Small Wins Quarterback: A Winning Strategy

Go big or go home. Be Bold. Shoot for the stars. In U.S. culture, we are surrounded by the notion that bigger is better and that the only way to be successful is to think BIG. In leadership narratives, this translates into advice to “Disrupt. Scale at all costs. Blow it up.” In other words, throw out the playbook. 

Yet under excruciating pressure, Kansas City Chiefs Quarterback Patrick Mahomes did the opposite.

In the divisional playoff game against the Texans, with his team down by a seemingly unsurmountable 24 points early in second quarter, Mahomes did not focus on disruption or throwing away the playbook. Instead, he rallied his teammates with this message: “One play at a time, do something special.”

In other words, he told them to focus on small wins: “Catch the ball. Make one person miss.”

And sure enough, play by play, the Chiefs came back from a crushing losing position to advance to the AFC championship game and ultimately punching their ticket to the Super Bowl.

Imagine if instead, he had shouted, “We need to score four touchdowns NOW.”   

The Blow it Up Myth

When leaders face the kind of insurmountable challenges like that faced by the Chiefs, they tend to bypass small wins, like getting a first down, and instead go for the Hail Mary.  

Yet, Hail Marys, in football, as well as in organizations, are meant to be last-ditch efforts. Sure, Hail Marys disrupt the status quo. But do they lead to enduring team success? 

Our lab is interested in what drives sustainable success as opposed to seeking a one-time miracle. We work with organizations and their leaders —from multi-billion-dollar companies to national laboratories, universities and start-ups—to create more inclusive and equitable workplaces for women. Whether the companies have 10 employees or 60,000, they share one common challenge: creating sustainable culture change. Yet achieving it is hard. Despite $8 billion spent on diversity and inclusion efforts every year, progress toward equality has stalled. 

When leaders ask us what they should do to improve, we share Mahomes’ rally cry to focus on “One play at a time.” Identify one defined, targeted change effort; test it; and build from there. Go for the small win and “do something special.” 

Yet leaders often pushback, distrusting that a small wins approach will make any difference. Instead, many companies prefer to throw out the playbook, make “big bets,” “blow it up.” Equity pledges, lofty statements, and big goals abound. However, our research shows that “big bets” can’t be achieved without breaking them down into achievable, smaller goals, and staying the course.

Small Wins Deliver in Organizations

When our Lab was first approached by GoDaddy’s then CEO to help the company’s efforts to transform the brand and build a more diverse workforce, we hesitated. Super Bowl ads were at the heart of GoDaddy’s past marketing strategy. Each year, the organization produced polarizing ads to release on Super Bowl Sunday to generate attention and buzz. And it worked. GoDaddy clinched nearly universal name recognition. Although the company had stopped creating such ads years prior, given our mission to advance women in leadership, we initially had some reservations. Yet, we met an earnest and committed leadership team and the organizational will to change. 

In our first meeting, many leaders pushed us to be bold and propose “Big Bets.” We instead shared our “small wins” model, one where they would create change, one process at a time. Once they agreed, together we went to work on blocking bias in performance management. After achieving this small win, they tackled their recruitment process, asking what they could do to get more women to apply for their jobs. Next up, was establishing processes to ensure gender pay equity. Much in the same way that one first down can lead to another and ultimately result in a touchdown and winning the game, by focusing on “one play at a time,” GoDaddy achieved top recognition in Fortune’s “Great Places to Work.” 

Monica Bailey, Chief People Officer for GoDaddy reflects, “Turns out that it is not about designing massive, expensive strategies that might never land or impact your team. Our work with Stanford demonstrated it’s about choosing small projects that one-by-one build a foundation of consistency and systemic change for all employees.” On the end game, Bailey adds, “We strive to have more diverse teams with our voices collectively around the table to better represent the needs of our diverse customers. Big bets sound exciting, but in our experience small wins can create meaningful change.”

Small Wins Quarterback Strategies

We offer a new reason to watch the Super Bowl. In addition to betting on the game and hosting Ad viewing parties, why not listen for leadership tips? We’ve culled through Mahomes’ postgame interview after winning the AFC championship to offer these four key strategies for successful and sustainable change. 

Commit to winning the game. The Chiefs are not simply playing the game, as Mahomes clarifies, “We don’t care if we win 10-7 or if we win 35 to 24, we’re going to go out there and just find the way to win the football game, whatever it takes.” Yet many organizations approach change tentatively, often citing external reasons for their lack of success. Phrases like “There just aren’t enough qualified women to do the job” are offered to justify the dearth of women leaders. But as our research shows, women often don’t apply for jobs because of what companies are doing poorly. And as our work demonstrates, when companies instead commit to winning the game over the long term, they consistently focus on strategies for improvement and can, indeed, succeed.

Build step by step. Where do you begin? “Start with the completion,” advises Mahomes. Goals such as transforming the culture of an organization and increasing inclusion and equity can seem daunting. Yet, in Mahomes’ winning strategy, he identifies a small starting point and achieves it, then repeats. “We built every single day,” he says, “and now we have the chance to go to Miami and get the ultimate goal which is the Super Bowl.” We call this a “small wins” approach because it allows people to break down large goals into more discrete projects, to learn from what worked and didn’t, and to build from there. 

Trust your change agents. “Coach Reid…lets you be who you are,” explains Mahomes. This is an important lesson for companies who have designated leaders to spearhead their efforts such as Chief Diversity Officers. The small wins approach can take time. Furthermore, change efforts cannot sit solely in one office – the whole team needs to engage. So hiring the right person and trusting them to motivate and spread seeds of success, one play at a time, will likely pay off better than the “blow it up strategy.” 

Foster a sense of belonging. Last, a focus on process is not enough. If you want diversity, you must value diversity. You must value talent for what they bring, not whether they fit into a mold. “From day one I’ve been accepted to go out there and be who I am,” explains Mahomes. Once again, words to lead by. 

Note: While we applaud Mahomes and the Chiefs’ winning strategies, as researchers working in the San Francisco Bay Area we are reluctant to wish them success on February 2nd. On Super Bowl Sunday, our researcher hats will come off, and we’ll be cheering for the 49ers.

Shelley J. Correll is the Michelle Mercer and Bruce Golden Family Professor of Women’s Leadership at Stanford University and Founder and Director of the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Lab. She is Co-director of the Executive Education Program for Women of Major League Baseball at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Lori Nishiura Mackenzie is Co-founder of the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab and Lead Strategist, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Caroline Simard, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. 

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