The Redskins’ Entrepreneurial Lessons From Losing

November 23, 2011

1:00 pm

Winners embrace the truth, while losers hide from it.

It’s late November in Washington, and Redskins fans are performing the familiar ritual of writing off the current football season and waiting till next year… a ritual established in 1999 when current owner Daniel Snyder took over the once proud, winning football team.  Mr. Snyder has thrown money at the team, purchased expensive free-agent talent, rotated coaches and general managers, and through it all, there have been 2 constants:

1) The once mighty Redskins still suck

2) Dan Snyder still owns the team

Now I know that this is Tech Cocktail and not Sports Illustrated, so what does this have to do with technology or startups?  That can be answered with a story.

Last week I was leading a group of startup CEOs who had gathered to critique and improve each other’s businesses. Now this informal “mastermind group” is not a new idea; Napoleon Hill discusses the value of mastermind groups in his 1937 book Think and Grow Rich.  Steve Jobs had a business coach; Andrew Carnegie participated in a mastermind group. Soliciting criticism and feedback is a well -stablished formula for business success.

During last week’s session, one of the CEOs presented a plan to improve slumping sales.  When he finished and his peers began questioning portions of the plan, the CEO became defensive.  While valuable recommendations were made by his fellow startup professionals, he listened passively and would not commit to changing or taking any actions.

This guy wasn’t in the room to hear the truth.  He was in this meeting to have smoke blown up his butt.  As the facilitator, it is my job to ensure that each participant is confronted with the truth, and this CEO was having none of it.  As a moderator, I was awestruck and reminded of the tremendous hubris of Daniel Snyder.

You see, Dan Snyder has started and failed in multiple businesses prior to the Redskins.  Dan got lucky when he sold a business he founded and ran with his sister, Snyder Communications.  In the sale, he and his sister each amassed a fortune in excess of a billion dollars.

The fact that the only clear success Snyder achieved was when he worked with his sister is probably significant.  Besides his very public failure as owner of the Redskins, he presided over the bankruptcy of Six Flags, as well as several other failures as a young man.

Dan is not well-liked by Redskins fans or purportedly by fellow NFL owners.  He does not have a personal press relations problem.  Instead, he has a personal product management problem, and he has not made himself open to the constructive criticism that could correct his issues.

Dan has barred access to critical members of the press.  He has attempted to ban signs from the Redskins stadium because he got tired of reading “Dan Snyder Sucks.”  He has surrounded himself with yes-men, and he continues to produce inferior products and alienate fans.  He cannot handle the truth, and like an alcoholic in a 12 step program, until he acknowledges he has a problem, he will continue to fail.

A true leader cannot afford to surround him or herself with yes-people. Business is a dog-eat-dog war, and if your baby, your company, is flawed, you need to surround yourself with people who will tell you that you have an ugly baby.  If you can’t handle the truth, be Dan Snyder, get lucky, get rich and buffer yourself from reality.  If you want to make an impact, be open to critics.

If you’re running a business, where do you go for the unvarnished truth?  Have you created a safe environment for others to critique your strategies, execution, and actions?

Ted Leonsis and Mark Cuban are two entrepreneurial sports owners who are the antithesis of Dan Snyder – they run healthy, successful franchises.

Are you the antithesis of Dan Snyder? Can you handle the truth? If so, make a commitment to find yourself an accountability partner or peer advisory group.  Invite and heed criticism.  Learn to handle the truth and create a winning team.

As for us current or former Redskins fans…we’ll wait till next year.

Image courtesy of Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images North America.

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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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