Commentary

Tannenbaum suiting up during lockout

Jets GM to hit board rooms in Baltimore to keep management skills fine-tuned

Updated: May 19, 2011, 9:40 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

A couple of weeks ago, New York Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum called a staff meeting and delivered marching orders on how to utilize the down time during the NFL lockout. His message:

Rest and improve.

Tannenbaum is heeding his own advice. On Monday, he will take a scouting trip to Baltimore, but the objective isn't to dig up intel on the Ravens, a 2011 opponent. He's scheduled to meet with two "titans of industry," as he called them:

Bill McDermott, the co-CEO of SAP AG, the world's leading provider of business software, and Kevin Plank, the CEO and founder of Under Armour.

No, Tannenbaum isn't looking for a new job during the NFL's work stoppage. Actually, he's looking for ways to help him to perform better in his current one. He will split the day between the two executives, doing his best impersonation of a sponge.

[+] EnlargeMike Tannenbaum
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesMike Tannenbaum will sit down with Bill McDermott, the co-CEO of SAP AG, and Kevin Plank, the CEO and founder of Under Armour, on Monday.

Tannenbaum, armed with a yellow legal pad, will listen and try to absorb as much useful information as possible, taking copious notes. He's not planning to solicit advice on what to do with his three unsigned wide receivers, but he hopes to learn new management techniques and sharpen his skills.

"I really do believe, he who stops getting better stops being good," he said.

Tannenbaum is good. In his five seasons as GM, the Jets are 43-37 with three postseason appearances and back-to-back trips to the AFC Championship Game. He's aggressive and bold, using the trade market perhaps better than any other GM in the league. His nickname is "Trader Mike."

But at the same time, the Jets haven't won the AFC East since 2002 and they haven't reached the Super Bowl since Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 -- 1969. So Tannenbaum, who has law and accounting degrees, is thinking outside the box, trying to cook up new ways to get better.

"In our business, we're so focused on the next thing -- the next minicamp, the next opponent, whatever's next on the calendar," he said. "Speaking for myself, I get so compartmentalized. Sometimes, you have to take the opportunity to go to 20,000 feet, look down and take in the big picture."

What can the GM of a football team glean from a software big-wig or the head of a performance-apparel company? Plenty, according to Tannenbaum.

It can be something big -- formulating a team-building philosophy -- or something as small as when to order lunch or how to write an email, he said. Or it can involve something intangible, like how to deliver bad news to an employee -- a big part of the GM's job when it comes to cutting the roster.

So, for a day, Tannenbaum plays the role of apprentice, except there's no guy with funny hair on the other side of the desk, barking, "You're fired!" This isn't a made-for-TV gig; it's serious stuff for the Jets' GM.

"Mike is a fabulous student," said Frank Bisignano, the chief administrative officer at J.P. Morgan Chase, which hosted Tannenbaum last May. "He has a great intellectual curiosity, and great leaders need to be passionately curious."

Tannenbaum probably can learn a lot from McDermott and Plank, who took different paths to the top.

As a kid, McDermott worked at a local deli and eventually bought it as a teenager for $17,000, a huge amount in the 1970s. That launched a business career that began at Xerox and took him to SAP, which employs more than 53,000 worldwide and reported more than 12.5 billion euros last year in revenue.

In contrast, Plank built his own company. After graduating from Maryland, where he went from a walk-on to special teams captain, he set out to find a new kind of athletic garb. He hated the sweaty, cotton T-shirts he wore in college, and that led to the creation of what is now known as performance apparel.

In its first year, 1996, Under Armour made $17,000 in sales. In 2009, it cracked the $1 billion mark.

Not surprisingly, Plank uses football-related themes within his company to motivate employees. Instead of meetings, they have huddles. Posted on the walls in the meeting rooms are signs that say, "Manage the Clock," "Execute the Play," etc.

The Jets, too, have signs around their facility, namely: "Play Like a Jet."

"I'm really looking forward to meeting them," Tannenbaum said of Plank and McDermott. "I've never left a meeting thinking, 'Oh, Jeez, this was a waste of time.'"

Three years ago, Tannenbaum spent a day with UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun. Why him?

Tannenbaum, who grew up near Boston, always has admired Calhoun, dating to the coach's early days at Northeastern. He picked Calhoun because of his ability to consistently produce top-notch teams at UConn despite recruiting classes that weren't considered the best of the best.

Ironically, that meeting occurred after a blockbuster offseason by Tannenbaum, who acquired Kris Jenkins, Alan Faneca, Calvin Pace, Damien Woody and, later, Brett Favre -- a stellar recruiting class, so to speak. But the Jets underachieved, missing the playoffs at 9-7.

Calhoun said he respects the fact that Tannenbaum likes to solicit opinions from people outside football. Calhoun said he does the same, mentioning he has attended Bill Belichick's practices with the New England Patriots.

"I think Mike's willing to ... to seek," Calhoun said, adding, "you have to be tough, making decisions, but also conversely, you have to be open to other ideas, why these other people are successful. I think that's why I have great respect for him."

Now that the draft is history and the lull of the lockout is being felt, the Jets are trying to stay sharp with extracurricular activities. Just recently, former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore gave a lecture to the coaches on red-zone efficiency. They're also trying to schedule former coaches Jon Gruden and Jim Bates for speaking appearances.

The Jets' coaches are working on "rainy-day projects," as Tannenbaum likes to call them. He declined to reveal any specifics, saying it would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

One thing is certain: They're working for less money. Every employee in the football operation, including Tannenbaum and coach Rex Ryan, was required to take a 25 percent pay cut in March. The lost wages will be recouped if no games are lost, according to the Jets.

The pay cuts, combined with the uncertainty of the lockout, has changed the landscape in the NFL. As the season draws closer, with no end to the lockout in sight, the tension will build and office morale could take a hit. Tannenbaum, with his reporter's curiosity, continues to ... well, seek.

Tuesday night, he was struck by a particular passage from Katie Couric's book, "The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives." It's courtesy of David L. Calhoun, the CEO and chairman of the Neilsen Company, who writes:

"You need to be absolutely paranoid about the currency of your knowledge, and to ask yourself every day, am I really up to speed? Or am I stagnating intellectually, faking it or, even worse, falling behind?"

That, Tannenbaum said, captures his approach. Which explains why, on Monday, it'll be board rooms in Baltimore.

ESPNNewYork.com's Kieran Darcy contributed to this story.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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