If not for Vince Lombardi leading the team to five world championships, Ron Wolf would be the unanimous choice as the best general manager in Green Bay Packers history. And while Wolf finished his management of the team nearly 20 season ago, his principles of guiding an organization through a change in leadership still hold true today.
Written by Ron Wolf and Paul Attner, The Packer Way: Nine Stepping Stones to Building a Winning Organization is a book that bridges fundamentals of leadership within sports to that of other businesses. Wolf details his initial struggles and action plans in taking over the Packers franchise after learning from prior management mistakes in Tampa Bay. Comparing Brian Gutekunst’s approach after one full year as GM in Green Bay to Ron Wolf’s recommendations in the book, there are many similarities but one glaring difference.
That difference is a fairly large one: having absolute control over football matters. As Wolf stated, “your success is not guaranteed - not when your performance is being judged by the success of someone you didn’t hire.” With Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy having direct oversight of the organization’s head coach, Gutekunst surrendered full control of an integral point of football operations. And while there is no doubt that Murphy, Gutekunst, and Executive Vice President and Director of Football Operations Russ Ball have coordinated well to hire and fire a head coach, it still would appear to be a task best-suited for Gutekunst alone. That in itself expresses a lack of confidence within Murphy’s mind that Gutekunst can fulfill that role (or at least that he can do better by himself), something that led to Wolf’s demise as Vice President of Operations in Tampa Bay.
At the same time, Gutekunst, with the assistance of Murphy, has heeded several other areas as Wolf advised in his first chapter of the book: “Identify what needs to be fixed.”
1. Carve out an extended block of time to analyze all aspects of your organization before taking steps to improve the situation.
Gutekunst walked into the GM role as an already-current member of the organization, making his transition different from Wolf’s. However, it could have been easy for him to push for coaching changes immediately for a team that had become stagnant. Instead, as Wolf pointed out numerous times, Gutekunst developed a feel for the organization before influencing a coaching change. Even with the firing of Mike McCarthy, the Packers gave themselves plenty of time to pull names for the next head coach instead of rushing into a decision. While Gutekunst moved swiftly in his first offseason to make moves in free agency and the draft, he and Murphy were very thorough in hiring Matt LaFleur.
2. Don’t depend on consultants or study committees to make decisions for you.
Wolf suggested to rely on trusted friends and internal analysis to solve an organizational problem. The Packers’ recent coaching search was an example of this coming to life once again. At least to the public eye, Green Bay did not employ a search firm to help with candidate probing. The Packers’ three gentlemen listed above, as well as Nicole Ledvina and Jason Wahlers of the team’s human resources and communications departments, respectively, headed up the search committee. While Murphy did in fact lead the charge, Gutekunst was an active player in interviews, and each member used their valued networks within the industry to create a list of candidates versus a third party which is common in collegiate athletics especially.
3. Avoid preconceived notions about the organization; constantly ask questions and don’t be afraid of the answers.
Something Green Bay management did prior to hiring LaFleur as head coach was gauge the team culture and the coach’s fit with Aaron Rodgers in particular. Murphy mentioned in the press conference that one day after McCarthy’s firing, he and Gutekunst sat with the leadership council of players from each position on the team. In this way, the duo set out to capture the needs of the team from a player’s perspective. The result was two buzzwords: “accountability” and “complacency.” Each word speaks heavily about the organization as a whole, and not just the coaching staff. Neither paints a pretty picture, but honest answers and seeking feedback from alternative sources helped get the search off and running. Even Rodgers was granted an opportunity to speak on the phone with LaFleur prior to the agreement and while Rodgers does not have the final say in personnel moves, his opinion is critical to the Packers in the short-term.
4. Expect resistance and resentment to any changes, and deal with both attitudes by making decisive decisions.
Whether this was a Gutekunst move, a Joe Philbin decision, or both, the Packers quickly severed ties with Winston Moss in the wake of McCarthy’s departure. As the former Associate Head Coach under McCarthy, Moss certainly had a sense of loyalty to his old boss. He also may have been in position, on paper, to become the interim coach in the event of McCarthy’s dismissal. What happened behind the scenes is purely speculation, but there was most likely some level of resentment from Moss with the moves that had been made. Green Bay moved swiftly to avoid distractions and continue forward with the season.
5. Eliminate excuses that undermine any underachieving situation, no matter the size.
In the conference following McCarthy’s dismissal, Gutekunst was frank in that the Packers’ “expectations and standards” had not been met. Furthermore, the team’s previous performance against the Arizona Cardinals revealed little sense of urgency for a team on the brink of postseason elimination. Gutekunst could have ruled the outcome as one affected by a myriad of injuries to important players. He could have cited close games that may have been swayed by untimely penalties or bad luck. Instead, he classified the game as “unacceptable” to the standards set forth and with the team he had put in place at the beginning of the season.
While Murphy has certainly made many operations decisions as a joint venture with Gutekunst, including the head coaching search, the two men have enacted plenty of change involving the organization’s direction. LaFleur’s hiring may finally allow Gutekunst the individual opportunity to improve the team in the offseason through personnel moves, an aspect that made him a desirable GM candidate to begin with. His next task is one additional Wolf principle: do not establish comfort zones and make sure to force initiative and progress when needed. As the players alluded to, the Packers cannot afford complacency.
Just over a year into Gutekunst’s leadership, the Packers have set a new path for returning to a winning tradition. And in many ways, “The Packer Way” has been a point of emphasis from the beginning.