Sometimes Tyler Palko wishes he was still playing football. Still, long after his playing days, he’s finding ways to inspire others.
Since his time leading players on the field as a successful college and NFL quarterback, Palko has become a sought-after corporate leader who helps organizations recruit, grow and retain a skilled workforce in the face of generational challenges.
Palko, in his role as the Chief Revenue Officer and Vice President of Business Development for Solutions 21, talks to STN about how the lessons he learned on the football field translate to corporate leadership, what it takes to build and manage a modern workforce and the benefits of the Next Leader Now program.
“Being a leader is a heavy cross to bear. The reason why it’s heavy is because it’s just hard. If you’re not developing those skills constantly, that’s a recipe for going backward.”
– Tyler Palko, Solutions 21, Chief Revenue Officer
What can football teach us about corporate leadership?
This article has been edited from the original interview for content, length and clarity.
One of our favorite things to do is interview current and former professional athletes because rarely do we talk about anything specific to the sport. You were a star quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh. You made Larry Fitzgerald everything he is today. He wouldn’t be where he was without you throwing touchdown passes to him.
(Laughs) You said that, not me.
What are some of the things as a quarterback that you took away from the game? Whether it’s leadership philosophies. Whether it’s certain things that you learned in that role that still apply to this day. What are those things that you find to be the most helpful in your current role?
Well, currently in my role as the Chief Revenue Officer at Solutions 21, I think the biggest thing that I’ve taken away from all of that is just the work ethic of: if you wanna be great at something, you have to be able to put the time in to be good at it. The countless hours in the weight room and throwing the ball and watching film, it’s the same translation to honing your craft.
I was behind the eight ball because I’d spent so much time on the athletic field honing that craft. You just kind of take the same philosophy into whatever it is you choose to do next.
That work ethic and understanding that the ability to be great doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a process and there’s a learning curve. You can flatten that curve by working hard. I think that really helped translate into what I’m doing here at Solutions 21.
There are a lot of programs out there that tout the old method of leadership development. Books, seminars, formal mentorship programs, graduate education, etc. And, there’s this whole idea of prioritizing baby boomers’ leadership priorities of efficiency and decision making rather than incorporating the intrapersonal and interpersonal leadership skills that younger workers value. Why is it important that your leadership style is different?
First of all, touching on the point that there are a lot of programs out there that worked. A lot of them have a lot of value, I just think that as we’ve evolved as a society and business and human beings it comes down to a couple of things.
Number one: demographics. There are around 80 million baby boomers in the United States and every day, to the end of the decade, 10,000 of them turn 65. So, they are either in retirement age or marching towards retirement age at a rapid rate.
The Gen X-ers, there are roughly 60-65 million of them in the United States. There’s not enough. That is an 18-million-person gap.
Then you have 84 million millennials born between 1980 and 2000. Then you have this next generation of Gen Z, or iGen, that we don’t know how many of them they’re gonna be, but all signs are pointing that they’re gonna be more of them than there are of millennials.
For the first time in history, there are five generations in the workforce. That’s never happened before.
As we’ve evolved to this multi-generational workforce things in the past, like command and control and gray hair equals the right answer, they’re not applicable in the world today.
It’s not to say that there’s a disrespect, just that things have changed.
Look at anything where the rules have changed. Look at the evolution of the rules of football. The NFL is not the same game, and I only stopped playing roughly 10 years ago. The game is different now. Look what the pandemic did. I mean, nobody in the United States has any more experience in dealing with post-pandemic than anyone else because everyone went through it at the same time. It’s the first time we’re seeing things like hybrid workspaces and work from home. Look at how we’re evolving demographically with diversity in the workplace. Things are just changing.
And I think that unless you change the way you’re developing talent and developing leaders just like sports, or just like business, the military or anything else, changes have to come to meet and match the rules of the game.
I think that our approach has always been, if you want to develop effective leaders in a post-pandemic and 21st-century approach, then the rules that you’re operating by need to match.
We’ve just taken that approach that it needs to be customized to the organization, mission, vision, and values. Those important roles in those organizations need to be ingrained in those leadership development programs. It needs to be a philosophy of touchpoints and coaching and practical application in developing leadership skills rather than philosophical approaches.
That’s our approach toward it. And that’s why we’ve been so successful in working with clients all around the world.
You’ve been a leader, basically your whole life. High school football, college football, the NFL, and now you’ve entered into the business world. Have there been any “a-ha” moments? Things that maybe you didn’t think you were prepared for? Or a lesson you learned when you thought you were prepared because of your background, but you’re in this new world and this new business and this new profession and you realized you needed to adjust?
To be quite honest with you, there’s so much carryover from being a quarterback. The one thing you learn is you are the de facto leader. But, the one thing about sports, what it teaches you, is you might be a leader, but if you don’t earn that respect in the huddle, those guys aren’t gonna look at you as a leader. And, by definition, leaders have followers. That’s why you start to see some of these ones where guys don’t play hard for them. It’s because they aren’t a really good leader.
That transition of earning every piece of becoming a leader, it’s never a destination. You’re constantly having to improve and adapt and adjust.
And your followers are always watching you. They’re gonna know if you’re down, do you quit and say, “Hey, this game’s over?” Or do you get in the huddle and say, “Look, guys, we still have a couple more minutes in this game and we’re, we’re going to use that to get better?”
I think the same approach in the business world is that they’re always looking at you and you’re always having to learn to adapt and adjust. What puppet strings do I have to pull to this? What buttons do I need to push? Do I need to pat this guy on the back? Do I need to put my arm around this person? Do I need to get in this person’s face a little bit?
That’s a constant evolution of leadership.
That was one of the things that helped me, not only drive our business but it helps you as a leader in your organization. I have direct reports and then I have to report to my boss. There’s a constant evolutionary process to that.
One thing that will always be true is that leadership’s not a destination. You don’t arrive with a name tag or a jacket. There’s no members-only club. It’s a constant process. The great ones understand that and continue to evolve. The ones that kind of fall out of that little pathway, they stop working.
Being a leader is a heavy cross to bear. The reason why it’s heavy is because it’s just hard. If you’re not developing those skills constantly, that’s a recipe for going backward.
We said we weren’t gonna talk about specifics when it comes to sports. But, what if I paint a scenario, where you’re starting at Pitt (University of Pittsburgh) and you’re losing a game 35-7 late in the fourth quarter…
You mean the Fiesta Bowl?
Sure, to be really specific… What were you like in the huddle during that time? Was it one of those “quit or talk up your team” moments that you mentioned? How do you talk to your team and find a message that resonates?
You know, I always looked at it as an opportunity. Like, we’re here to compete. We’re getting a scholarship for this. Or, we’re playing on national television. Or, we’re getting paid to play a game. It’s a privilege to do it. And you only get so many chances to be out there in that environment.
I wish that I was still playing. I miss it every day. I miss every part of it. That’s a unique spot. You don’t want to waste opportunities, right? You’re there. The game starts with 60 minutes, there’s a break in the middle and you finish when the gun goes off. Then you deal with it. Whatever happens.
You have to deal with the consequences, the outcomes. But, we’re here to do a job.
I think that I was always constantly looking toward getting better and how we deal with adversity in our lives. I just have always been that type of person when I played. I would hope that the people on my team and our clients would say the same.
You only have so many chances to perform. You never want to waste those opportunities to get better, regardless of the outcome. Even if it’s insurmountable.
The pandemic provided a lot of perspective for business leaders who were used to success and used to always getting their way and winning. Then something happened that was outside of their control. Suddenly, they go from “I’ve built a business and we’re very successful” to “we’re losing.” So, what kind of mindset do you need to have when things aren’t going your way?
Well, there are certain things in life that you can control and certain things you can’t.
And, I think that what it [the pandemic] did was level-set everybody. There was a pandemic going on that no one could control at that point in time. There was no energy to be focused on things we couldn’t control. We needed to focus on the things that we could control.
So, how do we take care of our clients? How do we know they’re in stressful situations? How do we over-deliver to those clients? How do we take care of the people that are in our organization? How do we make sure that they’re safe and doing okay? How do we make sure, financially, that we can work to support them the best way that we can?
I think when you focus on things that you can control, you can start seeing wins. When you start being a scoreboard watcher on the field, you lose perspective.
I think Nick Saban said it best when he said, “Don’t look at the scoreboard. We’re gonna worry about our process. We’re gonna wake up and do this. And we’re gonna continue to keep executing and executing and executing at the end of the day if the scoreboard says we win, fantastic. We evaluate and we move forward. If the scoreboard says, we lose, we do the same thing. We evaluate, and we move forward.”
In times of adversity, people tend to be scoreboard watchers rather than worrying about things that they can control.
You work on the leadership side and you help organizations with corporate culture. So, for these organizations that are struggling right now with recruiting and retention and don’t understand why they can’t keep an employee or why they can’t hire a new person, how important is it to develop a sense of giving back to the community or develop programs that have community impact?
From the community involvement standpoint, there are 84 million millennials in the United States. When it comes to being involved in social issues and community, they go and get their hands dirty. There’s no argument on that side of it. They’re going to be at the dog shelter. They’re going to go build a jungle gym. They’re going to be involved in it. Just by their nature, they’re more present in those community, social awareness, and social justice issues. If your organization’s not linked to one in a way that’s legit you’re losing an opportunity because that’s what is important to them.
When it comes to recruiting and retention, it’s just a different set of rules in the game right now. It’s an employee market. They have options to go places. You can’t hold their feet to the fire because if they don’t like you because you are a bad leader they’re just gonna go find something elsewhere. And there are plenty of options for them.
What we try to instill is that organizations miss the mark a lot of times because they try to appease things that were important to them, not what’s important to their next future leaders. We see this all the time with our clients who want a pathway toward success in their organization, not what worked 20 years ago. You know, dealing with employees that are asking, what are you doing to develop me? How can you help me get better? Can you show me the pathway toward the next step of my career? It’s important to me to take that next step and I want to be good. I’ve never led before and now I have to lead somebody that’s 20 years older than me. What do I do? How do I relate to them?
That’s what the Next Leader Now program has done. It has provided the opportunity to create that same attention to detail and development of those skills within organizations that they’ve never done or they’ve been doing in a different decade or market.