Winners Want the Ball

We tend to be more reflective at the end of a period. Perhaps, more so even in a year like 2020? I imagine we can all agree that 2020 turned out wildly different than what our thoughts and expectations were at its outset. As we reflect on 2020, let’s consider a quote from Bertrand Russell. Russell, a British philosopher observed, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

Is there something that you’ve long taken for granted that you questioned in 2020? A long held view that was blown up for me related to ongoing learning. Continuing education is something many professions mandate and people grudgingly drag themselves through some kind of seminar in order to earn their annual licensing credits. I have traditionally believed that learning opportunities are valuable and should be presented to everyone. Especially to those that are struggling a bit in the workplace. Spreading learning opportunities around somewhat evenly was a useful objective, so I thought.

A friend of mine, Darcy Verhun, is President of one of North America’s largest chain of Optometry clinics. Their organization, FYi Doctors includes over 500 optometrists operating out of more than 250 locations. Back in January Darcy was accepted to be part of group of business leaders. Marshall Goldsmith is an American Author and speaker who specializes in business leadership. He has authored or co-authored over 18 books, worked with more than 70 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and has led in his field of management expertise for decades. He, along with former Boeing and Ford CEO, Alan Mullaly, put out a call to coordinate a group they would call the MG100. Goldsmith’s objective was to draw together a group of experienced and committed business leaders to whom he would pass as much of his life experience as possible with hopes that this group would continue in his footsteps to pass business knowledge forward. From this offer, Goldsmith received over 16,000 expressions of interest out of which he selected 100 participants. Darcy was thrilled to be one of the 16,000 selected. In preparation of an initial meeting with the group at a weekend retreat in San Francisco, Darcy was provided with some reading material for preparation. He was kind enough to share these readings.

In one of the readings, Marshall Goldsmith offered a quote that had made an impactful difference to his thinking on coaching offered by a mentor of his, Dr. Paul Hersey. Hersey wrote, “The biggest room for growth is with people who are already great. They are the ones with incredible potential to do even more.” That hit me square between the eyes. It seemed to suggest the opposite of what I had believed. It wasn’t by trying to bring forward everyone equally that advancement was achieved, but by supporting those who are already high achievers. Those that appear in a class of their own still have more gears to work through. They can do more, achieve more, and are motivated.

For the strivers, learning opportunities aren’t looked at last minute as their licensing deadline approaches. Nor is it something they are just going through the motions to get done. They want to improve. They want to learn. They want to expand their capabilities and test their limits. The person that comes every month to your office asking for permission and support to participate in a seminar isn’t trying to game the system to take more than their share of learning opportunities. They are trying to proactively improve themselves. They are evidencing what we wish all members of our team would display, a commitment to lifelong learning. They are leading their development. They aren’t taking a course because they heard it was easy or because a colleague they like is taking it. They aren’t signing up for a course just to meet licensing credits. They don’t care about credits. They are doing it because they believe they will learn skills that will help them add more value to their organization.

The message Dr. Hersey is offering suggests that true leaps forward aren’t achieved by incremental gains spread across a large group, but exponential gains earned by the exceptional few. Later in that same reading, Marshall Goldsmith supports Hersey’s sentiment by encouraging us to “only work with people who care.” If we consider it in the context of you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, we should be less worried about corralling all the horses and pulling them to the water trough. Instead, we should look to find the thirstiest stallions and serve them the water they desire. Progress follows not an equal distribution of water to everyone, but to those that are thirstiest. Where I had thought that lifting ten or twenty members of a team up 5-10% in performance was a desired outcome, I came to realize that more could be accomplished by supporting the initiative and drive of a couple of individuals that were willing to work and grow exponentially. The cost benefit trade off further supports this approach. The cost of affording opportunities to a few may be less than imposing participation across a wider, largely disinterested group. This cost savings coupled with the disproportionate progress shown by those whom are deeply committed to putting the learning to practice further tilts the scale in favor of serving those that are thirstiest.

It seems this is exactly what the MG100 is all about. It’s a group of strivers and drivers that want to do more. It’s a group of distinguished and accomplished individuals getting together to figure out how to help each other and further develop themselves. It’s the opposite of how much of our performance management efforts are done. Too often we spend more time as managers supporting low performers. We’re busy crafting performance improvement plans and designing generic training for all. Even if we’re grateful for a few high performers, we tend to leave them alone. The same thing happens in schools. Teachers allocate their limited time to those struggling. Those that are doing fine are left to become bored on their own.

I have had the good fortune to spend time learning from coaches that have worked with Olympians and World Cup champions in the sport of ski racing. I have heard several of them say things like “the cream rises to the top” when discussing athlete development. I used to think they were discounting their role as coaches and giving in to the idea that some athletes are just born better than others. I heard “the cream rises to the top” as coaches being cynical and disparaging their role. Shouldn’t coaches, teachers, leaders be the stirring sticks that churn that concoction influencing the cream that rises? However, it’s not that the cream is born differently, it’s that the cream works differently. The coaches acknowledged what they had observed over years. The cream isn’t waiting to be stirred by a stick. They didn’t need to be whipped into shape. They aren’t dependent on the stars aligning. They aren’t waiting around for instruction. They are pushing, pulling, dragging themselves forwards. They are deeply determined and hunting for help. They aren’t worried about what they lack and are more focused on how to attack. They aren’t looking for an easy button or short cut. They know their answer to how bad do you want it. They are burning for something and churning themselves into the cream of the crop as a result.

Leaders are trying to seek out training opportunities, create good environments, prepare processes, and provide access to equipment all to give staff a chance to progress. It’s not all of these efforts, but the drive and self-discipline of special individuals that determines excellence. Those willing to work and happy to hurt (W2W H2H). Those that are the best are so more because of what they’ve done. How far they’ve come is the sum of what they’ve done. They’re looking for more to do. That’s where they need you. This is what the world of high performance sport is all about. It’s not about trying to bring up the bottom to better the average. High performance sports supports those that excel. The elite that outshine others are afforded additional training opportunities and are sent to development camps where they are corralled with their peers who are also high performers. Through joining the best with the best they leap frog their way forward separating themselves from those participating for fun. Excellence is met with disproportionate allocation of resources to help the committed develop. In What Owen Didn’t Know, Laurence Endersen writes, “weakness can be coached to average, but strength can be leveraged to the moon.”

In a Linked In post from a couple of years ago, Frank Slootman, wrote about his experiences leading several high growth technology start ups. Slootman considers a responsibility of leadership to “convert lingering potential into superlative results.” His approach to achieving this conversion wasn’t to be warm and fuzzy, but to amp up the intensity, seeking to promote a sense of urgency around getting things done. He built businesses capable of dramatic growth by creating a culture which was embraced by the thirsty ones. Slootman writes, It is not easy because you will drive people out of their comfort zones. There will be resistance. Change is hard. Some will vote with their feet. If you want to be popular as a leader, this may not be for you. The role of a leader is to change the status quo, step up the pace, and increase the intensity. Leaders are the energy bunnies and pacemakers of the organization. Some people drain energy from organizations; not leaders, they engulf organizations with energy.”

Slootman continues, “Our companies were built and run for performance, full stop. We were single-minded in our pursuit of goals, and drove our people to become the best version of themselves. For the best people, it was an incredibly liberating experience. Most everybody subscribes to the notion of a so-called ‘performance culture’, even claim to have one, but few appreciate what that means, what that takes, and what you have to give up. Our companies were all Marine Corps, not much Peace Corps.” Slootman has shared his experiences with other business leaders. Some fear implementing an approach seen as harsh or confrontational. He notes that “everybody wants results, but not everybody wants to do what that takes.” Sure, this kind of approach may not be for everyone. The number and quality of comments to Slootman’s post is a testament to both the credibility and attractiveness of Slootman’s principles. His approach was delivering the kind of people they were after. Slootman writes, “You need an energetic cast that wants to let it rip. These were exactly the people we wanted to attract and retain.” Slootman’s approach shouldn’t be confused with the Bobby Knight’s of the world. It’s not tantrums and tirades of those posturing for intensity. It’s about finding those that already shine and allowing them to do more of what they really want to do which is to dig deep and deliver more.

In the movie, The Replacements, released in 2000, a core phrase the Quarterback offered was “winners want the ball”. Well, that pretty much captures what we’re discussing. The strivers want to do the work. They want to take on more. They want to improve. Because of their desire and drive, they are best suited to improve. In baseball, every pitcher wants to be known as a BGP. A Big Game Pitcher. They want to be the one the team can count on when the stakes are high. They want to be the starter or the closer in a game 7 of a League Championship Series or the World Series. When it matters, they want to be their best. Winners want the ball. Our businesses benefit when we work to identify these folk and support them in any way we can. At Broker Builder, we’re grateful for the continued support of our customers. We’re excited to see the overwhelming majority of them lean in and adapt to the curve ball that 2020 offered. Over 80% of our customers have achieved growth in 2020 offering support for the idea that winners want the ball even when they know the blitz is coming. Thanks for wanting the ball in a tough year. Best wishes for 2021.