On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Paul Epstein, a globally renowned expert on how purpose impacts everything we do. He has spent nearly 15 years as a pro sports executive for multiple NFL and NBA teams, global agencies, and the NFL league office and is the author of the book The Power of Playing Offense: A Leader’s Playbook for Personal and Team Transformation.
On this episode of Bring It In season three, Paul sat down with Sam and discussed why great players don’t always make great coaches, the profiles in your organization, and how to build culture.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights Epstein shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: Hey, Paul wants to kick us off by giving us a little background on yourself.
Paul: Absolutely. So 15 year NFL, NBA, business exec, and most recently head of sales for the 49ers. And then I did this little thing called Finding My Why. And I had a purpose driven transformation of essentially tapping into who I am, how do I want to show up every day, how do I make massive life decisions because of my core values? And that led to a Jerry Maguire leap. I leaped to follow a passion and a purpose. And I have been on a rollercoaster of the entrepreneurial journey, the leadership development journey, the culture transformation journey, all that stuff is now just really the fields that I enjoy running in. So I basically made a transition from the sports business to the people business.
Sam: My favorite book on the shelf at the office here, The Power Playing Offense.
Paul: Gotta pick it up!
Sam: A leader’s playbook for personal and team transformation. Why’d you write it?
Paul: Because it’s a playbook that I never had. I think there’s a major gap in business where first of all, I think we’re missed defining what leadership is.
If you ask somebody to talk about leadership, they talk about leadership of others. They talk about rank, role, title, authority as if it’s this hierarchical thing. But in reality, if I was to ask everybody from your audience to think that the greatest leader that they’ve ever had in any walk of life, a parent, a coach, maybe it was in business, somebody in the community, why would you follow them to no end?
And the odds are, they showed up in a way true to their actions or behaviors, their decisions basically before they lead others, they lead themselves. And that’s the playbook that I never got. Nobody ever taught me or trained me how to lead myself. And if I don’t get an A in that test, then how can I effectively lead others?
So that’s the underlying principle of the book. Before we lead others, we must first lead ourselves. And that’s why I really take a deep dive into knowing who you are, your purpose, how in the storms of life, how do you unpack your grit, your resilience, your courage, your agility, your adaptability, and then how do you shine a light on your entire locker room? Not just the star quarterbacks, but as I like to say, salute the long snapper. So if you’re a football fan, you know that that’s a position, but I really think it’s a metaphor for the everyday role player in life.
So think about this, Sam and for everybody listening in, have you ever been in a situation where you did a hundred things and you did 99 of them right, and you never hear a word. But then you do one thing wrong and you never hear the end of it. That is the life of a long snapper. And if you’re being honest with yourself, we’ve all been long snappers in life. So I wrote the book as more of an inclusive message to say, it’s not just about the quarterbacks in life.
It is about the entire team. And so how do you inspire them to show up at their full potential? And that’s where you’re really going to match their potential because then you’re going to see strengths, gifts, talents, passions, all that amazing stuff. And again, this was a playbook that people taught me how to lead a meeting, maybe how to run a one-on-one, but they didn’t teach me how to build a culture. They didn’t teach me how to inspire people, which is how do you breathe life into people? And lastly, they never taught me how to lead myself. And so I wanted to pay that forward.
Sam: I see you on the road, and the virtual road as well, doing a ton right now with companies and teams. And I’m sure that you’re talking a lot about the playbook that’s in the power of playing offense. What has surprised you since you released the book, as you started to activate the message within different workforces?
Paul: There are several surprises, but I’ll give you the biggest one and just like anybody else that’s listening right now, the last couple of years of life have been very challenging, whether personally or professionally, like if you really center yourself around the pandemic, we all know, just the adversity that has struck every single person listening in, including you and I, Sam.
Now there also are some silver linings and one of the silver linings, one of the optimistic outlooks, now that we can reflect back on a big chunk of what the pandemic has become, it gave us a forced time-out. It gave us a pause. It gave us time to reflect. And so when I wrote the book of which there are five pillars of playing off offense, I thought they were evenly and equally important.
But now I realize based on the current times, everybody wants to hang out in the first pillar way before they’re ready to take the rest of the journey. And the first pillar is about living with championship and purpose. And purpose I think three years ago was a buzzword. It was gaining steam in the business community and in life.
But really now I feel like there is this inner burn that people have that the pandemic forces you to think about who you are, what you stand for, why you do what you do? And I think the minority of society is happy with those answers. The majority are in this daily pursuit to better those areas of their life. And I think the time out of the pandemic really shined a light on what happened to organically be the introduction of the playing offense journey, which is to double-click on purpose.
Sam: Gallup did a study, before the pandemic, you may have seen this. They obviously do several studies. I think that’s kind of like what they do. but the study found that workforce engagement is pretty bad already. It’s like 15% globally, 33% in the U.S. and they went on to say that the number one driver of increasing employee engagement is not pay or vacation time. It’s a very specific type of manager they went on to call a coach, that is closer to the employee experience.
You have big organizations, HR is far away, but the manager that’s on the front line. That’s what I think about when I think about your playbook because what you were saying about the playbook you never had is how you give folks that are in the middle more tools to be better coaches, better mentors, better leaders in that process. What do you think about that?
Paul: Yeah. Oh, a hundred percent. And you mentioned a few things over the past handful of minutes, one about being on the road a lot, which thankfully now I am, and/or delivering thought leadership in the virtual space, but even with what you just mentioned, so I’m around the topic of engagement every single day. And you’re right. Yeah. Seven out of 10 people that we know don’t like what they do, who they do at four they’d rather be doing it somewhere else. So it’s half depressing, half inspiring. It’s depressing because we’re surrounded by people that aren’t pleased with where they are every day, but it’s inspiring because it shows you the upside.
If you can create a movement at that management and leadership scale to say, if you can customize a game plan for each and every person on your team, like what motivates them or what gets them out of bed, and when you can tailor that growth and development plan, that’s how you flip the script. That’s how you take that 70% into 30%. And so going into what you said about the pandemic and with engagement and really where people want to take this, one of my pet peeves is, let’s say you go to a conference and I know a lot of us haven’t been to a conference in years in person, but go back to those conferences where you felt so high in the moment.
And then the following Monday morning comes around and we don’t do anything different. And that to me happened time after time after time again, until it just ticked me off to the point, I’m like, dude, I got to do something about this. So gone are the sugar highs. And if I really think about that mission, I wrote the book to solve that problem because I could write an inspirational book, but if I really want to transform and impact lives and people in teams and organizations, you have to actually go through the steps.
It’s like you have an athletic background, Sam, both whether playing or training. You know that games are won and lost when nobody is watching, games are won and lost in practice. And it’s a 365 sport, but in the NFL, we just pay attention to a dozen of dates. That’s not how it works. And I see the same about business and life. So really this playbook is how do you kick butt for 365? Cause that’s what’s going to get you to win at the end of the game.
Sam: Are you saying in the five pillars, which you have to obviously pick up to hear them all, and the long snapper is my favorite one, obviously. But where are you seeing the deficiencies? Like, where are you seeing the gaps? I can’t help but think about the fact that companies right now are struggling to find workers. There’s a variety of reasons why, I’m sure you have a perspective on why they’re struggling, but they’re also struggling with how they put the right manager in the right role. Are you seeing any one of your five pillars be an area that needs more focus?
Paul: Yes, let’s speak to everybody tuning in. When we think of culture or workplace culture, we often think of it as some top-down initiative. And let me backup, I’m going to come back to culture, but I really want to emphasize this point because I think it’s a big miss in business that doesn’t exist in sports and this analogy will reign true.
So in sports, if I was to say that you’re a great player, does that automatically mean that you should coach the team? Of course not. I think that the Chicago Bulls going back to Jordan days, Steve Kerr was a role player. He turns out to be a legendary coach, but the lights of a Michael Jordan or a Magic Johnson, or maybe a Larry Bird, if you analyze their coaching resume, are not as strong.
Why? Because player and coach are fundamentally different skill sets. And in sports, we understand that. But in business, we default to promoting the highest producing player into being a coach. So I would say one thing we can all do differently is let’s not default to promoting players into coaches. If the player has amazing people skills, leadership skills, et cetera, phenomenal, but are we grooming those skills in them before they get the title or the promotion? And I think that’s what some of the best cultures in the world are doing versus the rest of the pack.
Now coming back to culture, I used to think about culture as a top-down initiative. And I now view it very differently. I now view culture as all culture is local. And here’s what I mean by that. So I worked with an organization where I trained all 6,000 leaders out of 120,000 employees. And people ask me what the culture is like. And I say, ‘Well, I can’t answer that until you tell me who’s the leader, what department, what location, what floor of the building? That’s the culture. because on floor five we’re high-fiving, floor six, watch out there are bosses around the corner and it might be the same department in the same company.’
So think about that. We, as leaders, have a weather system. When we walk in a room, we either warm it up or we cool it off. And when I started to think about the responsibility that I carry a weather system with me every day, just like everybody listening in, regardless of what your role or title is, you have a weather system.
And when I started to think about culture through that lens, it became much more empowering because now I’m not subject to a big macro toxic culture and oh, the CEO is an a-hole or whatever the case is, maybe that’s true. But what can I own every single day? And if each person to your left and right took ownership of their own local culture, that’s how you scale the bright spots to transform a culture from the ground up or from the middle going both directions.
So I just wanted to share that. That’s something that because of writing the book, my perspective on culture changed drastically.
Sam: Yeah. And imagine that the book coming out at this moment, I think you even had your forward done by Eric Yaun, the founder, and CEO of Zoom. So it goes without saying that I’m sure that the remote work moment or what work is going to look like, I’ve heard you say the office is the new offsite, all of these come into play as you have to think about culture, right?
Paul: For sure. And with that office becoming the new offsite. So regardless of where we are, we’re struggling and we’re juggling a lot of the same challenges I should say. So are we a fully remote organization? Are we fully back in person or where I think you’re seeing some trends are the hybrid approach? Now I’ve seen hybrid work phenomenally well, and I’ve also seen a lot of other teams and organizations really struggle with it.
And so what I try to wrap my mind around is think about circa 2019, 2018. What would you go to a retreat for? What would you go to an offsite for? You wouldn’t do it to go type a bunch of keys. You would do it for more human-centered interaction. Sometimes it was a discovery of mission/vision values. Sometimes it was business planning. Sometimes it was strategy, but you needed a collaborative conversation. You needed to be able to look into each other’s eyeballs to challenge one another. Those were the things that were happening at off-sites years ago. So now with a hybrid environment, don’t send people back into a cube farm just to stare at a screen if they could just as easily and maybe even more effectively do that from the location of their choice.
That’s part of that power of inclusive choice that I think is one of those intrinsic drivers. But if you’re going to have people come into the office, be intentional about why. Like you were intentional about why you went to an offsite retreat years ago, take the same intentionality about why are people going back into the office now.
And that way you maximize the human connection, you maximize the team building and the comradery and all of those elements, and the rest of the time, let’s be flexible. The winning cultures that I have seen take that intentionality and why are we coming back to the office? They’re not just creating blanket rules about three days, two days. Why? And when they can come up with a powerful answer, now people feel like they’re actually taking my needs and my balance and my work-life harmony into account.
Sam: The way that technology is directly impacted the way that communication is happening. And I think you saw, we saw a lot of companies in the service sector, hospitality, leisure, really struggled to stay connected. You saw others, and you saw some do really well. Some really struggle. It’s really tough when 40 million US workers get furloughed or laid off. And now they have to come back to work and the pandemic’s really not over yet, and childcare, there’s a lot of issues and challenges. My question to you, and I know maybe the answer to your question of who’s responsible for culture in an organization might probably go all the way to the top, but, for HR teams that have been really struggling or dismantled, or under-invested in, what is the perfect role in a company to champion an initiative to make culture a competitive advantage for a company? What is that role? What do they look like? If you could create a company from scratch tomorrow, unlimited funding, what does Paul Epstein do? Who do you put cultures in what person’s hand and how does it work?
Paul: Absolutely. First of all, thanks for all the funding. I’m counting it as you speak.
Paul: That’s awesome. So. I’m not going to give you a role in a hierarchical structure. I’m actually going to label this. And so allow me to kind of tier an organization. In any group, there are three characters. There are three profiles. I call them partners, tourists, and prisoners. Okay. So everybody, tune into your world right now. Around you, you have partners, tourists, and prisoners. If you were in the front of the room, speaking to this group, you would find the partners are in the front row. They’re leaning in, they’re fully engaged, they’re bought in, and they don’t need to always agree with you, but they are moving the organization forward through their positivity, their optimism, and just that momentum and growth mindset that they bring.
That’s a partner. A tourist, ah, there’s a fork in the road. Some go left, some go right. If it goes well, they’re happy they came. If it goes wrong, they blame you, the tour guide. So they’re kind of in the middle.
And then the prisoners are in the back row. Arms are folded. 5:30. Can’t get here soon enough. And they were told to be here. Okay. So you’ve got your partners, tourists, and prisoners. I used to think if I’m in HR or if I’m a people leader, the key to culture was to change the prisoners. They’re the bad guys. They’re the bad gals. It’s about flipping that on its head. Well, that is a fundamentally wrong way to do it.
And trust me, I have led it the wrong way and how I’ve led it the right way, many more times because of these learnings, that in order to transform a culture, you need to shine a light on the partners, regardless of their role. The ones that are embodying the company values, the ones that represent everything that you want to see in the team, shine a light on those bright spots and it will attract the tourists. And now what was the minority of good culture team members can slowly shift to 50/50. And over time, sometimes years, depending on the size of the organization, it can become the majority. And then guess what happens after that? The prisoners find their way out because when they’re outnumbered, it becomes a miserable place to work.
And so, again, in recap, rather than try to change the prisoners, think of who the partners are. Those culture champions, regardless of what role. Frontline’s all the way up to C suite. Who champions the culture better than anybody else, and shines a light on those bright spots.
Sam: I love that. Paul, last question for you. We’re talking about the future of work. Everything you’re doing is going to be critical and instrumental in forming a future of work that gets everybody involved, activates everybody, gives everybody a shot to compete. Now, what is your hope for the future of work?
Paul: My hope for the future of work is that people focus less on the what and focus more on their who and their why. I think when you can tap into who you are, at your core, on your best day, when you can tap into your why being, how do you want to contribute? How do you want to make a difference? How do you want to drive impact in your business and in your life? And when you can align and connect your who and your why, the what and the how take care of themselves. So I think right now we’re just living in a very what driven world. And by the way, Sam, let me add this to. Purpose is not for the elite. It is not for the few. You can be on the front lines and feel a tremendous amount of purpose in your work. Purpose is not for high society.
It just means you’re being true to creating impact every day. If you genuinely feel that you make positive contributions, and it makes you feel alive, you feel like you’re serving and bettering and helping others, that fuel in turn helps you and it just becomes kind of this exponential growth. And so that’s my vision of the future of work. Let’s double down on the who and the why and the what and the how will start to take care of themselves.
Sam: Paul. Thanks for your time.
Paul: Awesome. Thanks for having me.
Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Culture, Management, Purpose
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