Working the Triangle


I love watching HBO's 24/7, an inside look at the National Hockey League's Winter Classic game.

This year, the program focused on the league-leading New York Rangers and their rivals the Philadelphia Flyers. The Winter Classic is staged outdoors in front of upward of 50,000 fans and pays tribute to pond hockey, where most of us played our first game.

What I like about 24/7 is the behind-the-scenes opportunity to watch the coaches, not the players.

Oh, players are okay.

But what I really enjoy is the opportunity to watch the coaches interact with their teams before, during and after the games. This year, John Tortorella of the Rangers and Peter Laviolette of the Flyers put on a leadership clinic. It is especially interesting because of the two diverse styles. Tortorella is a controversial figure as he is usually very combative with the media, while Laviolette is much easier going and the consummate professional, yet they both use similar strategies to motivate and organize their teams.

Despite the fact that the F-bomb drops every second word, there are lots of conversations that are fascinating to follow as the coaches lead their teams towards the Stanley Cup.

Before you hit "DELETE" because you don't give a whit about hockey, hear me out. There's a lot to be learned about team leadership from the Winter Classic.

Today's hockey teams are multicultural workplaces. Canadians (French and English), Americans, Russians, Czechoslovakians, Swedes, Finns, and Norwegians are represented on most teams.

In addition, hockey is a business under tremendous pressure to change because of workplace health and safety concerns, with special focus on the recent rash of head injuries and hockey violence.

Like other entertainment businesses, hockey must compete for its audience in a slumping economy. It must be able to put an exciting product on the ice if it hopes to grow, especially in non-traditional markets in the United States.

Fighting has traditionally been a part of that excitement. So has the speed of the game. The result, coupled with the fact that players are much larger and in better shape today than in the past, is adrenaline-pumping action and spectacular collisions.

These attributes are also contributing to the game's greatest challenge: the loss of almost 20 marquis players to "upper body injuries," the new code words for concussion.

It's a dynamic workplace by anyone's definition.




 For all its intensity and spontaneity, hockey is a game of strategies, systems and processes. The systems and processes are designed to ensure the flow of the game towards the opponent's goal in the most efficient and effective way possible.

When well executed, these offensive and defensive systems and processes can result in increased puck possession, leading to more shots on goal than the opposition, and therefore more goals scored.

When they are not well executed or break down, chaos ensues and the other team is provided with the opportunity to control the play and to score.

What was revealed watching the coaches manage their respective teams during the 24/7 series was an ongoing strategic conversation covering three topics:


Literally every conversation that Tortorella and Laviolette had with their teams was focused on goal clarity, role clarity and game plan clarity. I call this "Working The Triangle."


    "Coming into the season, if your goal isn't to win a Stanley Cup then you're selling yourself and your players short." —Peter Laviolette

    One lesson leaders can learn from great coaches is that each contributor in the organization or the team must be focused –and refocused– on the overall goal that the team is striving towards.

    Communicate, communicate, communicate!

    Both Laviolette and Tortorella constantly reminded their teams that each game, each period, and each shift on the ice was an opportunity to contribute to the overall goal of winning the game and contributing to a winning season.

    One common complaint that I hear from managers in the workplace is about the failure of their employees to retain the message about goals. They usually say, "I've already told them!"

    That may be true but if you watch Laviolette and Tortorella they are constantly reminding their players of three kinds of goals:

    • Overall team goals, such as winning the Stanley Cup or the game in play;
    • The goal of each line as they battle for control of the game;
    • Individual goals before and during the game.

    These coaches understand that the complexity and intensity of the game requires laser focus. They also recognize that it is easy to lose sight of goals especially in adversity. That's why Tortorella and Laviolette are not stingy about sharing what they expect from their teams. They are constantly reminding their players what winning looks like.


    "I am very happy, as far as how all four lines, all six defensemen and the goalie played tonight. The key to us becoming a better team and a competitive team in this league is our work habits and our accountability. And if we lose that, we are an average to a below-average team - as we've seen when we don't work hard." —John Tortorella

    Professional hockey players understand their roles and responsibilities to the team. Those that fail to understand and deliver on expectations don't last very long in the NHL.

    When there is confusion about who is supposed to do what and how each player is to contribute to team goals on the ice, time is spent to correct misunderstandings. Chalk talk, video reviews, and on-ice practices contribute to role clarity.

    In many organizations there is far too much tolerance for role confusion. This is especially true in large businesses where people can work on teams for months, even years, and fail to understand what each person is charged with doing.

    Often there are role overlaps and ambiguity to assignments. This leads to execution failures, redundancies, and power struggles. The result is inefficiency and ineffectiveness that leads to poor performance and breakdown.

    Leaders need to ensure that they are coaching people on how to win through role clarity. It makes teams and individual contributors far more effective in executing team goals.


    "Keep momentum as long as you can...and when you lose it, get it back as fast as you can." —John Tortorella 


    The third kind of conversation highlighted by HBO's 24/7 deals with game plan clarity.

    Both Laviolette and Tortorella held pre-game meetings to review plans and discuss the specific strategies anticipated of their opponents. Every player attends these team meetings and is expected to engage in the conversation about how to win.

    The focus is "what are we going to do," not "what have we done." And that's where many team meetings in organizations go wrong. These meetings are focused on reporting only.

    Don't get me wrong. Status updates on projects currently underway are important. But many team meetings are dominated by reporting and not on forward planning and execution.

    Status reporting is a past-present conversation. These are reviews of what has already occurred. Status updates are important as a touchstone for progress made on important initiatives, best practices and remedial work required to strengthen performance. When status reporting becomes the only reason for meeting it produces lethargy.

    Game plan conversations are present-future oriented. They focus on preparing well for the beforemath rather than wasting time sorting out the aftermath.

    Many times have I heard managers say when asked about helping their teams understand expectations, "Oh, they'll sort it out." That sounds like casual leadership and a surefire recipe for confusion and poor execution.

    People are empowered by understanding plans and expectations that are specific. When those plans are developed together buy-in is more likely to occur. And, when the game plan is a central focus of team conversations there is likely to be a greater sense of urgency and accountability.



    Peter Laviolette and John Tortorella understand the 24/7's narrative that "togetherness is a prerequisite for success." These big-league coaches are committed to empowering their players to be the best they can be individually and as a team.

    That only happens when goals, roles and game plans are clearly communicated, understood and executed against.

    Posted on January 1, 2012 .