Physics in HR – The Petrino Principle

Update – January, 2017

Today, Bobby Petrino is the head coach for the University of Louisville, and it appears that he has taken the lessons of his earlier career and changed his trajectory. He has found success again, with far less controversy, with a team that new enough about his past they likely worked with him to make his outside-of-work behaviors a non-issue.

Update – December, 2012

This post was my most popular post of the year. In part due to the fact that Arkansas is the home of Walmart, and I think a link to this post just may have been passed around the corporate system. 

Since I wrote this, little has been seen or heard of Coach Petrino, until the eventual December coach shuffling period. Though there were rumors that Auburn might try to snap him up, Bobby eventually ended up with the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky University. Their program has been improving, and they even reached a bowl game this year. Time will tell if the principles of momentum have changed for 2013!

Well class, it appears we have a real-life example to further explain the concept of momentum.

I have been following the situation involving Arkansas Football coach Bobby Petrino. Actually, as an Auburn fan I have been paying attention to Petrino for years. And I am neither amazed or disappointed in how the last two weeks played out.

The laws of motion apply not just to the physical world, but to our personal world as well. Our trajectory is defined by our actions, and our momentum is determined by our mass (in this case, our personal choices and decisions) and our velocity (the speed at which we take life on).

We all know how hard personal change is. Even though we may bring lots of variety into our daily/weekly/monthly lives, there are certain habits we develop that are tough to break. If we operate at the principle level, habits are driven by the power of mind. If we operate at an emotional or physical level, habits are driven by the more immediate rewards. Bringing change to these habits, to lifestyle driven not from principle but from emotion or desire, is a huge challenge. That’s why the decisions to exercise more, eat better, sleep more, and lose weight are all challenging to implement. Momentum. “That’s how I roll” is a statement of science.

Petrino was hired for proven expertise. He’s a good coach. That’s what the fans wanted, what the boosters wanted, and of course, what the University wanted. Contract clauses aside, I am sure that at some point in his negotiations to join the University of Arkansas, someone explained to Coach Petrino that he would be expected to live to a standard becoming of a University Official – or as Steve Boese pointed out – the highest paid state employee. That’s kind of like asking a lion to behave like a deer. That’s NOT how he rolls.

Did they hire an executive coach to smooth the edges? Probably not. Did they have regular discussions about how his behavior and actions were in conformance with the agreed-to standards? Maybe. Did they praise him for winning games. Yep. They encouraged and contributed to the momentum of the man, not just the coach.

Petrino delivered on his job, and therefore met the fans’ expectations. This week the fans made it clear in many channels that they stood by him for his results, and since they are not a victim to his failures, they don’t seem to feel that the problems should matter. “Sorry your husband treats you this way, Mrs. Petrino, but we love him as a coach. That’s more important to us than any vows, promises, or commitments he may have with his family.”

When momentum is involved, especially in personal character, it takes more force than a contractual word or two, or a reminder to behave to effect a change. It takes a directed force, aimed at the problem and staying on top of the problem to make the direction of the momentum change.

Arkansas knew who they were hiring, and believed that somehow Petrino would change (or just not cause any embarrassment) and they would not have the problems associated with his past reputation. But they never directed the right force on the problem. And now it is too late. Like Watergate, it’s not the incident, it’s the cover-up.

This physics lesson? Momentum has direction. And if that direction isn’t quite right, you can’t wish it to correctness. You have to add a little force. OK, sometimes quite a bit. If you expect leaders to drive culture in your organization, they have to live the culture.

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