Championship Insights—The Keys To Building A Winning Team

by | September 27, 2019 | Blog, Lincoln's Insights

Back in July, I attended the Incentive Marketing Association’s 2019 Summit, an annual event where the organization presents its esteemed Circle of Excellence Awards. According to the IMA, these awards were established “to identify and recognize outstanding examples of incentive programs, products and services,” and consist of four primary award categories: Sales Incentives, Employee Incentive, Dealer Distributor Incentive, and Innovation.

Initially I had planned on using this blog to highlight the fact that HMI was awarded the IMA’s new Innovation Award for our work with Polyglass USA (HMI’s 5th COE Award in the last 3 years). But after returning home from the Summit, I decided that I wanted to spend these 500-or-so words talking about another part of the event that stood out to me.

To kick off the Summit, the IMA had booked as its keynote speaker John McDonough, former president of the Chicago Cubs and current president and CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks. Of course, as a sports fan I was excited to hear what Mr. McDonough had to say about running not one, but two separate sports franchises. But more than that, I was eager to glean some sales and marketing insights from a man who’s overseen two highly successful businesses.

To begin with, I found McDonough to be an impressive and dynamic speaker. The speech format was more like a fireside chat and was filled with interesting anecdotes from his time with both franchises. He talked about how, after leaving the Cubs in 2007, he came over to the Blackhawks and had to learn the intricacies of an entirely new sport, drawing comparisons to someone who has to switch industries.

Prior to McDonough taking over, the Blackhawks as a franchise had struggled, having made the playoffs just once in the previous ten years. However, following his arrival, the team went on to make the playoffs nine years in a row and won three Stanley Cup Championships. Needless to say, the ability to have this kind of impact on a franchise definitely got my attention, and I was excited to find out just what strategies and tactics McDonough had used to get the most out of his team and the organization as a whole.


Key Takeaways

One of the key themes throughout his talk was the idea that engaging people can actually be a form of leadership. By providing clear communication, accountability, and recognition elements throughout the ranks, you can motivate people to really be great at their jobs. Along these lines, he mentioned the importance of “breaking down silos” within organizations, creating an internal culture that encourages collaboration and makes people want to pull for one another. Unsurprisingly, building this “culture of accountability” requires that one have exceptional interpersonal skills, something that can often get overlooked when your eyes are firmly set on your company’s bottom line.

At this point, something that I found interesting was that McDonough was big on remembering people’s names; he felt that this small gesture could go a long way towards building a feeling of camaraderie within an organization. Also, he reminded all of us that whether you’re speaking with your customers or your employees/coworkers, it’s important to remember that conversations are two-way streets. In other words, don’t just talk about yourself and what you want—really try to make an effort to listen. Being well-rounded and at least somewhat knowledgeable about a variety of topics is a great advantage in this regard. “Be interested and be interesting,” he advised us.

Finally, McDonough talked about success, something he has become very familiar with while building a winning team for the Blackhawks. He said that success is the greatest marketing tool you have; success will naturally create an environment that breeds successful results. We see this all the time in sports. When a team is losing, there’s often turmoil and infighting that comes about because of the constant failure and disappointment. This in turn leads to even more losing. But then when these same players start winning, the infighting stops and the turmoil magically disappears. Then people start to say, “winning cures all.”

To create this winning environment, according to McDonough, you need to put your people in positions to be successful. Setting impossible deadlines or unreachable goals is never going to inspire winning efforts; at the same time, rewarding your stars—making sure you recognize your top people—communicates the notion that you appreciate success and are willing demonstrate that appreciation. Most of all, McDonough stressed the importance of being an innovator rather than an emulator, trusting in yourself and your people and supporting them in their efforts to be great. There’s no such thing as an easy sale—at the end of the day, what people are buying is you, a belief in you and what your organization represents.



Building a winning team is no easy task. It takes buy-in from everyone in your organization, not just the top stakeholders. But that doesn’t mean you can’t also reward your best salespeople or your most prolific customers. What’s required to capture both elements is a culture of accountability, a philosophy that sees people as human beings and not merely capital or resources, and a strategy that’s built around innovation. At HMI, we’ve seen the effectiveness of these principles firsthand in our recent stretch of success with the IMA Circle of Excellence Awards, and in particular with our latest win for Innovation. It’s something we strive for day-in and day-out.

In my mind this is how you build a winning team, and how you cultivate a culture of success. But you don’t have to just take my word for it—you can take the word of a Stanley Cup Champion.

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