🐐 Lessons from Tom Brady
+ Deadly Sins of PM & 3 other PM articles
If there were ever an example of greatness, it would be Tom Brady. Starting from nothing as a backup QB on a lossless team his freshman year of high school, Tom Brady faced adversity every step of the way.
At the University of Michigan, Tom had to watch from the bench as Brien Griese led the team to a national championship. Then, after being the starter for the team his whole junior year, he faced a position battle his senior year.
After overcoming the position battle, he led the University of Michigan to an Orange Bowl win over Arkansas.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Brady was chosen with the 199th pick in the draft. Most picks in that range aren’t expected to last on teams more than 2 years.
Not Brady. When star QB Drew Bledsoe was injured, Brady stepped up. He threw five 300+ yard games in a row. When Drew came back healthy, he didn’t get his job back. It was Tom who led the Patriots to their first-ever Super Bowl win.
From there, the rest is history. Tom would go on to win a record 7 super bowls, three more than his childhood idol and the previously considered greatest of all time, Joe Montana.
Although it’s a history most of us lived through, there’s so much to learn. So, this week, I’m really excited to share the Tom Brady Profile. In typical product growth fashion, we extract the lessons tech workers can take away from the story.
I am an expert on Michigan Football, but I am no expert on Football itself. As a result, this week it was wonderful to collaborate with my good friend Andrew Bowker. If he wasn’t a PM, he’d be a football coach. I could think of no better person to break down these lessons with us.
Lesson 1: To Be the Best, Aim to be Like the Best
Halfway between San Francisco and Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto lies San Mateo. In the shadow of these two prosperous technology hubs, Tom Brady was born and brought up to be a football player. While the weather is just right to practice year-round, the region lacks the commitment to football of the south or midwest. Most high school players dream of becoming tech billionaires, not football stars.
So, it’s rather surprising that amidst this crucible of global tech talent that Tom grew up in the 80s and 90s, he turned out to be a football star. Part of this was a gift from Tom’s father, and part a gift from his sisters.
Tom’s father was an avid fan of the San Francisco 49ers. Tom and his father went to several 49ers games during Tom’s childhood. The 49ers QB duties were helmed by Joe Montana. Up until Tom Brady, Joe was considered the greatest quarterback of all time. This gave Tom a real role model for his life. As his sister, Maureen said: “Our family worshiped Joe Montana.”
But plenty of kids grow up idolizing sports stars.
Tom’s sisters were equally an influence. As he wrote about in his High School essay, “The Way My Sisters Influenced Me,” all three excelled in sports. His oldest sister was an all-California level pitcher, and his other two sisters played three varsity sports each. The athletic shadows cast by Tom’s sisters were long.
Lesson 2: Build a Well Rounded Base of Skills
Like Montana, Brady spent his first two years of high school football as a backup. His freshman year, the JV team did not win a single game, yet Tom still could not make it on the field. This did not prevent Tom from having big dreams. As he wrote in his freshman year essay:
One day, I’m going to be a household name.
Eventually, with an injury to the starting quarterback, Tom would get his crack at starting for the varsity team as a junior. You guessed, it just like Joe. But no one compared Tom to Joe in high school. In fact, the athletic leadership at Junipero Serra thought Tom’s future was as a professional baseball catcher/ pitcher, not a quarterback. Serra had produced several baseball stars, including Barry Bonds.
As a result, Tom and Serra did not get serious about football recruiting until the summer before Brady’s senior year. By then, the two-sport athlete was looking at a scant few available quarterback scholarship positions at major universities.
Eventually, Brady Sr. helped compile a tape, verified by a quarterback expert, and put into the hands of college coaches. Brady Sr. actually mailed tapes.
One thing the Brady parents were sure of was that Tom would have the opportunity to go to a strong school academically as well. So, after the interest came in, the list was pared down to five schools: Cal-Berkeley, UCLA, USC, Illinois, and Michigan.
During Brady’s senior season, only one of the head coaches actually came to watch Brady play: Mike Riley of USC. But Bill Harris, Michigan assistant, also came out several times. First, he came to the high school to retrieve all the game tape of Brady. What he found was a QB who was pretty good, even at his worst. Then, he met with Brady at school and with his parents.
After all that went well, Bill arranged Tom to visit the University of Michigan in January 1995. A few weeks later, shortly before National signing day, Brady called Harris to tell him he was going to be a ‘Michigan Man.’ As Brady Sr said:
I guess there were more highly recruited prospects, but Tommy never had any doubt about his abilities
Lesson 3: Adversity is the Crucible for Diamonds
That lack of self-doubt would prove important for Brady after he flew 2,400 miles across the country to a much chillier Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In Ann Arbor, Brady would play games at the biggest home stadium of his life: the Big House. With record attendance of 115,000 (a 2013 battle versus Notre Dame that I attended), the stadium fits far more than any of Brady’s future NFL homes.
Of course, that attendance is due to the stellar product on the field. The University of Michigan has been drawing 100,000 plus crowds for over a hundred years. As the winningest program in college football history, there were no shortage of star quarterbacks when Brady arrived.
In fact, there were 6 QBs ahead of Tom on the depth chart. After redshirting (waiting a year and just doing academics), Brady’s college career started like his high school one. He was on the bench. His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. He ended the year with 5 passes, and his second year with 15 passes.
Michigan was helmed by Brian Griese, who held a 17-5 record as starter for the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan won all three of its games against arch rival Ohio State University under Griese. In Griese’s final season, 1997, the University of Michigan had an undefeated season and won the national championship.
Like high school, finally, in Brady’s third year, he was the starter. Brady started every game of his junior year, winning 10 of his final 11. He also set Michigan records for most pass attempts and completions in a season, for a total of 214. He capped the year by leading Michigan to a 45-31 victory over Arkansas on national television in the Citrus Bowl.
Despite Brady’s success, Michigan had another star recruit for primetime - local legend Drew Henson. In Brady’s senior year, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr made a bizarre decision: To play Brady in the 1st quarter, Henson in the 2nd quarter, then award the rest of the game to the hot hand. This went on for the first 5 games of the season
It was one of the most mentally grueling times in Brady’s life. But Brady withstood the adversity. He went to the team’s football facility every night to watch extra film.
And then his turning point came. In the sixth game, against Michigan State, Michigan was down by 17. Brady nearly brought Michigan back, throwing for an incredible 241 yards in the final 18 minutes. The next game, Brady locked up the starting job for the rest of the season by throwing for 307 yards.
Brady’s final game in college would prove to be his best. On the national stage in the Orange Bowl against Alabama, #8 Michigan was the underdog to #5 Alabama. It was the Big Ten vs SEC rivalry the country wanted to see.
In a back and forth game, Brady led Michigan back from 14-0 and 28-14 holes. Then, as the game went into overtime, he led Michigan on a final game-winning drive. It was a thrilling cap to Brady’s season, taking Michigan to the final stage and succeeding.
But as any fan of college football knows, team success does not mean QB draft success. To get the rest of the story, you’ll have to click that button:
I hope you enjoyed this week’s deep dive! I am very excited to share four additional PM pieces I wrote in the last week. For length limitation reasons, I’ll include the most popular one full-text and link the other three.
Deadly Sins of PM
Too often, the literature focuses on what PMs should do. But what is the anti-pattern? What should PMs avoid doing?
Trying to do everything
The PM version of gluttony is trying to do everything. Being the “hero” PM does not mean doing everything, it means doing the right things.
Acting like the boss
“CEO of the product” is the PM version of egotism. The job of the PM is to frame the decision, not make it.
Being the designer
PMs trying to solve the usability and design challenges on their own represent PM big-headedness. The design process dramatically reduces time to value. But PMs have to let designers do their work.
Sticking to the role
PMs who obsessively stick to their job description represents the sin of pride. PMs should be above nothing, even QA if that’s what’s needed once.
Starting with solutions
Coming to the team with solutions and features represents PM tyranny. PMs must run democracies. The problem-solution process empowers the team.
Worshipping product sense
Making decisions on PM sense represents PM faith in voodoo. The best PMs use continuous discovery and data to frame decisions for the team.
Being too tactical
Constantly focusing on specs & features is the PM version of narrow-mindedness. It’s critical to do the right work, not all the work, by focusing on strategy and vision.
Taking it too seriously
Getting overwhelmed by the PM calendar and to-do list is the PM version of myopia. It’s just a demanding job. The best PMs handle it with grace and a smile.
Owning the problems
It’s easy to take the problems we’re asked to solve home. This is the PM version of not compartmentalizing. Work is full of problems, but the best PMs don’t let that spillover to their mental state in life.
Ignoring tech debt
Focusing only on features is the PM version of short-sightedness. Building platforms that scale – and minimize debt – builds for the long-term and engenders dev goodwill. The best PMs prioritize tech debt.
The feature treadmill
Most teams get into the build trap where they ship endless features but don’t move outcomes. This is the PM version of running in place. The best PMs avoid output competitions, and move the business forward instead.
Competing with peers
Envy for your product colleague’s titles and accomplishments is never good. Great PMs celebrate and enhance the success of their counterparts. More successful one’s are models and mentors, not competitors.
The wrath associated with complaining about colleagues is a toxic trait in PMs. The best PMs shape orgs, but they do so professionally.
Blaming the blocker or stakeholder
It’s easy to shift blame to the reason things took longer on blockers or stakeholders. This is the PM version of sloth. Great PMs push through roadblocks.
Copycat product strategy
Lust for competitor’s success is perhaps the most common PM deadly sin. It’s easy to sell to execs and leadership, but the best PMs prefer what’s best, from first principles, for the user.