The Pittsburgh Steelers are widely regarded as one of the most consistently successful franchises in the National Football League. And as a Pittsburgh native and lifelong fan of the team, I can sum up their formula for success with a single gesture: The handshake.
It might not seem like a big deal, but this simple action has defined the franchise for nearly 100 years – from the decades when it was a perennial also-ran in professional football to its glory years of the modern era.
It’s also a gesture that I think symbolizes what leaders and managers need to embody as workforces begin spending more time together face to face in a post-covid-19 world.
For the Steelers, it began with Art Rooney, Sr., the original owner of the franchise when it joined the NFL in 1933 as the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rooney, who renamed the team the Steelers in 1940, made a habit of visiting the locker room after every game to shake the hands of the players and thank them by name for their efforts. It didn’t matter if they had won or lost, if they were at home or on the road, or if they were a star player or a backup – they all got a handshake (and sometimes a cigar) – from The Chief, as he was known.
The practice was carried on by Rooney’s son, Dan Rooney, and now by his grandson and current majority owner, Art Rooney II.
“You felt the relationship,” former offensive lineman Alan Faneca told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shortly after Dan Rooney died in 2017. “There would be the ‘Congratulations’ or ‘We’ll get them the next time.’ But it wasn’t just in passing. It was heartfelt. There was definitely a connection between the Rooneys and the players.”
Faneca, who won a Super Bowl with the Steelers and played for two other teams during his 13-year career, said the bond between the Rooneys and the Steelers players was unique.
“That bond is a big part of why the Steelers have been so good,” he said. “And that bond is represented in so many other levels in the organization.”
The handshake is just one expression of the Rooneys’ genuine interest in and appreciation for the people who work for the Steelers. Art Sr., and Dan set a standard for Art II and everyone else on the management team. Unlike many NFL owners, they typically flew on the team plane rather than a private jet, ate lunch in the team cafeteria, watched practices, and made themselves available to players and other team personal on a regular basis.
They were present, but in ways that had a positive impact on who the team hired for key roles and for how coaches and management treated each other and everyone around them – like family.
It’s a management approach that has played a significant role in why the Steelers have had only three head coaches since 1969, why the franchise has won six Super Bowl titles, why the franchise has led the way in giving opportunities to minorities, why the Rooney Rule that promotes diversity hires is named for Dan Rooney, and why the NFL’s sportsmanship award is named for Art Rooney, Sr.
And it all goes back to a sincere handshake.
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For most of the last two years, Covid-19 has made handshakes about as rare as a Democrat at a Trump-owned hotel. But that’s changing, with handshakes that is. I was at board meetings recently for two companies that were shifting their policies to require most workers to come to the office at least three days a week. Many other companies are working to find the right balance for in-person and remote work.
The consensus, as far as I can tell, is that leaders and workers all realize that there are advantages to working remotely and that people want and appreciate flexibility, but that there’s also value in working together in person.
Relationships are the foundation of every organization’s culture, and relationships take time and effort. There’s only so much that can be done on a Zoom call before formality or boredom sets in. A regular handshake (or even a fist bump), an occasional lunch together, an impromptu conversation in the break room – those are the mortar that make a solid championship foundation. The sooner we can add that back to the mix, the better.