Seven Career Lessons From Kirk Cousins

You are next in line on your organization's depth chart. For a long time, you just wait in the wings for your opportunity to lead. For years, you watch, and learn, and practice, and occasionally get a few opportunities to show what you can do. And then, you get promoted. New management elevates you to #1. But can you succeed? You make a lot of early mistakes. Critics outnumber supporters. Nevertheless, you overcome and excel. How? There are important career lessons to learn from Kirk Cousins

by / January 10, 2016
Flickr/Keith Allison

We all have career stories. Stories of success, agony and defeat.

Maybe you just got promoted into leadership. You have waited a long time for this career opportunity, and now you are the new leader.

But some aspiring leaders have lost hope regarding the future. Your career has hit a snag, and you feel stuck. Despite some early career success, you doubt yourself.

Or perhaps you are stuck behind a legitimate superstar. Someone that the entire world seems to recognize as the best at what they do. They make the big bucks, and they once deserved it. But lately, even their production has dropped off and your organization seems to be faltering. The competition is regularly winning.

Whether it’s another company, another products or other people that seem to be advancing while you tread water, what can you do to increase your chances of success and be ready when your time arrives?

Or maybe, you just got that promotion. You believe in yourself, but your ideas and actions are not delivering the needed results yet. You keep trying harder, but the results are mixed at best.

Meanwhile, the wolves are circling and calling for change. Internal and external pressures are mounting. What can you do?  

One answer: It can sometimes help to hear a motivating story of someone from another situation who has recently overcome serious difficulties to achieve their career goal(s). Since the NFL is in such a huge spotlight right now (with the playoffs), I offer you this story to encourage a positive attitude and offer career lessons that can benefit us all.  

Kirk Cousins: The NFL’s Most Surprising Player Story of the 2015-2016 Regular Season

As another NFL regular season ended last week, there were plenty of surprising stories, but none more astounding than the appearance of the Washington Redskins in the NFL playoffs. Most expert commentators attribute a large part of the Redskins success this season to the improved play of their new quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was named the NFC player of the month for December 2015.

Kirk Cousins came to the Redskins after a very successful college career with Michigan State University, but he was drafted in the 4th round and took a long time to emerge out of RG3’s shadow.    

Although he played in several games before this season, Cousins has mainly been a backup QB for his first three years in the NFL, usually watching as Robert Griffin III (RG3) was the starter and even an early superstar.

So how did Kirk succeed, when almost every NFL expert pronounced that he was not the long-term answer to the Redskin woes? (For example, see the transformation this mid-season video from ESPN where Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless – who loudly denounce Kirk Cousins in this video from October 2015.)

In this second video, these same ESPN sports experts pick the Redskins to beat the Packers in the first round of the NFL playoffs – praising Cousins for his performance. Note, I am posting this blog before the playoff game at 4 PM (EST).

Obviously, there is the chance that Kirk Cousins and Redskins lose in this game or a later playoff game. Nevertheless, it makes little difference in the career lessons listed below that can benefit all of us. He set a Redskin passing record for the regular season, and his rise still offers professional benefits to follow.

Seven Career Lessons From the Early Career of Kirk Cousins

So here are seven secrets to the success of Kirk Cousins from his own words and from those around him that know him best.

1) The importance of perseverance during difficult times - never give up.


Kirk learned early that: “You reap what you sow.” His father emphasized hard work and perseverance from an early age.

“It seems kind of simple and self-explanatory,” Cousins said. “But when you’re really little, it kind of reinforces the understanding of consequences or choices you make.”

2) Keep learning, no matter what the situation.

Back in 2013, this article was written about Kirk who was still trying to learn from RG3 – even though his dreams of starting for the team seemed far away.

"What I've learned from Robert is to have fun and enjoy it," Cousins said Thursday as he stood on the side of the field following a Redskins organized team activity (OTA). "He didn't look like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders even though he had every right to. You don't have to be serious to be a great leader…."

And so these practices are as much for Cousins' potential next team as they are for the Redskins. Even as he runs an offense designed for RG3, he is also potentially running for a trade or a free-agent signing two or three years down the road. He is possibly running for an offensive line and wide receivers and a coach he has yet to meet. Somewhere that next chance lingers in the future.

"Well every game is filmed so even if coaches are coaching other games they are going to be able to go back and watch tape and see what I can do," Cousins said recently

3) Bring passion. Kirk accidently coined the “You like that” slogan. It stuck and became a fan theme.

Kirk Cousins is a passionate leader, and the famous slogan has now taken the league by storm.

4) Develop your own style. Every person is different, and your role and leadership situations will certainly evolve over time. Nevertheless, Kirk went from a quiet leader to someone who is evolving as more vocal.

Redskins Head Coach Jay Gruden said, “As far as being a vocal leader, that may or may not be his style yet, he may grow into that type of role. There’s great ways to lead, you don’t have to be a vocal leader, to yell at people to lead. I think if you lead by example, by your work ethic, holding people to high standards, he’s in good shape. He’s doing a good job with that.”

5) Character counts - a lot!

Here’s what MSU Head coach Mark Dantonio said about Kirk Cousins as he was leaving college: "I think he’s done an outstanding job, first of all, on the chemistry in our locker room from day one, and on the field with plays he has made," he said. "Then when you look at the things he’s done off the field, and you can’t put a value on that.

"I’ve said it many times, he’s a giver, not a taker, and he’ll continue to do that for the rest of his life. He has the ability to walk in a group of people, whether they’re our freshmen, or whether they’re our seniors, or whether they’re our players in general, or whether they’re our coaches or whether they’re our media or whether it’s the Big Ten luncheon, he has the ability to walk into a room and make everybody feel comfortable with themselves, and then walk out of that room and people just say, 'wow, that guy is special.'

Dantonio said a player and person combination like Cousins doesn’t come along often, and that he should be truly enjoyed, praised and remembered.

"Football has given him a platform," he said. "There’s no question about that. Playing at Michigan State as the quarterback has given him a platform. But the end result is the quality of person he is and what he’s done for people. He’s done an outstanding job. He’ll be long remembered here not just for his football ability, but for his abilities as an individual to impact so many people."

6) Hard work, confidence and the importance of management support. There is no doubt that the support from Jay Gruden has been key for Cousins success. So has the earlier support from former Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan.

There is no doubt that having a trusted leader who believes in you and helps your career path is an essential component at the office or on the sports field. However, management can change as well. Remember, that everyone is watching, and people may remember your skills years later.

Kirk Cousins is famous for his work ethic and long hours studying film, as seen by this article from Forbes. “Lont said that Cousins’ work ethic is a separating factor for him.”

7) Have patience (your time will come). Be ready when your number is called.


Redskin teammate DeSean Jackson said this:Kirk is mentally strong, reads defenses well, knows where the ball needs to be. They have a different set of characteristics. Kirk waited a long time for his opportunity and he’s taking advantage of it.”

For the rest of us, I love my brother Steve’s perspective on individual career opportunities and selling your ideas to those both inside and outside your organization. “It’s all about the right product at the right place at the right time at the right price—with the right person delivering the message to the right decision maker.”

In conclusion, I am inspired by the Kirk Cousins story. Not only because I watched him at MSU and enjoyed his wonderful years as a winning QB at Michigan State.

Watching Kirk Cousins being drafted well behind RG3 and struggling for three years in the NFL was not the end of his story. He has taken actions that we can all appreciate. His faith, work ethic, skills, character, and perseverance are finally reaping rewards in the NFL. His example challenges me to excel in my daily work.

If you take a close look, I think you will see more than just another NFL player development story. Even non-Redskins fans who look at this Kirk Cousins story can benefit by following his example and applying it to your career.

I think we will be hearing a lot more people saying: “You like that.”