughout this time, I have come to learn and apply his lessons to my own success in business and in life. When it comes to sales and sales management, I have found five of his key principles of leadership and culture to be invaluable to my own work and success and I wanted to share them with others here today…

Treat Your Salespeople Like Family

Tom Osborne created a unique culture at Nebraska that many former players refer to as a “family.” It was not uncommon to hear stories about how Osborne and his staff would not only know the players by name but also their families and extended families as well. This connect didn’t end when players graduated either. Throughout the years, Osborne always strived to create a connection to his former players that ran so deep to include weddings and even funerals. Through his actions of mutual respect from the greatest player to the shortest walk-on, Osborne fostered a unique level of respect, trust and admiration that is rarely seen in coaching and in business. LESSON LEARNED:Treat your salespeople like family and treat each and every one of them no worse than you would treat your own.

Recruiting Comes Before CoachingOsborne

Some of Tom Osborne’s former coaches would often speak about the high importance Osborne would place on the recruiting of talented players. Osborne clearly understood that all the coaching skill in the world could not create the core talent needed to compete and win at the highest levels. The same principle applies to sales. LESSON LEARNED: The most important role any sales manager has is to recruit the top sales talent needed to compete and win at the highest levels. You as a salesperson may be incredibly successful on your own but the ability to take what you know and multiply it in many others is the key to success and it all starts with finding the right team members. Remember: you cannot teach a mule to win the Kentucky Derby. No matter how much you teach them, no matter how much they know, they will never become a thoroughbred.

Build A Culture Around Your Ideal Salespeople

One of the more unique aspects of Nebraska football under Tom Osborne was the walk-on program – which comprised of nearly 50% of his players. Walk-on players are those who play for free and pay their own way since most were not deemed talented enough to receive a scholarship to play at this level of football. Most of these walk-ons were what Osborne would refer to as “over-achievers” with limited talents. Most came from small Nebraska farm towns that most people have never heard of yet all of them had one dream in common: to get the chance to run on the field and play football for Nebraska. Another thing they all had in common was a strong Midwest work ethic that infected the entire team. What they may have lacked in talent they made up for in a desire and work ethic that many of the most talent rich kids from across the nation had never seen before. Osborne would commonly state that these kids who sacrificed so much just to be a part of the team created the culture for the entire team and raised the level of results for all. LESSON LEARNEDIf you want to build a hard working and successful sales team, start by building your team around these type of people. The more of them you end up with, the more the others will want to play to their level of success. In the end, high expectations will be created for all and great results should follow and great performers will want to join your team while others will not.

Teach Your Salespeople How To Win & Learn From Your Losses

In the 1984 Orange bowl, Nebraska was playing Miami for an undefeated season and the national championship. At the end of the game, trailing 30-31, all Osborne’s team needed to do was kick an extra point to tie the game and win the national championship. Instead, he went for a two-point conversion and lost the game when it failed. When Osborne was asked why he went for two instead of the tie, he responded that “you play to win.” Ironically, Nebraska would suffer a similar heartbreak 9 years later following a failed field goal kick against FSU in a epic come back loss. It was the last bowl game Osborne would ever lose in his career. One of the great rivalries in the history of college football was the annual Nebraska versus Oklahoma games which in many years had national title implications under Osborne. Osborne now has very strong ties to his former rival and proudly tells others that Oklahoma, even after many losses to them, made Nebraska strive to become a better team. LESSON LEARNED: Never give up on winning and look back at every loss as a chance to learn and build on how you will get better. Winning is a culture and a habit – so is losing. You must chose and define one of these two paths for your salespeople otherwise your competition will do it for you.

Be Positive And Build A Positive Team Culture

Tom Osborne tells a story of how Lou Holtz came to visit Nebraska during a mid-season bi-week which is very unusual in college coaching. At the time, Holtz was coaching at Arkansas and commented after his visit at how amazed he was at how positive the culture was a Nebraska compared to most other teams. Instead of being critical of bad plays, the Nebraska coaches focused instead rewarded the great plays. Instead of being critical, team coaches were supportive. Nebraska coaches were setting the example for the team to follow in action and in deeds. LESSON LEARNED: The one thing both positivity and negativity have in common is they are both contagious. By nature people are engaged and energized by their passions and demotivated by negativity. A sales leader will create a fire in their people to want to be positive and succeed. A sales manager will create a fire under them based largely on fear – which leads to resentment. It is up to you to determine which path you create for others to follow.

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