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What the Super Bowl and Home Theater Projects Have in Common

The similarities between coaching a Super Bowl winner and managing a successful home theater project are striking

The Super Bowl is the realization of team-owners’ dreams and the culmination of years of hard work and dedication on the part of team management, coaches and players. For many of us in the custom installation profession the Super Bowl marks the first opportunity for proud new home theater owners to “premier” their new investment. The team that created the homeowner’s new pride and joy anticipates Super Bowl Sunday as the realization of their talent and countless hours of hard work.

As home theater professionals many of you have been doing final touch up, tweaking, and training to assure perfection in hopes of winning your own championship rings in the form of proud clients, lucrative referrals and that final payment. As is true for team owners and football professionals, the impact of January’s pigskin pageant on your business is very real. But the analogy goes much deeper.

As we consider what it takes to be a Super Bowl contender, we pour over statistics, balanced team rosters, star players and coaching. We as home theater professionals measure chances for success in terms of design, technical performance, user experience and (the ever elusive) on-time completion. I suggest that we also consider another element of success. One that is less recognizable and often overlooked by some pros and many fans and observers of both football and the home theater. This aspect of success is rooted in the “golden rule” of “he who holds the checkbook makes the rules.”

In the hierarchy of sports teams, everything flows from the team owner. Having deep pockets, one often becomes an owner because of a strong interest in the game. Others come to be team owners seeking status. It’s rare that the owner has invested his entire life to the pursuit of the game. He probably would not enjoy the wealth needed to own a team if he had. As a result, team owners must rely on experts to manage and run the team to achieve the dream of a Super Bowl championship.

The ultimate success of any team is dependent on the owner’s understanding of the roles his people must play and his reliance on them to make the right decisions. As a result, the critical and overlooked factor of team success lies in the empowerment of the head coach, by the owner, to run the team. The general manager may contribute to the management of the team roster, but his contribution must be limited to an operational/budget management level. On the field, the players and coaching staff are responsible to the head coach, with no interference. The head coach knows what is expected of him and is empowered to get the job done.

The same motivations and understanding hold true for those who commission home theater projects. The typical home theater client’s knowledge and experience, related to the development and management of a theater project, is analogous to that of the described football team owner. As a result, a home theater client has a similar reliance on a world-class team of professionals to realize his dream. In my past experience as a home theater designer and project manager, I came to understand that the biggest challenge for home theater professionals lies in where his client typically places us in the team hierarchy. It also lies in the clients’ lack of understanding of what we must be capable of and empowered to do, to assure a successful project.

At the heart of our issue is the typical hierarchy of construction projects and the resulting potential for “power plays” that takes place when a change in the order of things is required. Depending on the project, a client typically empowers either his or her architect or the general contractor as the equivalent of the head coach. This, of course, makes sense in the context of a home construction project. Architects and general contractors have the broad knowledge of the required disciplines and the experience in managing such projects. They, however, typically lack the necessary specialized knowledge of home theater design and development. As a result, it becomes an impediment to both your success and that of the project if the architect or the general contractor is empowered as the “head coach” of the project.

As the person who will ultimately be held responsible for any failure to meet the home theater client’s expectations, it is imperative that you are clearly empowered by him or her to lead the project and the team. This clear direction from the owner, right up front, enables success and can help put the potential power play issues aside. To get there takes an up-front effort to educate your home theater client about the highly specialized nature of the project and your understanding of all aspects of it.

We can assume that you wouldn’t be up for consideration or chosen for a project if your mastery of the fundamental disciplines of home theater design were unknown. On the other hand, experience tells us that, although expert in home design and project management, architects and general contractors typically have not developed the specialized skills or sensibilities required to expertly develop and manage a home theater project. And yet, more often than not, it is an architect or G.C. who is appointed the top spot in these projects. Gaining the clients’ trust and being appointed and empowered as the “head coach” at the start, will make winners of the entire team, come Super Bowl time.

In your first presentation, you must focus considerable attention to convey your understanding of all of the iterative aspects of the project. You must assert the need for your special skills, in the top position, to coordinate all contributors and to develop and maintain their vision of success. You must establish for your client the need for your particular skill set to not only design but also properly manage his home theater project.

To convince your client to place you in the leadership role, you must demonstrate that your expertise goes beyond surround sound and video displays. For you to be named “head coach,” your “team owner” must be confident that you know all aspects of the game. So your client must be confident that your skill set includes general knowledge of all disciplines of residential construction. He also needs to know that you understand the knowledge requirements and job responsibilities of each team member. You must show that you are familiar with the various skills and language unique to the respective trades and professions and where and how they each fit into and interact with the team.

Having selected you as the “head coach” of his team the client must make your role clear to them. Then it is your job to live up to the title.

You can expect some friction, particularly from those accustomed to being in charge. These people, of course, are likely to be the general contractor, architects, interior designers and engineers. They are generally quite accomplished, and it will require your demonstration of your capabilities to get them to accept you as the leader. You also will need to establish for them your desire to let see them shine and gain recognition for their contributions to the team. This and just plain old “schmoozing” will go a long way toward having them acquiesce to the owners choice of leadership and their support (or at least acceptance) of your position. Work with them in a collegial manner but lead when necessary. Provide them with challenges unique to their expertise, allowing them to demonstrate their value. Make sure their individual contributions are recognized. Take responsibility for the failures and shortcomings of the team.

The “players” (subcontractors and tradesmen) will challenge you, too, but in different ways and for different reasons. They will test your knowledge of the basics-blocking, tackling and playbooks. These people are technical experts and will judge you based on your technical acumen. If you don’t know a stud from a header or, whether black or white is hot, they can’t place faith in you as the leader. For the most part, different from the professionals discussed above, these folks prefer clearly defined direction and desire leadership. They have great technical skill, will make contributions in their area of experience, and will rise to a technical challenge. They, on the other hand, rarely wish to be called on to be creative and generally aren’t keen to take responsibility for something that they haven’t been trained to do.

In your hard won role as the “head coach” you must continually meet the challenges presented by individual team members to reinforce the owner’s decision to place you in charge. But more importantly you need to be able to direct your coaches (professionals and on-site leaders), managers (GC and site supervisor) and coordinators (your operations managers and outside consultants) and lead the team as a whole. Important to those efforts are your leadership in project kick off and team meetings, regular meetings with the your coaching, managing and coordination staff, and regular visibility in the field and in the offices.

Communications is clearly your responsibility. Everyone on the team needs a copy of the playbook (plans and drawings) and to be made aware of changes and additions. Regular reporting, to all, on team progress in which you note changes in plan and team, squad and individual accomplishments, is a requirement.

Most important is your continuous effort to build team spirit. Make certain from day one that your team clearly understands that your leadership is not about your individual success and accomplishments. It’s about leveraging your specialized knowledge and management capabilities to the benefit of all who are making a contribution and to the successful completion of the project, in keeping with the owners’ goal.

On Super Bowl Sunday, the winners both on the field and in the home theater will be the team whose head coach commanded the visible and active support of the owner. That coach will have consistently demonstrated his technical skills. He will have leveraged his leadership ability to inspire the commitment of individuals to the team and rallied the team as a unit. To gain the accolades of the owner and fans, he met his commitment to command the team through effective communication and his constant affirmation of his vision. But looking back to week one, he knows that the road to this Super Bowl started with his belief in himself and his requirement, of the owner, to clearly place him in charge.

Jeff Kussard ([email protected]) is director of strategic development for Russound in Newmarket, New Hampshire.