Please enjoy this transcript of this episode with Pittsburgh Penguins head coach, Mike Sullivan. It was transcribed and therefore might contain a few typos.
Mike Sullivan: 00:00 You know, so our very first meeting when I, when I met with them in the locker room, you know, I looked around the room and I said, when I look around this room, I see a lot of great hockey players that have accomplished a lot in this game. No one has more respect for the players in this room than me and that, and I said, our challenges is to find a way to become a great team because great players don’t win championships in this league. Great teams win championships.
Doug Smith: 00:24 This is the L3 Leadership podcast, episode number 165.
Doug Smith: 00:32 What’s up everyone? And welcome to another episode of the L3 Leadership podcast. My name is Doug Smith and I’m the founder of L3 leadership. We are a leadership development company devoted to helping you become the best leader that you can be. In this episode, you’re going to get to hear my interview with Pittsburgh Penguins, head coach Mike Sullivan. And this interview was an absolute bucket-lister for me. In fact, Mike helped me finish off what I call the trifecta. I’ve now interviewed all three of Pittsburgh’s professional sports teams, head coaches, and it’s been such an amazing journey and in this interview, we’re going to talk about some of Mike’s favorite moments from both Stanley Cup runs. We talk about the leadership lessons that he’s learned throughout his coaching career and it’s been quite a journey for him. You’re going to love that. You’re going to hear how he got buy-in so quickly with the Penguins and all their star players and turn them around how he’s made tough decisions as a coach and his advice to his 20-year-old self and so much more.
Doug Smith: 01:20 You are absolutely going to love this, but before we jump into the interview, just a few announcements. I want to thank our sponsor, Henne Jewelers. They are jeweler, owned by my friend and mentor, John Henne, my wife Laura and I both got our engagement and wedding rings through Henne Jewelers and they are just an incredible company. Not only do they have great jewelry, but they also invest in people. John gave Laura and I a book to help us prepare for our marriage and he’s been investing in me as a leader, a dad, and a husband now for many years. So if you’re in need of a good jeweler, check out Hennejewelers.com I also want to thank our sponsor Alex Tulandin. Alex is a full-time realtor with Keller Williams Realty, who’s team is committed to providing clients with highly effective premier real estate experiences throughout the Greater Pittsburgh region. He’s a member and a supporter of all three leadership and he would love the opportunity to connect with you if you’d like to learn more about Alex and ways to connect with them. Go to Pittsburghpropertyshowcase.com. With all that being said, let’s jump right into the interview with Mike Sullivan, head coach of the back to back Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Enjoy and I’ll be back at the end with a few announcements.
Doug Smith: 02:20 Coach, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to do this interview and I just want to start off. You’ve just went back to back Stanley cups in. I’m just curious, do you have a favorite memory from each and the run that you had?
Mike Sullivan: 02:30 Well, I think probably my favorite recollection of, of both cups is, is when we were, the coaches were standing together on the ice and watching each respective player raise the couple over their heads. For me, it brought back so many, different, memories of defining moments through the course of the playoffs that, that these guys, you know, made such a commitment to, for us to win. So, you know, when, when I was standing there watching, raise the couple over their heads and see the emotion on their faces, it’s just raw emotion and, I was, I couldn’t be more proud of this group or this group of players for, you know, what they’ve been able to accomplish. And, and I think when it really hit me in both years, when I, when we were all standing on the ice and the coaching staff was Kinda, you know, down in the corner, just, just take it all in.
Doug Smith: 03:25 Yeah. That’s amazing. And thank you from a fan perspective for all the memories you guys gave us. I am curious, so you spent 11 years in NHO as a player and obviously played a lot before that. Now you’ve been a coach for several years. What do you wish you knew about leadership when you were a player that you now know as a coach? Or what do you wish your players knew about the responsibility that comes with coaching?
Mike Sullivan: 03:44 Well, I think, you know, leadership manifests itself in a lot of different ways. And what I’ve been able to witness over the last two years watching this group of players come together as a team is that every single player on this team at some point during the course of the seasons has been called upon to lead in some way, shape or form. And I think that’s what brings teams together. And that’s what makes great teams great. And so some leaders have vocal and, and that’s how it manifests itself. Other leaders lead by example and they might be quiet leaders. Other leaders are just situational when, when circumstances arise with some of the challenges that the, that the league presents. And players arise in certain situations to help us overcome challenges. And so I, I think when you, when I look back and reflect on the last two seasons in particular, in this particular group of players and for the most part we’ve had the same group for two years in a row, two seasons in a row, it’s, that’s the biggest thing that jumps out at me.
Mike Sullivan: 04:57 It’s not just when people think about, you know, our leadership group. Yes, we have guys that were letters on their sweaters and, myself as the head coach take on a leadership role, because of my title. But I think what really makes great teams great is when everyone right through the bench, takes on some sort of a leadership role throughout the course of each respective season.
Doug Smith: 05:24 Yeah. You talked about the different kinds of leaders. I’m just curious how, how would you describe yourself as a leader? How do you lead?
Mike Sullivan: 05:31 I think as, as a head coach, you have to lead in a lot of ways. Sometimes. Sometimes it’s vocal. Sometimes it isn’t, you know, sometimes, you know, sometimes as a head coach you have to gain control by, by relinquishing control. And so you know, you by empowering others. And so, you know, one of the things that I’ve tried to do here in Pittsburgh with this penguins group, you know, since I became the head coach was, was to give the players some ownership for what on here. You know, we want them to have a stake in the game. I think it helps us, with buy-in as far as what we’re trying to sell as that, as the coaching staff to this group of players. Everything from style of play to how we come to the rink every day and how we behave. So, you know, I’m a strong believer that, when, when our players have a stake in the game and take ownership for, what goes on on a day to day basis, it certainly helps us, as far as the sell on getting buy in to what we’re trying to accomplish here.
Doug Smith: 06:29 Yeah. I want to talk a little bit about your journey. It’s been a crazy journey it seems like, so you start off as coach in Boston had a great year, not so great year, got let go. I became an assistant coach for many years. Then you went to Chicago’s player development, then you go to the minor leagues and then all of a sudden you get caught up again to the Pens and when two cups, what, what do you wish people knew about that leadership journey? What are maybe one or two lessons you learned along the way?
Mike Sullivan: 06:53 Well, I think, you know, the first thing that jumps out at me is that, you know, the coaching profession is hard. And, there are certain things that you can control and there are certain things that you can’t and it’s a learning process and I think all coaches go through it. You know, I call it the evolution of a coach. You know, when you’re a young coach, you’re trying to be diligent and you, you dot every I and cross every t and you check every box and you do everything within your power to try to help your team have success. I think as you evolve as a coach, you start to learn the nuances of the profession. And I think a lot of it boils down with managing people, how you interact with your players and the only way you learn that is through experience.
Mike Sullivan: 07:38 And so, I think first and foremost, the coaching profession is hard. I have so much respect for all of those coaches that are, that are in it, because you really have to love what you’re doing in order to stay in it because it, more often than not, you fail. There’s only one coaching staff every year that celebrates. And, the rest of them are, you know, are trying to figure out how do we, how do we get to the top of the mountain? And so, that’s just the reality of the business that we chose. So I think you really have to love what you’re doing in order to stay in it. And I think when you look at, my journey to be in becoming the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s a perfect example. You know, I thought after my experience with Boston and I thought it was, it was worthwhile for me to take a step back and be an assistant coach.
Mike Sullivan: 08:25 I fast-tracked to that head coaching position. I was, I was one year removed as a player when I was the head coach of the Boston Bruins. I was 35 years old. And so I was coaching some players in Boston that I had played with the year that I had played for the Bruins. And that’s an interesting dynamic. And so I fast-tracked to that position. And so I thought it made sense for me if I was going to be in this for the longterm to take a step back, work with someone that’s had success, has won a Stanley Cup, has won championships at different levels and, learn and see how they go about their business every day. How do they interact with the star players, how do they handle certain situations and challenges that this league presents? Cause inevitably it’s a challenging league. You know, there’s a, it’s a competitive league.
Mike Sullivan: 09:11 There’s a lot of bright, smart people in every aspect of this business. And so I thought that was a worthwhile experience for me. And that was why I made the decision to join Torts down in Tampa when I became Torts as an assistant. And I told towards that when I went down there and I had aspirations to be a head coach, but I wanted to learn from him and try to help him have success. And so, uh, that, that was my motivation when I, when I chose to, to become an assistant coach. My hope was I didn’t have to stay there as long as I did. It was almost a decade before I had an opportunity to be a head coach again. But that’s the nature of the business. It’s a hard business. There’s a lot of really good coaches. There’s only a finite amount of positions.
Mike Sullivan: 09:52 And so, you know, it’s, it’s gonna challenge your resolve and it’s gonna, it’s gonna challenge, your passion for what you do. There were some, there were some days when, you know, I would wake up and say, you know, am I ever going to get another chance and is this worth it? And so, but, I chose to stick with it because I loved the game. I love being on the ice. I love the interaction with the players. I love the sport of hockey. I love, I love everything that comes with it. And so, and part of what comes with it is it’s going to knock you down and you’re going to have to be prepared to, you know, get up, dust yourself off and get back in the fight if, if that’s, if that’s, this is the profession that you chose, I think you’ve gotta be prepared for that type of an experience. And, and so I, you know, I, I can’t be more grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been given here with this, with this Pittsburgh Penguins team. You know, I, I’ve, I took over this team that at, at a time when they were vulnerable. But they’re really good people and they’re really good players and it’s a privilege to coach this group.
Doug Smith: 10:58 Yeah, walk me through that. So you had a decade of preparation almost before you step into your next head coach role. You get the head coach role, you walk into a locker room there, theres Sydney Crosby, Malka, and Flurry Matang. The team wasn’t performing up to its potential and you did something right. You turned it around, you got by. And can you talk about what was it like and what was your strategy going into that locker room? How did you get the buy-in of the team so quickly and turn things around?
Mike Sullivan: 11:22 Well, I think, you know, when you, when you look at our dressing room on the outside, it can be an intimidating dressing room to walk into. You know, we have a lot of star power. We have a lot of stature in that room. And so we have a lot of players that have a lot of, have accomplished a lot in this game. And so from that standpoint, it can be an intimidating dressing room to walk into. Having said that, my experience over the years of coaching other teams in star players in the league had prepared me for that, for that circuit, that very circumstance. And that very situation, you know, when I first took the team over, I think, when I think about the mindset that the group was in, they were vulnerable. You know, when, whenever there’s a coaching change, it’s, it’s usually because expectations haven’t been met.
Mike Sullivan: 12:09 And so, a coach and in a lot of situations becomes, you know, the first decision or the first, the first line of defense and, and so, you know, it’s hard to change 20 players. So usually there’s a, there’s a coaching change when that type of a situation arises in our game. And so I knew they were vulnerable and this is a proud group. They’re good players. They have a lot of pride. They all want to do well and, and so, you know, they were overwhelmed by the circumstance. So when I took the team over, I knew one of my first challenges was to try to free them up a little bit and to allow them to play and act on their instincts. They had, I had to find a way to get them not so much focused on the situation they’re in or the overwhelming circumstance, and more focused on the game itself, the process.
Mike Sullivan: 13:00 Let’s just focus on the process, you know. So our very first meeting when I, when I met with them in the locker room, you know, I looked around the room and I said, when I look around this room, I see a lot of great hockey players that have accomplished a lot in this game. No one has more respect for the players in this room than me. And that, and I said, our challenges are to find a way to become a great team because great players don’t win championships in this league, great teams win championships. And, and that was the very first meeting that I had with them. And then, and then I talked to them about not, not so much listening to what people are saying about us because at the time, you know, every, you know, there were a lot of critics saying Crosby was on the downside and Malkin was on the downside.
Mike Sullivan: 13:43 And you know, this Pittsburgh Penguins core, their best years were behind them. And that was the talk going on around the team. And I think our players, they felt that these guys are human beings. You know, they have feelings. And, so I tried to shield them from that and we try to get away from, that the focus on that and just coming to the rink every day and just focusing on hockey. Let’s just try to get better every day. Let’s come to the rink. Let’s have a good attitude, put a smile on your face. We’ll celebrate the small successes and we’ll try to get better each and every day. And we will slowly but surely work our way out of it. But it’s going to be a daily endeavor and we’re going to have to rely on one another. And that was the first meeting that I had with them. And we slowly but surely crawled our way out of the hole that we were in. And, I have to tell you, it was a pleasure to watch these guys come together as a group.
Doug Smith: 14:32 Yeah. So, you’ve got the respect. You won a cup. As I’ve watched your leadership from afar, you’ve had to make some tough decisions, right? Who, who’s playing when to set people, all these different decisions you make. Can you talk about from a leader’s perspective, making the hard decisions, having the hard conversations to bring out the best in your players?
Mike Sullivan: 14:51 Sure. I
Mike Sullivan: 14:52 think it’s hard to be a head coach in this league if you’re not willing or prepared to make those types of decisions because that’s the responsibility that you’re, that you have. And so my approach with this group and some of the difficult decisions that I’ve made have been just based on honesty and you know, we sit as a, as a coaching staff and a management team and we discuss, those types of decisions. I rely a lot on our, on the people around me who I have, you know, I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by, by some really bright hockey people in hockey mines and good people that care about our players. And these are difficult decisions and they’re hard conversations to have when you have to make these types of decisions. And my approach with these guys has always been that I’m trying to make the most informed decision that I can.
Doug Smith: 15:44 We weigh the pros and the cons and we try to make the best decision that’s in the best interest to help in this hockey team win. And, usually, my conversation with the respect of player revolves around something like, you know, I don’t expect you to agree with the decision that I have made or we have made as a coach and staff. My hope is that you’ll respect the decision. And I always explain the decision that we make and why we make it. And as I said, these guys are proud guys. They’re competitive guys. They want to play and they don’t always agree with the decision that we make. And I understand that that’s part of it. But certainly, I hope they walk away from the conversation respecting that the decision that we make and I don’t know any other way to do it, but to, to be honest, and be respectful with each player.
Doug Smith: Yeah, I love that. And are there any other leadership principles that you consistently live by or that you’re like, these are my main practices as a leader?
Mike Sullivan: 16:38 Well, I think when I, when I think about, you know, leadership philosophies, my most important philosophy revote revolve around a couple of things. Respect, responsibility and honesty. And, and I think if you’re respectful of people around you and, you take responsibility and ownership for what your role in your, and your job is, to help your team win. And you’re honest with people and straightforward with people, I think you can have the conversations that you need to have. You know, my feeling is, is if you push something under the rug or you don’t see things for what they are, you know, that there can be a compound effect there. Before you know it, there’s, there’s a lot of stuff under the rug and that becomes a real difficult problem to challenge, to, to solve. So my feeling is, we take challenges on a daily basis that arise.
Mike Sullivan: 17:29 We try to solve them as best we can and we try to solve them, around the principles that I identify. We’re respectful of our players and, and the people that we work with. It’s my responsibility to help solve these problems. And we try to approach it in an honest fashion. And our hope is, is that, that our players will respect it. And so, you know, that’s really been our mantra here since I, since I took the team over. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded with a group of players that have been receptive to the message that we’ve been preaching since I’ve been here and we’ve had so much fun working with this group of guys.
Doug Smith: 18:05 That’s awesome. And the last question, I always like to ask leaders this. If you could go back and have coffee or breakfast with your 20-year-old self, what would you tell him or any other young leader at that age?
Mike Sullivan: 18:16 I would say, I would probably tell my 20-year-old self, don’t be so concerned about what other people think to stick to your convictions. And, I think when you’re, when you’re young, you’re impressionable and everyone wants to be liked. And so I think sometimes, that can, overpower or can dilute your convictions and where you actually want to go. And so, you know, for me, I think it when as I’ve matured and I looked back over the years that I’d been a player and a coach, I think I’m more true to myself now than I’ve ever been. I’m comfortable in my own skin and how when I get up in the morning and how I approach my job every day, I know when I drive home from the rink, that my intention is always in the right place and trying to help this team win and move forward and, advance, but also be respectful of people along the way. And, so it, I think when I, when I was a young 20-year-old, if, I had the benefit of that experience, I might’ve done some things differently along.
Doug Smith: 19:27 Yeah. Hey, thank you so much for your time. Good luck this season.
Mike Sullivan: Thank you very much.
Doug Smith: 19:34 Hey everyone. Thank you so much for listening to our interview with Mike Sullivan. I really hope it added value to your life. You can learn more about Mike and actually watched the interview if you’d like to. And so much more in the show notes at L3leadership.org/episode165 I want to let you guys know that we recently introduced l three leadership membership. That’s right. You can now become a member of L3 Leadership. You might say to me, well, Doug, why become a member? Because I believe every leader needs a group of leaders that go through life without all. Encourage them, hold them accountable to their goals and help them reach their potential. At L3 Leadership, we’ve developed a community of leaders that will help you do just that. As a member, you’ll get access to our community of leaders. You’ll have the ability to join a mastermind group, which I believe is absolutely critical to your success.
Doug Smith: 20:16 You’ll get access to extra resources, content, and a member-only forum on our member-only website. Membership’s only $25 a month and you can sign up in L3eadership.org/membership. I also want to let you guys know about an amazing new leadership conference that’s coming up called the Future Forward Conference. It’s being held on October 24th through the 26th at Amplify Church in Pittsburgh and it is a leadership conference for church leaders and their staff and it’s led by Amplify senior pastor and my friend Lee Kreicher. I’ve had Lee speak at one of our events and I’ve him for this podcast. He is a phenomenal leader and what him and his leadership team have been able to do at their church has been nothing short of amazing and so you need to sit under their leadership. I encourage you to check out the conference and check out all the great work that Amplify churches doing to learn more about the conference.
Doug Smith: 21:03 Go to Futureforwardconference.com, If you enjoyed this podcast, I would mean the world to me if you’d subscribe and leave a rating and review on whatever app you listen to podcasts through, it really does help us grow our audience. You can also share on social media that would be awesome as well, but more than anything, thank you so much for being a listener. It means the world to me. And lastly, if you want to stay in touch with everything that we’re doing here at all three leadership, you can simply sign up for our email list at L3leadership.org. As always, I like to end with a quote, and I quote John Maxwell often, but he said this, it was so good. He said, “When we are foolish, we want to conquer the world, but when we are wise, we want to conquer ourselves.” Thank you for listening and being a part of L3 Leadership, Laura, and I appreciate you so much and we’ll talk to you next episode.