Meet the Guy Behind Super Bowl 50's Levi's Stadium

On Sunday, Feb 7, Levi's Stadium, home to the San Francisco 49ers, will host Super Bowl 50. Al Guido, chief operating officer of the San Francisco 49ers, led the conceptualization and the construction of the new $1.2 billion award-winning stadium, known for its innovations in both tech and sustainability practices.

I first met Al when he spoke in a session that I moderated on leading stadium builds at the Global Sports Management Summit. Since then, he has become a Leadership Circle Member of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. This year, as COLE explores the theme of "Building a Culture of Innovation: The Human Factor," I had a chance to sit down with him and get his thoughts on innovation.

Sanyin Siang: Sports business is continually evolving. To stay ahead of the curve, how do you cultivate a culture of innovation in your organization?

Al Guido: I constantly tell my leadership team to take a step away from their inbox and their daily checklist, and to think about vision and culture. I tell them to spend at least five or ten minutes a day to find out what other industries are doing, because it may relate to what we could be doing in sports.

I think that the difference between a leader and a manager is that a manager just manages by a checklist. It is just, "did I accomplish today's tasks?" I'm not suggesting that type of work is bad, but my vision is that leaders innovate, leaders change, and leaders look to break the status quo. There is no checklist for culture.

Siang: Getting your team to spend time learning from other industries is a great practice. How do you enable that to happen?

Guido: In the beginning of our fiscal year, we have business planning sessions where we strategize out the five things that are important to the 49ers. These five things aren't just a list of things that we did not do well the year before. We own the things that we didn't do well, and we fix them as we go. I don't view those as changing your business -- I view those as getting better at your current business.

Those five overarching themes lead our decision-making throughout the course of the year. On top of that, things change on a daily basis. I ask people to take five minutes out of any given day, close their inbox, step away from their computer, take a walk around the stadium, read the newspaper, and think about what is going on in the world. What are other people doing within the community (Silicon Valley)? For example, one article from the tech industry can generate ten ideas that can be applied to the sports world. Then, every month, we come together as a leadership group in order to discuss those ideas.

Siang: Every sports team is really a community-based asset -- in order for it to be successful, it must stay relevant to a constantly evolving community. There is a huge risk of complacency with success. How do you move against this complacency?

Guido: I can point to two things. One is fear. When I talk with college students, they always ask what motivates me. I say fear, and it shocks the crowd.

Fear is a good thing if used appropriately. If you have a public speaking fear, as long as your fear makes you prepare your speech more and think about how you want to present it, fear is probably a good thing.

Fearing the next competitor is going lead you to innovate. It will lead you to be nimble. It's the mindset of "while we are there, we still haven't made it." Those are the leaders that I want to have.

There is also personal growth. People should want to push the bar. I don't mind mistakes, because they could be good as long as you don't make them multiple times and you learn from the ones that you've made. The greatest companies in the world fail. They have products that fail. If you never try you will never succeed.

Siang: You once shared that the people you hire have a learner's mindset. You made me think about retention. In many industries, retention of millennials is a major challenge. It is often not about millennials not wanting to learn, but because they feel that the workplace hasn't challenged them enough. When people feel challenged, they feel as though they are learning -- they will want to stay at that organization.

Guido: You are spot on. There is a book called First Break All of the Rules. It really dives into what makes an individual able to do their job. For most people, it is not money. It is the feeling of being wanted. The feeling of, "do I make a difference?"

If you are transparent around what you want to be as an organization, and if you inspire people to come up with ideas -- even if they get turned down -- it will make people feel like they are valued.

Siang: In leading, I believe it's so important to ask, "what do you think?", and to make people feel that they matter. A way of doing that is through creating a mentorship culture. You can have great talent coming in, but if people do not share and transfer their knowledge, when your talent leaves you are not going to have that organizational continuity.

Guido: So much of the reason that I got into sports is to be a part of something that is much bigger than myself. I was looking for the comradery of being on a team. When you take that approach you better be about helping others out. It is something that is extremely important to me. Strategy is important, but it is nothing compared to what a good culture and mentorship can do.

I think that people often run away from their faults, or from what they might not be good at. I think that is the worst thing.

Education and continually making yourself is no different in sports than in other industries. The more you practice math the better you get. You can get better at anything.

Siang: In leading innovation, it goes back to pairing failure with having the courage to try, instead of seeing failure as an end state. I think that makes a huge difference. Thank you for your time and insights, Al.

A version of this piece appeared in on 2/3/16.

Sanyin Siang is the Executive Director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE), a leadership laboratory at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Sanyin coaches, convenes think tank gatherings, and advises for-profit and non-profit companies. She is also co-founder of, a weekly digest of sports news.