When cheeseheads fumble

When you think about all the uproar in Packerland over the last few weeks, don’t you wonder where the grown-ups were? I do.

Political perspectives and attitudes around COVID vaccination notwithstanding, the downfall of Aaron Rodgers’ brand and credibility has been stunning. Here you have an outstanding performer in many ways. He’s been the league MVP many times over. In addition, he, his agents, and the Packer franchise have crafted a brand that portrays an individual that has broader interests than just football. He has charisma and an ability to speak well. He has camera presence. He guest hosted Jeopardy and aspired to be its long-term host, studying furiously to prepare himself for that opportunity. He had become the spokesperson for several well-known brands.

Yet, in the course of a few short weeks, the man inflicted serious wounds to himself, his team, and his league. One can only wonder, again, where were the grown-ups in the room?

When I think about the leadership failures, there are three places where it broke down:

  • Green Bay Packers management and coaches;
  • The National Football League; and
  • Rodgers’ agent.

All three of these parties were likely aware of Mr. Rodgers’ vaccination status. Further, two of the three — the team and his agent — were probably familiar with his perspectives on vaccination. It is not too big of a leap to think through best-case and worst-case scenarios.

As such, reasonable business leaders would be able to map out the natural course of events should a key player become infected with the virus. Parameters should have been laid out for Mr. Rodgers, or for that matter any other teammate, as to how to manage the messaging consistent with the brand. Yet all three organizations charged with managing and caring for its people failed to do so. When faced with what should have been a predictable play by the opposing virus, they were surprised and fumbled the ball. Badly.

In business, we all encounter times when leadership faces a crisis and is under a great deal of stress. In my experience working with management teams in challenging situations, leadership comes in many forms, including:

  • Playing the tape to the end to anticipate different outcomes;
  • Setting expectations for behavior;
  • Creating and activating plans in times of crisis; and
  • Protecting the team as a whole.

Let’s break these down.

Playing the tape to the end: Whether we’re playing football or in business, at this stage the pandemic every business leader has had the time to think through what should happen if a key team member becomes ill. How do we back fill the role? How are we handling communication within the organization? How do we handle communication outside the organization? What expectations and guardrails have we set? How will we enforce them to avoid a crisis, or to navigate a crisis if we find ourselves in one?

Given how badly the ball was dropped, it doesn’t appear that this was done by Mr. Rodgers’ leaders.

Setting expectations for behavior: Expectations have been communicated to Mr. Rodgers through the numerous contracts he has entered. For example, the league set forth their standards and rules for guiding practice sessions, game time, press conferences, and even off-field activities. Green Bay Packers management and coaches have also set out at certain expectations and rules.

The companies with sponsorship or endorsement contracts with Mr. Rodgers carefully outlined their expectations and rules for him as a brand ambassador, including under what conditions they could terminate the contract if behavior or actions were inconsistent with their brand, image, and products.

Of course, Mr. Rodgers has the right to free speech. But that does not hog-tie an employer. Employers can establish policies that frame what an employee or agent may openly discuss, or not, when representing the brand and/or company, including in social media, public appearances, and other channels. Performance reviews, individual coaching, and specific employment agreement language reinforce clarity around expectations. This is crucial in all employee or contractor scenarios, even in smaller organizations. That said, employers walk a delicate line with these policies, so it warrants strong legal counsel as you establish, communicate, and reinforce the policies.

In Mr. Rodgers’ case, something broke down along the way. Expectations without enforcement is the same as the toothless bear roaring at its prey. The prey runs by, laughing, and lets the bear know, “I own you.”

Creating and activating plans in times of crisis: A key element of contingency planning is testing the plan, so you know how to react when a crisis hits. It allows you to spring into action as soon as warning or trigger signs are seen.

For example, as soon as Mr. Rodgers’ COVID test came back positive, all the systems surrounding him should have moved into action, including Packers management, coaches, and Mr. Rodgers’ agent and publicity team. It was a clear trigger for them to act, counsel, and manage the situation and messaging. It was predictable that a key player of Mr. Rodgers’ caliber and importance, knowing his vaccination status, was at high-risk for contracting the virus.

There were early warning signs of trouble that went unmanaged. When Mr. Rodgers first made the comment about being “immunized,” the messaging and brand management machine should have kicked into high gear. He was clearly dancing on the edge of the knife there. It would not take much imagination to determine how this could head down a disastrous path. In fact, had there been active management of that misstatement, the larger crisis may have been avoided altogether.

The action plans for what was to happen when he tested positive should have been readily at hand and implemented immediately. Part of that plan would include specifically coaching everyone, including Mr. Rodgers, of what the expectations were for his behavior post-diagnosis, what is appropriate communication, what media channels would he work with, and so on. There should have been specific coaching and practice sessions for him on his messaging to protect his, the team’s, and the league’s brands. 

Protecting the team as a whole: At the end of last season, Mr. Rodgers leveraged his power and very publicly articulated his unhappiness and interest in leaving the organization. There’s no doubt that this had immediate ripple effects on how well the team functions together. It’s a double threat because of the possible loss of the key player and the disruption to the team dynamic, processes, and morale. The most recent debacle only exacerbates the issue, demonstrating to the other members of the team that Mr. Rodgers is allowed to play by different rules even though it may threaten someone else’s health and livelihood.

The team is more than Aaron Rodgers. The Packers management and coaches, as well as the league, have an obligation to protect all its employees from hazards on the job. The league mandated certain protocols, such as masking and other rules for on-the-field, practice, media, and off-the-field behavior. Team leadership failed by looking the other way when Mr. Rodgers chose not to follow the league and team rules. They put the health of other players inside and outside of their own team in danger. Further, they put the team’s credibility and brand at risk by abandoning the principles of integrity, accountability, and fairness, all in deference to Mr. Rodgers.

In business valuation parlance, the Packers organization has allowed their “key person risk” to grow and inflict pain in a very public way. Healthy organizations and wise leaders understand that this level of dependence on the performance results and brand credibility of one person is dangerous and demeans the value of the company. Concentration of power, relationships, and organizational capability in any given position, whether it’s a team member or the owner themselves, is a significant threat to the sustainability of the overall enterprise.

All this said, I’ll admit that up until now I was a big Aaron Rodgers fan. He’s dynamic and one heck of a quarterback. Players like him have strong systems surrounding them to make their job easier and more successful. Unfortunately for him, those systems have failed him and many others in the past year. Fortunately for us, however, we can learn from these mistakes and lead better.

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