Until his career was cut short by injury, John Gerak played five seasons as an offensive lineman in the National Football League (NFL)—four with the Minnesota Vikings and one with the St. Louis Rams. As an undergraduate, Gerak attended Penn State where he initially played running back but soon learned, as he puts it with characteristic humor, that “I was too big and too slow to carry the ball.” He switched to the offensive line where, as Gerak says, “I was never quite big enough.” Nevertheless, Gerak built a viable NFL career through intelligence, discipline, tenacity, and a bedtime ritual of consuming a fully loaded, extra-large pizza to maintain weight—a problem Gerak adds, “I no longer have.”
JATHAN JANOVE: What lessons have you learned from football that apply to the workplace?
JOHN GERAK: Only a select few succeed on talent alone. The rest, including me, succeed through a combination of talent, discipline, opportunity, and luck. I’ve known athletes with great natural ability who didn’t succeed due to a poor work ethic or bad luck (such as an untimely injury). Conversely, many players who weren’t extraordinary athletes made themselves extraordinarily effective through their approach and commitment to the game. Peyton Manning is one such example.
JJ: What advice would you give to someone trying to maximize the return on their talent?
JG: Create routines—daily, weekly, monthly, yearly—dedicated to the development and maintenance of your craft. Create a supportive structure and environment that will further your development.
JJ: The NFL is about as physical as it gets. What about the mental part?
JG: The mental side is crucial. First of all, you’ve got to have confidence in your abilities and preparation. Second, you need a healthy fear of your opponent. You need to learn from your mistakes, but not dwell on the negatives, such as a penalty or missed block leading to a sack. If you focus on the negatives, it will impact the rest of your performance.
JJ: To me, football looks like moving from order to chaos. Everyone lines up neatly, at least on the offensive side, the center snaps the ball, and bodies start flying all over the place. Any lessons for the workplace?
JG: Yes. On the field, the key to success is when things get chaotic or break down, don’t get ruffled. Remain calm and collected and maintain a long-term, focused perspective. Order can be created amidst chaos.
JJ: How so?
JG: Through proper preparation and repetition. Dedicated players watch a lot of game film in order to anticipate the unexpected on game day. They also practice footwork and other skills to build muscle memory, which takes over when athletes are tired or in pain.
In the workplace, this could mean not getting ruffled when dealing with an irate customer or client, or in confronting a problematic employee. It could mean spending time in advance trying to anticipate what might go wrong. What are the possible obstacles? If I encounter them, what will I do? In football, our motto was “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” Employees, like athletes, are recognized not so much for how they do their jobs in ordinary circumstances, but rather how they respond in extraordinary circumstances.
JJ: What did you learn about teamwork that’s applicable in the workplace?
JG: On the field, you trust your teammates to perform their assignments. You can’t control the outcomes of their matchups.
As managing shareholder of my firm’s Cleveland office, I use the same approach. I draw from my experiences with coaches, try to identify each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and fill in gaps where needed. I also approach the hiring process like a draft. I want people who are already successful, with a demonstrated work ethic, who will make our office better. I look for complementary skills, employee assets that will fill us out as a team and improve our overall effectiveness.
JJ: In the NFL, players get cut. What about in the workplace?
JG: The average NFL career is roughly three years. We’re fortunate to be in a business with a longer term perspective and one in which each and every hire has an opportunity to succeed. We train, develop, and constantly mold new employees’ performance and behavior. We work to avoid surprises by giving new employees clear guidance regarding what is expected. We strive to always offer our new hires timely and direct feedback on their work. In turn, we reward performance with increased responsibility and opportunity. Continuity is good for office morale and for business. If it’s clear that an employee is not up to the task despite our best efforts, we transition the individual out of the organization and look for new team members.
JJ: I have to ask—In your playing days you had a reputation as a dirty player. What do you have to say for yourself?
JG: [Laughs] I deny the allegations! I never considered myself a dirty player. However, I faced guys that were often bigger, stronger, and more agile than I was. I played very hard, through the whistle—and sometimes even past the whistle. [Hall of Fame defensive end] Reggie White might knock me down, but I’d get up and hit him back. A lot of players didn’t like that, but that’s how I earned a place in the league. I was never going to be a star, but whatever I had to offer, you got it on every play.
JJ: Do you have any heroes from your playing days?
JG: Two: Joe Paterno, who was my coach at Penn State, and Dick Vermeil, my coach with the St. Louis Rams.
JJ: What about them stood out?
JG: When you were in a conversation with Coach Paterno or Coach Vermeil, they made you feel like there was no one else they’d rather talk to than you at that moment. They cared about your welfare, even after you no longer played on their team. They were genuine.
Long after I graduated from Penn State, Coach Paterno, or “JoePa” as we called him, wrote letters to law schools on my behalf.
When I spoke with Coach Vermeil about my retirement, his eyes filled with tears. He asked about my welfare and future. He offered to help me, however he could, and even offered me a place to stay in Pennsylvania.
JoePa and Coach Vermeil modeled the behavior they expected from others. They were the first to arrive and last to leave, and they prepared with a level of energy, diligence, and discipline that was a model for the rest of us. They didn’t just coach a bunch of players on a field. They molded lives. I feel blessed and humbled that my path crossed theirs.