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John McDonough

During his three decades as a successful team sport front-office executive in the country’s third largest market, John McDonough has often been labeled as a marketing genius.

McDonough’s most notable successes occurred during his 24-year run with the Cubs, credited with creating the annual Cubs Convention and for rehabbing the perceptions of Wrigley Field and the surrounding Lakeview neighborhood, now collectively known as “Wrigleyville”. Having transformed the “loveable losers” into an iconic baseball franchise and tourist destination, it’s no wonder Rocky Wirtz, shortly after inheriting the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007, brought McDonough over to do the same for his then-struggling organization.

While I appreciate McDonough’s efforts for turning the Blackhawks into a popular (and winning!) franchise, I never had an opportunity to learn about him or the specifics of his reputable business acumen.

That changed a few weeks back when McDonough sat down for an interview on the Garry Meier Show podcast. As a loyal fan of Meier’s radio and podcast work over the years, I’m well aware that the tone of his show usually steers towards the lighter side of life. While Meier did often attempt to sway the discussion away from business, McDonough always steered it right back. The result was an interesting discussion that allowed me to better understand why he is so highly thought of.

I found the conversation so fascinating that I listened to it a second time. Below are some of my takeaways.

Culture Change and Cheering for Failure

McDonough narrated his experience coming on board with the Blackhawks and his addressing the front office for the first time. While making it clear that the organization was embarking on a “new way and a new day,” which included higher expectations and swifter pacing, he observed the overall body language. It was his takeaway that the vast majority of the employees were not onboard.

In referencing a business lesson concerning cultural change and human behavior, McDonough said that a lot of people are incapable of change after being accustomed to doing things a certain way for a long period of time. His belief is that up to 75 to 80 percent of the people within an organization will want the new guy to fail. Cultural change, which he referenced as a popular buzz phrase, is very hard to accomplish. He knew then that he would need new people.

Several years ago, my jaw would have dropped in disbelief at his 75 to 80 percent estimate. Having since personally experienced a significant leadership change at the workplace, I now get it, I think. During my specific experience, I had difficulty understanding the resistance-to-change mentality exhibited by several of my co-workers. It was then when I developed a distain for the phrase “we’ve always done it this way.” Such resistance is toxic, and when allowed to persist, can stunt necessary change.

Having reflected since, I now believe such mentality is likely a natural defense mechanism when lacking self-confidence. While I am willing to admit that too can experience doubts with self-esteem, I’d like to think my desire to become better educated and more seasoned has helped me embrace difficult workplace changes as potential growth opportunities.

Comfortably Uncomfortable and Humbleness

McDonough recognized that how the organization operated was in need of a major reboot (or as he described, having to start from scratch, or whatever word comes before scratch). While he mentioned collaboration and positivity as being important, my takeaway was his use of the word “comfortably uncomfortable,” meaning employees are confident enough to be loose and have fun, even while interacting with management, while knowing they are needed to perform. “To build that culture, you need people who can perform, and you need to recognize and reward achievement.”

While discussing humility and how it matters to him, I was immediately brought back to Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” McDonough made clear how important it is to make people feel important and comfortable. While Meier referenced fans in attendance at Blackhawks games as being invited guests at the United Center, I got the sense McDonough was referring more to the people you do business with, if not in everyday life. In citing interaction, it’s important to be interesting and interested. When conversing, steer the conversation to be about the other person or their family, when applicable. Come away from it and learn something.

First Impressions and Discipline

First impressions matter to McDonough. He specifically mentioned his old school approach to how everyone in the organization dresses in suits everyday. You have to look like you mean business.

Another example of first impressions is fitness. Fitness and exercise is an activity McDonough uses to decompress, but it also seems to be one element he uses in how he judges people (including, perhaps, prospective employees). Being in good physical shape is one indication for practicing good discipline.

Overall, I learned a lot from this discussion. I think anyone who has an appreciation for hearing out various business philosophies and workplace environments would enjoy listening to this. You can listen to the interview from the Garry Meier Show website here. The conversation with McDonough begins at the 41 minute mark.

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