ARTICLE AD BOX
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Chicago Bears team president/CEO Kevin Warren sat down in his office at Halas Hall last week to talk about shoes. Or cleats. It depends on the person wearing them.
The Bears were practicing right outside his window. He could sit at his desk, turn to his left and see almost everything. His team was two days away from beating the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions at Soldier Field — the first signature win of the Matt Eberflus/Ryan Poles era.
The NFL’s annual My Cause My Cleats initiative was nearing its conclusion. But this year was different for the Bears. Warren said they dialed it up a notch. But it looked and felt like several notches. More than 150 people — including Bears players, coaches, front-office members and employees from all departments — were involved in the team’s efforts this year.
Something is happening.
“I’m starting to feel it,” Warren told The Athletic.
What that is exactly is far from being written. Warren is just starting to put his pen to all the paper at Halas Hall that needs it, figuratively and literally speaking. He has a new stadium to build, a football team to guide and an organizational culture to ignite.
'Why not us?': President/CEO Kevin Warren is the new hope of the Chicago Bears
The participation of so many team employees from so many areas within the Bears organization became another opportunity for Warren to get to know who he’s working with at Halas Hall. In some ways, it became an extension of the one-on-one meetings he had with every employee after he officially started in April.
“What I picked up is that No. 1, we have special employees here, and what they really want, they want to be respected, they want to be supported, they want to be empowered, they want everyone to know that we’re grateful that they’re here,” Warren said. “We want to create an environment where they can come to bring the best version of themselves.
“And so that’s why I have very specific goals to build this organization where we can win multiple Super Bowl trophies, but that we have an organization that has longevity on the football field, where you have 12 to 15 years of sustainable success, to build the best stadium in the world for our fans — they deserve it so that they have an incredible game day experience.
“But also just as important is to build a culture here in this environment where people are not only excited but happy and fortunate and grateful and empowered to go to work because they feel that it is basically a very healthy playground to go to spend time with people that they really care about and that they can thrive in their careers.”
Warren is dreaming big — and he wants everyone at Halas Hall to dream big with him.
Kevin Warren, left, and Bears chairman George McCaskey, right, check out their customized shoes that Bears staff member Danica Lopez, middle, designed for the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign. (Eileen T. Meslar / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
With the Bears in Minnesota for “Monday Night Football” in Week 12, Warren hosted a dinner at his house there. Seventy people were invited. It included partners from Chicago and partners from Minnesota. Staff members were there, too.
“Because we got to start,” Warren said. “We have to build this, and especially me coming in new, you know, people read things and go, ‘Is that really true? Is he really that way.’ I want to be like, ‘Yeah, these are my people.’”
Warren used the word “empower” often during a 25-minute conversation with The Athletic. His shoes for My Cause My Cleats supported his Warren Family Foundation, which benefits many community initiatives. Embrace, educate and empower are the foundation’s three principles. Those words were on his shoes.
The Bears have used plenty of buzzwords over the years amid their many changes. But nothing like this. Warren himself is a jolt. He’s putting his words into action.
His one-on-one meetings will transform into small group sessions of six to eight employees. Mai Davis, his longtime executive assistant, will pick those employees at random. They will meet in his office over lunch.
Keep Justin Fields and Matt Eberflus? That Bears scenario is starting to look better
Warren also started an innovation committee that will involve everything at Halas Hall. He said that’s how WISE Ventures started for Minnesota Vikings’ ownership. That stands for Wilf Innovative Sports and Entertainment, which launched in 2018.
It’s time to think bigger to get better. That happened in Minnesota when he helped the Vikings build U.S. Bank Stadium and later their new practice facility and headquarters.
“We make winning in professional sports, especially the National Football League, much more difficult than it should be,” Warren said. “Not only on the field, but off the field in the organization, because what it comes down to is that this is all about people, and getting the right people in the right place, doing the right things at the right time for the right reasons.
“And I don’t care what organization you are running, whether it’s a paper route to Starbucks to Apple to Amazon and Google to the Chicago Bears, you follow that recipe. And you create an environment where people love coming to work. Because the human mind is absolutely incredible and the human heart is incredible.”
Kevin Warren talks to Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, his former boss, before the November game at U.S. Bank Stadium. (Brad Rempel / USA Today)
Warren’s shoes were completed days before the team’s unboxing event last Wednesday in the X’s and O’s room of Halas Hall. But he kept them in the box. He wanted to be there when others saw their finished shoes for the first time.
“To feel that,” Warren said, “the energy was palpable.”
Keeping that energy going with everything the Bears do is essential. The growth with My Cause My Cleats this year started with the Bears’ Young Professional Employee Resource Group, which was established in May just after Warren’s arrival. It included a partnership with Chicago-based Sneakerhead University.
“Everyone sometimes thinks in business that you have to be stressed to be able to be the best or it has to be a tense environment,” Warren said. “No, I want it to be qualitative. I want it to be competitive. I want it to be fun.”
Remember those words: qualitative, competitive, fun. They’re part of Warren’s philosophy.
Danica Lopez, a partnership activation specialist for the Bears, designed and painted Warren’s shoes. He said Lopez told him that she has painted since high school.
“I’m always wondering about the hidden talents of people that we have here,” Warren said. “We have musicians, we have writers, we have artists, we have wonderful people. We have people here who have stories to share of joy, of pain. And again to create that qualitative, competitive and fun environment, that’s what we want to do.
“And hopefully, it carries over to the field and then the environment. I’ve said it all the time … you work for the Chicago Bears. I want you to be excited to tell your family that you work there. And that your children or your grandchildren or your parents or your siblings would say, ‘Yeah, my sister or my brother works at the Bears,’ and that it really means something.”
Greenberg: With 2 wins in a row, Bears playing like they care about present, not future
Winning on the field certainly enhances that perception. And winning football games is still the business. But it’s too early to talk all football. There are games remaining. Warren, though, did mention how excited he was to see the Bears play the Lions.
“They have an opportunity to play hard and win a football game,” he said.
And two days later, the Bears did. Quite handily and impressively.
Warren saw a connection form between Bears football operations with the business side over the last few weeks. Chairman George McCaskey had shoes made. Defensive end Montez Sweat was a late trade addition but asked to get involved with his own cleats.
Better yet, the three most important people for a football team — the GM, head coach and quarterback — actively participated. Warren described Poles, Eberflus and Justin Fields as special and passionate.
“It’s just a matter of when you drop massive boulders in water, it’s the ripples and the impact and the visibility,” Warren said.
He was particularly excited to see Fields wear his cleats for the foundation he created in his name. Supporting people’s passions comes off as a passion for Warren. It’s important to success. It’s part of dreaming big.
“You got to dream a lot,” Warren said. “I dream about the day we see this team coming together and handed that Super Bowl trophy — handing that Super Bowl trophy over to the McCaskey family and where our victory parade will be. Now, that didn’t just happen by dreaming. You got to put in a lot of work. But that ribbon cutting at the stadium, I mean, I dream about those days. Hosting the Super Bowl here — winning the Super Bowl here. And this fan base and our city and our fans, they deserve the best.”
(Top photo: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, is on sale now. Order it here.