How Coach Belichick Reformed an Under-Achiever

Last Updated Dec 21, 2009 8:07 PM EST

Let's say you hired someone you were sure was going to be a star performer. But instead of being a game changer, this individual has consistently underperformed.

He always takes the easy route rather than sacrificing to be more productive. He fumbles the big opportunity. The skills you so admired in him seem to be eroding rather than improving.

What do you do to save this person?

Maybe we can learn something from New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick and how he has brought running back Laurence Maroney back from the brink of mediocrity. A first round draft pick in 2006, Maroney has rarely paid back that big investment.

Until this year. Suddenly Maroney has got his act together, delivering consistently good performances. Criticized for not running hard between the tackles, Maroney is now a punishing "north to south" runner. His nine touchdowns are a single-season high for him. Maroney credits his head coach with much of the improvement.

Each week Belichick and Maroney meet one-on-one to discuss the running back's performance a week earlier. I doubt any other single player, with the possible exception of quarterback Tom Brady, gets as much personal attention from the head coach.

In a Boston Globe story about this relationship, it's clear Belichick is applying some Management 101 principles by:

  • Setting Expectations. "I get to understand how he wants me to run a play," Maroney says. "Whether I made a good read or a bad read, he'll still give his input on how I could've done better, or, 'Yeah, you did a good job here.'''
  • Teaching Technique. "That's always what a runner wants to do -- especially if it's a powerful runner like Laurence -- to try to drop your pads on contact," says Belichick. "It protects the ball, it gives the defender less surface to hit on the tackle, and it gives you an opportunity to create more yards after contact. Those are fundamental things.''
  • Listening to the Employee's Perspective. Maroney says of his coach, "Now he understands me as a runner and what I've seen out there and this is why I made this cut and this is why I didn't take this cut. I think it's a great thing because we both get a feel for each other and get a better understanding for each other.''
So the next time you see an employee falling by the wayside, consider devoting more of your own time to understanding and fixing the problem.

Have you rescued an underperformer? Share your own experience.

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.