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A Master Class on Leading Change (via the Coach and Captain of the Carolina Hurricanes)

by Hank Barnes  |  May 7, 2019  |  Submit a Comment

My favorite hockey team, the Carolina Hurricanes, just made it to the Eastern Conference finals, despite being one of the youngest (if not the youngest) teams with the lowest payroll in the league.    They aren’t done yet, but how they got there is a master class in leading change. embodying may of the ideas Gartner put forth in last year’s Symposium keynote around Shape, Shift, and Share as a leadership approach for continuous change (My colleague Elise Olding just conducted a Webinar on the concepts.  You can find the replay here –

For the Hurricanes, this is a stark contrast to 10 years of not making the playoffs, with a “Culture of Complacency” surrounding the team.

It all started after a change of ownership. The new owner doing things differently than “traditional ways”, causing a furor in the hockey establishment.   There was lots of changes in the organization and the collective opinion was that the owner was clueless and sure to fail.  But he made one move that I believe has changed the fate of this franchise.  He hired a guy named Rod Brind’Amour as head coach.  Brind’Amour was the captain of the team when they won the Stanley Cup in 2006 and had been an assistant for many years.  Years that never saw the team reach the playoffs (it had been 10 years).   The hire was met with mostly scorn.  People said he was the only guy willing to work for what the owner would pay.  They said he had no head coaching experience.  They said he had been a part of all that losing.

But immediately, something was different and the changes started to be felt.    Here is what stands out for me:

Shape  –  Instilling a Mindset

  1. He set high expectations.   For many teams in their situation, the goal is just to make the playoffs.   From the start, Brind’Amour said that was not good enough.  You play to win it all.  And that was the mindset that he begin to instill in the team.
  2. He lead by example. Brind’Amour was known as one of the hardest working players ever, constantly working out.  As a coach, he continues to do that.  And the players see someone walking the walk of what it takes to compete and win.

 Shift – Identifying and Inspiring Situational Leaders

  1. He enlisted a partner.  There are lots of leaders on hockey teams, but he addressed a problem from the previous year.  They had brought back Justin Williams last season, who played with Brind’Amour in 2006 and went on to win 2 more championships and earn the nickname “Mr. Game 7.”  Everyone assumed he would be named captain on a team that seemed to have leadership issues, but he wasn’t(previous coach’s decision) , and the team languished last year.   It was pretty clear that Williams would be Brind’Amour’s captain and that happened.
  2. They lead with humility – The two of them exude confidence, but also humility.  They constantly acknowledge the role of others in the team’s success and downplay their own.  While others talk all about the difference they have made, they talk about the difference everyone else has made.   They are the faces of change, but they never take full credit. They bring others in, shifting leadership roles cross the team.This was a stark contrast to last year. The previous coach exuded arrogance.   It felt like he wanted to be viewed as the genius.   It never worked here.  The team never got behind him.

Share – Scaling the change, across and beyond the team

  1. They instilled collective confidence– Hockey teams often tinker with their line-ups.  Brind’Amour rarely did throughout the season, saying that they were playing the right way and that he believed in everyone.   There were some down times, at one point they were second to last in the league, but they persevered because of that belief.   And the team united behind it.  They felt that together, they could succeed.  Giving up on this too soon would have created doubt.
  2. They changed the rules.   The team also needed to get the fans back.  When teams are losing, many fans stop coming.   It becomes painful to go to games where you don’t think the effort will be there—and unfortunately that happened a lot.This year, the players broke the “established rules.”  After home wins, they created the “Storm Surge”, increasingly elaborate “skits” that celebrated victories, drew in fans, and kept them in their seats after the game.  It became the talk of the league.  Like with the owner, the old school hockey world largely scorned it, galvanizing the team further.   A pundit, Don Cherry, called the team a “bunch of jerks.”  The team and fans embraced that, turning the phrase into a marketing campaign (it became one of the hottest selling t-shirts in the league, my wife even made one for my daughter’s cat, Cullen–named after another player from the 2006 team).   Winning became extra fun and everyone, players and fans, fed off of that.
  3. They made adjustments (after they had built belief) –  In the playoffs, everything changes and many wondered if the team’s success was solely driven by Brind’Amour’s ability to motivate.   And that is a big part of it, but he also has made tweaks to make the change stick.  Those line-ups that never changed in the regular season now seem to change whenever the play feels stagnant.  And it’s working.     These shifts in strategy, once again, are things that Brind’Amour cites as  team effort–the coaching staff working together to identify potential changes that could work.  And they have over and over again (despite a lot of injuries).

In a single year, this team has changed everything through hard work, team work, and leadership.  There is a new mindset in the area and hockey is finally fun again.   And, many of the naysayers are becoming yaysayers (although there are a few holdouts).

Anyone who wants to drive change would benefit from taking a closer look at what is going on here in Carolina.   And the team is not done yet.  The next few weeks will be interesting (and you might be hearing more Hurricanes stories and anecdotes in this blog–when I’m not tailgating before a home playoff game).  Despite being young, despite a low payroll, incredible leadership that changed mindsets and instilled collective confidence has given us a chance to meet those high expectations.   We’ll see what happens next.

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Category: go-to-market  

Tags: change  leadership  mindsets  strategy  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

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