The Women’s Soccer World Cups are a summer feature and coincidentally, I’ve been in the US during the summers of 2015 and 2019 (work trips most years in Jun-Jul). Clearly, the Women’s World Cup generates far more excitement in the US than the men’s version. That’s not at all surprising, given the US has won 4 of the 8 editions so far.
More importantly, they’re a team built with strong and vocal women, both on and off the field, some of them becoming icons in their own right for their political choices and statements. Be it Brandi Chastain’s run post-goal or the pink and blue streaks of Megan Rapinoe – they captured the imagination of a nation and created role models for young girls all over the nation. They champion gender issues, equality of pay and any discrimination that they choose to stand up against.
The US women’s soccer team plays a significant role alongside WNBA in championing women’s team sports in the US, in a country otherwise dominated by the 4 big male leagues – NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB.
Jill Ellis coached both the 2015 and 2019 teams to the World Cup winning podium. She had the unique opportunity of adopting a team that was #1 in the world and the challenge of staying there year after year.
Her lessons for us are written from the leading team’s lens:
It is always easy to be the underdog. You know it’s always easier to be the team that’s hunting, rather than the hunted.
Once a product innovator or category leader, every business needs to stay paranoid, not complacent after getting there. Andy Grove’s “Only the Paranoid Survive” is the mantra for continued long-term innovation and leadership.
Everyone is sneaking up on you, the target is on your back – other companies will copy your best products and features. When you are at the top, the challenge is to make sure you are competing and evolving against the best version of yourself. You should never lose the attitude and mindset that you got something to prove.
Rule No 1: MOUNTAIN TOPS ARE SMALL. AND THE AIR IS THIN.
It’s so difficult to stay the best. Even the most legendary companies spend years at a time reinventing themselves. As do dynastic sports teams.
Top of the mountain is rented space, not one to dwell on. Ellis tells this to her 2015 winning team, as they meet for the first time to prepare for the 2016 Olympics – you get up there, enjoy the view briefly, and must climb again. We keep reminding ourselves at Blume and each of our portfolio companies the same, whenever there is a milestone moment.
The US team’s QF loss to Sweden at the Rio Olympics was crushing – one of their worst finishes at a major event. As a coach, Jill firmly believes in the ‘share your success, own your failure’ culture. We agree. All of the best CEO founders do that in startups, whatever the scale and the nature of failure. The loss further validated the maxim – Success is not resting on your laurels, someone is always gunning for your spot.
Sweden’s playbook would be picked up by others quickly to dent the 2015 US strategy. So, she brought in fresh blood, new positions, more rotations in the roster. Drastic changes, lots of losses, tons of criticism.
Rule No 2: HOLD FAST. STAY TRUE
People start questioning decisions when one’s not winning.
“I’m not coaching to keep my job, I’m coaching what I believe.” Great CEOs and leaders overcome all the armchair criticism.
Jill relates a story from a Navy Seal. Navy Seals’ mantra in tough situations is ‘Hold Fast, Stay True’. The origins come from an old storm story, where sailors had to hold onto something connected, tied down to a deck. And the person at the wheel had to stay true to the direction, despite not being able to see the stars.
Coaching the US team and stewarding a team as CEO is no different. Suddenly, there’s a moment where everyone knows the tough decisions have paid off and it comes together – the faith at that point in one another and the belief in the CEO takes the org to the next level. That’s what happened when the pieces fell into place with the new team construct at Team USA.
Rule No 3: RISK IS OPPORTUNITY
Taking a 85% pay cut to be a second assistant coach at a college team was a massive risk when coaching in itself, leave alone in any form of women’s soccer, seemed like an unviable career option. Passion over paycheck led to the risk paying off in more ways than one for Jill.
I would stack the ranks of a startup with folks who make that choice – the ones who believe that there can be large end goal, aligned with a mission, over choosing to optimize for just a paycheck. Yes – know your worth and demand it, but there are many ways to earn it.
Rule No 4: BE TRUE TO YOURSELF
Lifeblood to coaching is recruiting (and especially in college soccer, where Jill spent many seasons with UCLA). Distancing her professional demeanor with her personal self was tough. She didn’t want her being gay to affect her team’s performance, given your opponents may use this against you. Jill adopted a little girl with her partner and that changed everything – she wouldn’t stand for her girl needing to live in the shadows. She had to be bold.
To be a leader, you have to be brave. Make Hard decisions.
One of my own favourite sayings to young parents has been “children come with their own destinies” – what I mean is that they will change their parents’ lives and prioritize various things. And this rung so true for Jill and the choices she made.
As a startup, everyone is so unconventional in their own way. People tell you ‘how to fake it’, adopt some jaded playbook, but what most people don’t realize is that the very best learn to build their own playbook – by staying super true to themselves, their convictions, their loves.
Rule No 5: IF YOU WANT TO BE HEARD, MAKE A STATEMENT
Can’t be more true. It’s a long hard road to “win”, to make a statement. But it’s the only way to get heard a lot of the time. I can’t repeat this enough to my founders. We’ll pay the price of waiting a few more years, making a slightly smaller outcome than desired, but we have to win, complete the story, return capital in spades, and then that statement allows us to demand respect, be heard as an ecosystem.
Retiring in 2019 after 132 games as head coach, she says:
As much as it is about pursuing success and victory and wins etc, what I’m truly gonna remember are those moments that made me feel alive.
If there’s one message I want to pass on to my daughter, it’s “own it.” Own who you are, be proud of who you are. Stand up for what you believe.
When you are learning from the highest level of performance coaches in the world, one has to remember all lessons are analogous to Maximum Performance and Jill provides some great insights from that #1 pedestal.
Jill Ellis may seem like the soccer mom next door, but in that role, she’s the best in the world.