Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

15 Jan 2012

Arrowhead Anxiety

Believe it or not, NFL front office executives may be paranoid, like to hire their own people, and can be overly detail-intensive even over ancillary things. When you're winning, this is called "commitment to excellent in all phases" and "perfectionist." When you're not, you're a "petty tyrant" and get compared to Captain Queeg (though not in this article).

Seriously, though, this is an interesting article about how Scott Pioli has changed the culture of the Kansas City Chiefs into a more stereotypically Patriots-like organization. Some degree of change was inevitable and healthy after the extended Carl Peterson regime, and some of it is, well, things like requiring people not associated with football operations to lower their window shades when the team is practicing.

Posted by: Tom Gower on 15 Jan 2012

40 comments, Last at 18 Jan 2012, 4:06pm by tuluse


by MPavao (not verified) :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 2:35pm

Sounds like a terrible place to work.

by ebongreen :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 2:48pm

And I imagine that Pioli and Belicheck occasionally wonder why many people don't like them.

by Nathan :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 3:23pm

All this Pioli stuff is news to me, and clearly people have a problem with it but is there any evidence that anyone who has worked closely with Belichick dislikes him? I mean plenty of fans who have never met him hate the man, but it's not like there is a Gruden-like outpouring of ex-players and staffers saying they have problems with him that I am aware of.

PS the work environment described in this article is crazy

by Jerry :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 5:45pm

Does Mangini count?

by theoldschooler (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2012 - 12:54am


by zlionsfan :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 3:33pm

I don't think control for the sake of control is a sign of a commitment to excellence. To me, this seems more like control just to demonstrate who has control.

Even if the Chiefs do start winning more games, at this price, is it worth it? Isn't it possible to treat your employees like valuable, worthwhile people and also win games?

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 3:30pm

This is the text book example of employees being viewed as necessary evils. They're needed to do the work, but they can't be trusted. So, even the team president keeps his blinds shut during practice to show that absolutely nobody is above suspicion.

And while Pioli would argue that excellence needs to exist in even the tiniest corners of the organization, you could just as convincingly argue that the really important stuff suffers when management goes off on tangents that don't have anything to do with football. The cleaning crew missed a candy wrapper on a back stairwell that players and coaches probably never ever see. That has what impact on winning games, exactly? And telling the manager in charge about it wasn't enough, Pioli actually kept the candy wrapper to show them?

by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 01/18/2012 - 10:55am

Exactly, it wasn't enough to correct the problem and show his attention to detail, he had to make a big deal of it and turn it into a coaching point. Keep chopping wood, Scott Pioli.

We are number one. All others are number two, or lower.

by PatsFan :: Wed, 01/18/2012 - 1:58pm

A commenter elsewhere had what I thought was a good point about the wrapper thing:

No, I don't -- but I do think that's a story that can easily be spun any way you like it. After all, it's evidence that nobody gave so much as a cursory sweeping of a stairwell for weeks on end. It's likely that was representative of a generally sorry state of maintenance services in the facility.

So suppose it's clear that your stadium maintenance crew is sorely lacking and you need them to shape up or ship out. Do you go into a meeting and say "generally speaking, your work isn't good enough, how about improving"? Could you really expect results from that? Suppose instead you walked in and said "Look, this same friggin' candy wrapper has been sitting in the hallway for WEEKS! How about we start seeing some basic standards here, fast?"

So a disgruntled employee says "OMG, he went ballistic over one stupid candy wrapper! See what a micro-managing freak he is!" But of course it's not really about that candy wrapper at all.

by tuluse :: Wed, 01/18/2012 - 2:05pm

I still say this sounds like Captain Queeg. I could easily see Pioli rolling marbles around as he gets stressed.


by Tomczaked :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 3:46pm

Similar statements have been made about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates leadership styles (the overreaching and obsession with seemingly "low-level" details). Terminated employees often ascribe their own failings to failings in the leadership that let them go (we all do things like that to help preserve our egos). In down or chaotic times for an organization the strangest stories can be accepted as truth (person x said manger y did z! can you believe it! I never liked y!). Very difficult to separate truth from exaggeration or pure invention.

by Purds :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 5:37pm

The paranoia stuff is similar to what Colts folks accused little Polian, Chris, of fostering at Indy. They were pumped when the Polians were dumped. Bill was a jerk, but Chris was petty.

I just read the Jobs book. Not sure you should lump Gates and Jobs together in terms of styles, just because they completed. In any case, when I finished the Jobs book, I had this thought: Glad that he lived and created great products; glad that I never worked for, with, or against him.

by MJK :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 6:34pm

Agree with Tomczaked. It seems like (1) the author of this article has a bit of an agenda (maybe as simple a one as wanting to stir up contraversy and get a good story), and (2) all of the really damning things seem to come from employees that were fired or laid off. People that were terminated rarely have nice things to say about the management that let them go. It also seems, from the article, a stretch to pin this all on Pioli. The article specifically says that the micromanagement and attention to detail all comes from Hunt.

Finally, is making non-football people not watch practices and keeping people from photographing the practices from off site really all that crazy? We've heard how Jimmy Johnson has said he used to have people go through the other team's trash to steal their gameplans. Espionage in the NFL probably happens all the time. Why not be a little careful about keeping your secrets?

(Disclaimer...I should probably admit that in my work environemnt it is common to (1) keep secrets, and (2) be monitored in everything I do by my employer...so this doens't seem that crazy).

by Tomczaked :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 7:06pm

Yes. Operational security can be very valuable to a company - as much as sales, marketing or research activities. Although it's possible KC management executed it through seemingly random enforcement rather than education.....

by Jerry :: Mon, 01/16/2012 - 4:31am

You may be right. OTOH, it's possible that the author had that weird conversation with Haley, followed up on the paranoid-sounding parts with other past and present Chiefs employees, and found that, at the very least, the atmosphere has changed significantly. And, while "people that were terminated rarely have nice things to say about the management that let them go", people who work for management that tracks every word and action aren't going to say anything that might be perceived as derogatory.

I find it hard to believe that letting non-football people leave the blinds open, or letting a secretary in the football department go to lunch with her friend in marketing, is going to lose Sunday's game. Of course, if you came from, and possibly continue to foster, a culture where that kind of spying on other teams takes place, it makes more sense.

by Noah Arkadia :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 12:27am

But spying on your head coach? Not letting employees hang out with each other? Protecting your information is one thing, but some of the things in the article are over the top.

And let's not forget that some of the juicy stuff, like the wrapper story, comes from present employees, not former ones with an ax to grind. The good Haley stuff actually comes from when he was still coach, not after.

I think this is good reporting, quoting many different kinds of sources and showing what life is like in that organization. I don't care if the reporter has an agenda or not, or if there are other organizations like that, he did a good job in my opinion.

We are number one. All others are number two, or lower.

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 3:58pm

I also think it is solid reporting. The most damning thing in the article isn't so much the individual stories (all of which are tainted by bias and may or may not be portrayed exactly as they occurred) but the fact that a large number of people in the Chiefs organization think it quite possible that they were being spied upon by management, and that they were afraid to do such mundane things as going out to lunch with coworkers.

If you think there's a traitor in your midst, then fire them and move on. But you can't treat everybody in the office like they're traitors as a defensive measure.

by Willsy :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 8:24pm

I worked at GS for 10 years and used to compare it to being in the Mickey Mouse Club i.e. the firm would be happy if we all wore the same ears on our heads like the kids in the original show.
Adherence to conformity can be seen to be a bad thing but when you work in a place where you are successful the conformity becomes a real strength. GS had the same phone system, desks, chairs, security systems and office fitout globally. This may seem like overkill but for a firm where you travelled a lot it was great as when you walked into an office you had never been to it was easy to get access and then sit down and start working. The systems just worked. The candy wrapper example with Pioli I think speaks volumes about what he wants to acheive and small simple examples go to the heart of what you want to acheive in a ultra competitive league like the NFL.
I don't think the problem is with Pioli but rather the previous regimes that allowed the organization to slip and get behind. Most of the people who were let go I have no doubt would be great workers but it is often hard hard to turn around a work culture which has atrophied work practices. It can be done but I can only assume Pioli felt it was better to make wholesale changes and bring in new people who would easily accept the way he wanted things done.
That said I am really glad that I don't work at GS anymore as it is a really hard place to work at. Your personal life does suffer and you do tend to become brainwashed into thinking that if you don't work there then there is something wrong with you.
I have a lot of sympathy for the people who have left but the NFL is a business, and a very cut-throat one at that. Pioli was hired with a clear mandate and while you may not like how he does things he is simply bringing the scrutiny and focus that the players have to endure for years to the entire organization.
Micro management to one person is extreme focus to another.



by db :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 11:19pm

Perfect. As a person who has had to revamp, it is rarely about ability. Attitude, compatibility and adaptability are way up there.

by tuluse :: Mon, 01/16/2012 - 4:14pm

The candy wrapper incident also brings to mind Queeg's obsession with strawberries.

by some guy (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2012 - 6:07pm

Maybe so, but I don't think Goldman Sachs is the best example of an organization where "ATTENTION TO DETAIL!!!!!!" is the cause of success (I know Jon Corzine was at a different company when he "forgot" where billions of dollars where, but you get my point).

by Jake (not verified) :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 8:44pm

Losers who don't do their job often get fired and then complain like this. "My boss was such a jerk/hardass/whatever. He was always trying to make me follow rules and do my job competently."

I mean I'm all for exploring how employer's ask too much and even abuse their employees. But this is clearly a bunch of grinding axes and sour grapes.

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 3:13pm

It doesn't have to be an either-or proposition; There can be sour grapes from former employees and also be a horrible place to work managed by obsessive compulsives.

And the Chiefs do themselves no favors with their responses:
"Chiefs president Mark Donovan said his shade is drawn for the sake of consistency, to give the impression that no business-side employee is trusted more or less than another."

That's their idea of making things seem fair, giving the impression that even the team president isn't above suspicion?! Wow...

Crazy that a team would employ people who they thought might be selling secrets to opposing teams. Crazier yet that they'd believe that people whose job it is it to set up community events and create marketing campaigns would have the skills needed to garner anything usable, even if they wanted to sell the information. "Yeah, I watched practice the other day and they worked on a bunch of passing and running plays. Will you be putting all that cash in my Swiss bank account today?"

by tuluse :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 3:30pm

I would think getting to look out your window at the team practice would be one of the side benefits of working for an NFL team.

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 3:45pm

Crazier still is that they seemed most concerned about the business side employees who probably wouldn't be able to harm the Chiefs even if they wanted to. If you REALLY wanted inside info on another team, would you try to bribe somebody with an office job whose only inside info is being able to watch practice from a distance...somebody who probably doesn't know enough about the game to really know what they are seeing? Of course not, you'd pay off some lower-level assistant and promise to bring them over to your team with a big promotion in a couple years.

This had very little to do with actual security, but everything to do with intimidating employees and demonstrating control.

by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 7:12pm

People lose their jobs and complain all the time. But claims that the boss was bugging the office and phones are much less common. And if employees from other departments really are afraid to be seen going to lunch together, something really weird is going on there. What dark secrets are the Chiefs afraid there employees could share with each other?

by Pliny (not verified) :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 9:48pm

When Pioli took over the Chiefs, he seemed determined to eliminate the chance of a competitor spying on his team. This past November, a security guard noticed a sedan stopped on Lancer Lane, a public road that runs adjacent to the Chiefs’ practice fields, as the team’s morning session was beginning. The driver took a photograph on his cell phone, and the guard ran toward him, standing there until the man deleted the picture. As the guard returned to his post, he told a Star reporter that, if the man hadn’t erased the photo, the guard would’ve confiscated the phone.

On what authority?

by RichC (not verified) :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 10:16pm

He has no authority, but people do this sort of shit all the time.

Bartenders/etc will take fake IDs despite that being theft. Lots of places will try to make you delete pictures without having any authority. This is normal in this country. Even cops will do it, and they KNOW they don't have the authority to do it.

Its illegal and wrong, but its encouraged.

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Sun, 01/15/2012 - 11:06pm

Correct. They would have been fully within their legal rights to kick him out and ban him from the premises, (maybe even sue him for trespassing; not sure what the rules are on that) but they couldn't legally take his property or make him delete photos. Which, as you say, didn't stop them from doing so.

by BearJew (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2012 - 3:33pm

Ban him from a public road?

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 3:49pm

Whoops, very careless reading on my part. Yes, they don't have a legal leg to stand on.

by Mr Shush :: Mon, 01/16/2012 - 10:03am

Warning: here be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spoilers

Clark Hunt: Alleline
Pioli: Haydon
Belichick: Karla

How's he supposed to gather information for the Patriots without proper monitoring systems?

by Yuri (not verified) :: Mon, 01/16/2012 - 10:51am

In "A few seconds of Panic" Stefan Fatsis describes pretty much the same set up in DEN. Every meeting is video taped, and Mike Shanahan sits upstairs monitoring. Paranoia? On the other hand, the same coach allows a reporter inside access with no guarantees for positive coverage.

I do think this article is over dramatizing.

by allskdf (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 2:52am

Hmmm, this article, though long, is really thin on smoking guns rather than sour grapes. After reading it, I don't feel qualified to say anything definitive, though I'd rather not work for the Chiefs.

by Bots Meat Commission (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 1:24pm

Just imagine if Pioli, A.J. Smith and Bill Polian all somehow came together at one team. Dick Cheney should have bought the Jags with all that Halliburton cash and made this happen.

by Dean :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 3:53pm

Rule #1?

by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2012 - 2:56pm

Guess rule 1 only applies when you criticize democrats.

by tuluse :: Wed, 01/18/2012 - 4:06pm

It doesn't look like he's talking about politics, but rather managerial styles.

by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 5:19pm

There's hating where your work and then there's hating it so much you're worried your phone is tapped and you leave in different cars so they can't tell who you're having lunch with. Almost doesn't matter if any of the claims are true, the fact people believed they might be is bad enough.

by markus (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2012 - 9:43pm

Even among the hyper competitive somebody is going to be more extreme than the rest. Guessing Pioli works 80+ hours a week but the job shouldn't require half that because there are VPs, salary cap experts, scouts, coaches and accountants to handle everything. To fill the hours and feel productive he invents boogey men. The secretaries who used to do lunch every Friday were corporate spies trading secrets, the janitor missed the wrapper on the stairs because he was digging for dirt to sell to Al Davis, the van parked in his spot was some kind of prank orchestrated by Elway or Norv Turner.

This is the manifestation of the same kind of drive that has Andy Reid sleeping on the couch at his office every night while his sons are repeatedly getting busted by the cops. Only one thing matters and there are no limits when it comes to chasing the goal.