5 Career Lessons from Jim Harbaugh


Jim Harbaugh has left the San Francisco 49ers to coach at his alma mater, the University of Michigan.

This story will be dissected this week, when the Niners hire a replacement, when Michigan begins spring camp, during the 49ers OTA's and training camp, when next season opens for both teams and for years to come.

But let's take a look at the story from a different perspective: what can you learn about managing your career from Jim Harbaugh's coaching career?

Here are five lessons to consider:

You have to pay your dues

After retiring from the NFL as a player, Harbaugh served as quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders, coaching Rich Gannon to a league MVP award and the Super Bowl.  His success was immediate, but success alone did not guarantee a head coaching job or even a coordinator position.

So he instead took a step "backward" accepting the head coaching job at Division I-AA (now FCS) University of San Diego. Hardly a high profile role. But it was not a step backward because...

The sooner you can become "boss" the better off you may be

If your career aspirations include managing and leadership positions at the highest levels of business, the sooner you can "run" something - a department or a project - the better off you are.

In Harbaugh's case, to gain the experience of "running" his own program meant leaving the NFL, eschewing Division 1-A (FCS) and taking over USD.

  And he was good in that role, leading the team to records of 7-4, 11-1 and 11-1. 

If you are good at what you do, there will always be opportunities

After proving he was an effective head coach at USD, he had the chance to move up the California coast to Stanford University in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) Conference.

This was a considerable step up the coaching ladder, but Harbaugh was again successful taking a moribund Stanford program from 4-8 to 5-7 to 8-5 and ultimately a 12-1 record in his fourth season.  And again success led to a new opportunity - this time with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL.

Take a job when expectations are low

The season before taking over a Stanford, the Cardinal had a 1-11 record.  When Harbaugh took over the Niners they had a string of eight consecutive losing seasons.  His regular season record with the Niners was a strong 44-19.  And now he heads to a fabled Michigan program facing a similar recent history of poor performance, taking the helm of a team that is 46-42 since Lloyd Carr's departure after the 2007 season. It is a lot easier to be viewed as "successful" when you trump recent poor performances for an organization.

Office politics can derail any successful organization

So why did the 49ers let Harbaugh go after four season - three of which resulted in NFC Championship game appearances and one a Super Bowl?  The media has covered the schism between the front office/ownership and Harbaugh in great detail, even the possibility of trading him to Cleveland last off season.

How the tensions in the organization rose top that level - and eventually to Harbaugh's exit - is not important.  Rather it is important for your career to recognize how office politics can quickly sully your reputation, even if there is a recent record of success.

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