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Business Lessons from the Demise of Chip Kelly

Yellow Sticky NoteI live in the land of Eagles fans. Those that know me know that I am not one of them. I am a lifelong Giants fan and my Giants have their own issues and will soon have a new coach as well, though under different circumstances. Tom Coughlin of the Giants was a successful coach leading the Giants to two Super Bowl Championships and was well respected by all. As with all great coaches, his time had come and given the current mediocrity of the team, it was time to move on. As such he gracefully resigned. In his 12 years with the Giants, he had failures along with successes. But he leaves with two championships, the love of the organization, the gratitude of the fans, and the respect of his current and former players.

This Struming however is focused on the Eagles and Chip Kelly who was unexpectedly fired before the Eagles final game. In Kelly’s case there was no love-fest in his departure. Unlike the throngs of passionate Eagles fans, I am unemotional about his demise. This objectivity make the issues clearer to me as I don’t live or die with every Eagles victory. Truth be told, I wanted Kelly to fail because his failure meant the Eagles would fail, but as a fan I feel the same way about the other division rivals, Redskins and Cowboys, as well.

The question for today however is on what dimensions did Chip Kelly fail, and was his departure really justified? To give him the appropriate credit, Kelly took over a 4-12 team which improved to 10-6 in the 2013 season (along with a playoff appearance) and then followed it with another 10-6 season in 2014, though falling short of the playoffs. This year the Eagles were a disappointment under Kelly having won just 6 of the 15 games he coached. But overall, a 26-21 record, from the shambles of a 4-12 season before he took over, is a very high level of success. By most measures he is a top coach and, objectively, one losing season is hardly the basis of firing. Perhaps two or three more losing seasons would have warranted his departure.

So what’s the real reason for his demise, and what can we learn as business leaders?

Simply said, “when the chips were down” Chip Kelly had no allies. His arrogant approach was a turn off to all–ownership, front office, players and fans, and he seemingly didn’t care. And when the team didn’t perform, he paid the price with his job. Coaches can and should demand performance at the highest levels, but his strategy of cutting/trading high performers that weren’t “his kind of guys” was a sign of his inability to respect professional players. He was “my way or highway” to the max. Again not an issue if you win, but fatal if you don’t.

Football coaches are not always beloved. In fact they can be some of the most driven, nastiest SOBs. That’s part of their success. Confidence, brilliance and performance, above all, are the traits of the great ones. Back to Tom Coughlin, there was a time where his own rigidity and his “my way or highway” approach almost lead to his dismissal 10 years ago, but he evolved, and the Giants responded and the same players who detested him began to respect him, and vice versa.

Coach Kelly had no such evolution with the Eagles. He may yet succeed in the NFL with another team. There will be a boatload of head coaching positions available. Bill Belichick of the Patriots and Pete Carroll of the Seahawks are two examples of coaches whose early NFL coaching careers were dramatically unsuccessful, yet they are now among the coaching elite. So there’s likely another Chip II chapter ahead if he remains in the NFL (see epilogue below).

In order to succeed longer term, Kelly will need to dramatically evolve because he made a few basic mistakes in Philadelphia which showed a lack of character:

1. He appeared to not care about people—his players or the organization. He appeared to have no soul.
2. His lack of flexibility didn’t help when things went south.
3. His comment about “not being the GM” when he clearly fought a vicious power struggle to wrest the power of player selection away from the former GM was very weak on his part.

Bob Ford of the Philadelphia Inquirer said it well, “Kelly failed as a coach, but he still might have his job if he cared a little more about the interpersonal side of things”.

That’s the lesson for all of us. Performance in business can be fleeting. Even the most successful business leaders encounter failure along the way. That goes with the territory. Obviously winning more often than losing is ultimately the most important thing. But when you lose—and we all do in business, sports and life—AND when you have no allies, built no bridges, and have no bank of goodwill, the organization, whether it’s a business or an NFL team, will kick you to the curb with no remorse. That’s why he got fired, and why almost no one cared.

That’s the lesson we all can learn from in Chip Kelly’s demise and one which he’d be smart to learn from as well in his next chapter.

Epilogue: Not surprisingly, Chip has landed a new gig quickly with the 49ers. We’ll see if he changes his approach. He’d be wise not to repeat past errors.




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2 Comments

  1. Jim Waddington says:

    Lonnie,
    $5 says that Chip appears in a Superbowl before the Eagles.

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