Category Archives: Coaching

The “Too Valuable” Fallacy

“To every thing there is a season” or so said Pete Seeger and the Byrds, or the Book of Ecclesiastics in the King James Version of the Bible, depending on one’s preference.  And in keeping with the ends of the personal preference paradigm, Fox News has shared a classic business lesson.  No, not “those” kinds of lessons.  This is one of those timeless lessons of business, of life, of organizations and leadership.  Ford did it with Lee Iacocca.  The 49ers traded Montana and the Colts let Peyton go to Denver.  The Today Show let Katie go, ESPN has lost almost everyone, and even MJ and the Bulls came to an end.  And every company in history has parted ways with their top sales person.  Eventually, there comes a time when those “too valuable” are simply not that valuable.

Fox News as an organization has demonstrated that maxim that “no one person is more valuable than the overall organization”.  Everything else about Fox News aside, there is no denying, they have put the good of the organization above some of the most “valuable” personalities in the infotainment industry.  For various reasons, which we will not discuss or debate, Fox News has parted ways with two hugely successful personalities in Bill O’Reilly and Megan Kelly.  Vastly different scenarios, but the fundamental truth remains:  the organization was placed ahead of the individuals.

It is quite easy to fall into the leadership trap that the team, the organization, the business, the company, cannot survive without the “top performer”.  While it is true that great talents, performers, sales people, operations leaders, analysts, skilled craftsman, or the uncounted millions of committed team members are all special, there are some that just seem to have more of an impact.  They apparently are the one generating the lion’s share of the revenue, that are the driving force in innovation and change, that are the glue that holds the team together, that are simply “too valuable”.  Yet eventually, there comes a time.

It was a key component of military life, no one is indispensable; the mission and the team come before the individual…no matter whom it might be.  The same holds in sports, entertainment, and business.  Sure, those special “stars” can have an enormous impact, but the Bulls remained relevant without MJ, the Broncos have won after Elway (thanks Peyton), the Today Show is back on top, ESPN marches on, and Ford has continued to build cars.  And the country carries on regardless of who is in which office.  In fact, quite often organizations and individuals flourish after the split.  “A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” as the lyric or verse reminds us.

It is challenging for leaders to take the long view when the decision is at hand, but while the temptation is there to make “just one exception” for that great talent; to retain and profit from that special person a little longer, let Fox News and Bill O’Reilly pass through your mind.  He was a ratings and revenue goldmine for the network, and while his particular scenario made for a relatively easy decision, most are more of the Megan Kelly variety – tough calls, but in the end no one is indispensable.  Ever.

 

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Teams and the All Star

Kobe goes out in a shower of pop culture glory while the Warriors win their 73rd regular season game.  The NBA had quite the night earlier this week.  You have a one name super star and legendary player go out on a crazy scoring night while another team finishes the season with more wins than MJ’s Bulls.  It was the stuff of main stream news and cultural consciousness, as well as a great reminder for every leader – be careful who you have in your locker room.

The Golden State Warriors have been an incredible story, from winning the NBA title in 2015, to marching their way through this season to an unprecedented 73 regular season victories.  They have done it with aplomb, while their head coach was out for the first several months of the season, while being the reigning champions that every opponent gives their best game, and under the bright lights of relentless coverage and analysis.  They have met and exceed expectations as a team.  The players, the coaches, everyone involved have risen to the occasion.

Conversely, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have been an absolute mess, lingering at the bottom of the NBA for years.  Though in the twilight of his career, Kobe has never once relented in his focus on being the center of the Lakers.  The ball will go through him, to him, and will be shot by him…a lot.  He was the highest paid player on the team, demanded and ensured that he remained at the top of the industry pay scale, and remained at the forefront of the Lakers marketing and consciousness.  It was abundantly clear that what mattered to Kobe, was, well Kobe.  Granted, he scored 60 in his final game, but he took 50 shots.  Yes, you have to “take ’em to make ’em” but that is far from all-star percentages.

In the end, the Golden State Warriors are a team.  Sure, they have their own star players, especially Steph Curry, an incredible coach in Steve Kerr, and a great organization, but above all they are a team.  No one is more important than the whole.  The Lakers in the Kobe era, and especially so in the later phases of his career, have been about Kobe above all else.  Basketball, more than probably any other sport, demands a team have at least one or two star players.  There are only 5 guys on the floor – one or two make a huge difference.  However, it is still a team sport.  An all time great alone cannot make it happen; just ask LeBron.  In the end, teams win.

It is incredibly tempting to hire and retain the “best player”, to make exceptions for the “all star”, the top producer, that special person.  However, that special person cannot be placed ahead of the team, the greater goal, the common mission.  Steph Curry is a special player, an MVP, an All Star, but he is also a team player.  Kobe was an MVP and an All Star to the end, but never was he known as a team player.  Even Michael, a renowned competitor and a bear of a teammate, was always known to be a teammate.  Demanding,; sure.  But always a teammate.

Yes, Kobe and the Lakers were the story of the day.  The ratings, the press, the glitz, the stars, the pop culture darlings, it was all Kobe and the Lakers that night.  The Warriors setting the new season wins record was the “other NBA story”.  That was one day, well maybe two.  Next week, the Warriors start the first round of the playoffs, and Kobe starts his retirement, and the Lakers start to rebuild their franchise.

Building a team is hard.  Finding the best talent it tough.  Hiring and retaining great people is even harder.  But finding, hiring and retaining the right talent, well that is how a winning team is built.  When given the choice, taking the very good player and teammate trumps the great individual.  It only takes one bad hire, regardless of their talent, to ruin a team.  Put aside the glitz and glamor, and find that special person that has the skills and talent, as well as the selflessness and maturity to be a great teammate.  And if you find your MJ, well provide them the leadership to at least be a teammate.  And if you find a Steve Kerr…then keep on winning.

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To Ensure Failure, Just Use Your Words

It is Pavlovian, hearing the old alma mater mentioned in the news still perks up the ears.  Unfortunately, like the news that typically comes from the State of Illinois, hearing the University of Illinois mentioned tends not to be followed by positive, uplifting stories.  Then add that this bit of news was broadcast during a sports segment, well one tends to “brace for impact – this will not be good”.  Sadly, what was shared was not just frustrating as an alumni, it was absolutely infuriating on a professional and personal level.

Leaders, regardless of role, scope or circumstance, have a responsibility to those they lead.  It is a professional and personal responsibility to help the organization and individuals meet and exceed their potential.  To do what is right for others, to inspire, to provide a vision, a plan and the resources to obtain that which they collectively wish to achieve.  Leadership is the core of politics, of business, of athletics, and of all things that require group effort.  And effective leaders must communicate.  They must speak as a leader.  Sadly, the quote that came from the University of Illinois Athletic Department and it’s Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk was a case study in failure:

“Obviously, it’s not ideal but for now, I don’t think it’ll put a dagger in the heart of the program,” Kowalczyk said.

Foremost, a leader must speak with confidence.  If the leader has no faith, no confidence in the decision and course of action, it is a given that no one else will.  To preface your statement with “it is not ideal but…” is synonymous with “this is going to be miserable but…”.  While acceptable when describing a lifeboat relative to the Titanic, it is not effective when speaking of a newly hired, or in this case contract extended, leader or coach.  Kowalczyk quite literally undermined the very foundation of trust, confidence and support Coach Cubit requires to have any chance of success in leading the football program.  When a leader denies their support to those they are responsible to lead, they have ensured the ultimate failure of the team.  All the financial resources, material, logistics and marketing cannot offset the damage done when moral support and confidence is denied to a subordinate.  Especially so in a public forum.

As if the first disclaimer was not damaging enough, to then set the bar just above “putting a dagger in the heart of the program” with the awe-inspiring caveat of “I don’t think” is worse than actually admitting defeat.  A leader must have the courage of their convictions.  A leader is not just there to deliver the positive message, they also must deliver the bad.  And when delivering bad, clarity and ownership are of critical importance.  Waffling and trying to “sugar coat” the bad news is worse than the actual bad news.  Kowalczyk set the standard for acceptable performance with his statement.  The only thing Coach Cubit, and by extension his players and staff, are expected to do is not “kill the program”.  For the staff and the players, there is absolutely no reason to do anything more than the minimum.  No one enjoys being a part of an organization who’s only goal is to do the minimum.  No one enjoys “working to lose”.

Lastly, Leadership 101 – know the names of your people…and use them.  It seems so trivial, so basic, so obvious, but taking the time to learn someone’s name  means you care.  A leader must care about those they lead.  If the leader does not care, if names are not important, then it is absolutely assured the subordinates notice, and that lack of personal caring will be reciprocated.  If your subordinates are simply an “it” to you, then you are nothing more than an “it” to them.

Much like the State of Illinois, the University of Illinois is going through a period of difficulty and challenge.  There is a leadership void in the university, with the “interim” title either in use or having been used over the last 12 months at the President, Chancellor, Athletic Director and Head Football Coach levels.  It is not a positive scenario for anyone, and is clearly a crucible in which strong leadership is required.  Administration and Management are not the same as Leadership.  While Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk might be a fine director, manager and administrator, he clearly could use some help on the leadership side, and especially so when it comes to speaking as a leader.

Not to be one to just throw stones, might a suggestion for Director Kowalczyk’s, or any leaders, statements take the format of stating clearly the situation, then state the vision, and lastly support those implementing the plan to attain that vision.  For example:

“It has been a trying season, yet through this period Coach Cubit has been a steady hand on the tiller, earning the respect of his players and the University.  We all are committed to moving forward and achieving success on the grid iron and in the classroom, and Coach Cubit is the man to lead this program and our student athletes.”

While not perfect, it is certainly better than “yea, it’s not what anyone wanted, but he will do for now…shoot, it really cannot get much worse”.

In the end, all the millions of dollars in revenue, all the alumni passions, all the administrator’s and coaches careers aside, it is about a group of students who joined a team.  They deserve better.

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Kaepernick and the Importance of “All The Other Things”

Yesterday’s hero is tomorrow’s bum.  It is a sad fact of life, regardless of industry, sport, volunteer organization or community group.  Rarely does one person succeed or fail alone, however it is far easier to lay the blame on one individual than to take a hard look at an entire organization.  Colin Kaepernick was able to reap the glory and the rewards as an NFL quarterback when he was the face of the 49ers in their Super Bowl and NFC Champion teams.  Less than two years removed from such heights, he is paying the price as the franchise struggles, finding himself benched.  How quickly things change.

Colin Kaepernick’s fall from grace parallels the 49ers slide from the top echelon of the NFL.  As with most things in life, there is plenty of blame to go around, and the truth tends to lie somewhere in the middle.  It is highly doubtful that Kaepernick suddenly forgot how to play the game, that his talent suddenly evaporated.  Conversely, the organization did not suddenly implode.  The other players did not suddenly forget how to block, run, catch and defend.  However, this story is a great reminder that there is a lot more to career decisions than just money.

There tends to be 5 criteria or “buckets” that enter into the decision-making process regarding jobs and/or job changes:

  • What is the job?  What is it you will be doing?
  • Who will you be working for and with?
  • The culture/environment/dynamic of the organization, industry and team
  • Are you set-up for success? Do you have the resources, support, etc.
  • What is the compensation and how are you paid?

There is actually a rank order to that list, and while the middle three can change in relative importance, the first and last items are and should remain where they are, first and last.  What you will be doing trumps all else, and compensation only matters if the previous four items are in alignment.  While most folks agree with the 5 items, many disagree with the relative order.  Most folks place compensation above all else, and that is where most problems start.

Looking at the above list relative to Colin Kaepernick, it is easy to see how the first item did not change – he was a quarterback and his job did not change.  Did he fail to develop his professional skills?  Did the competition improve their game? In both cases, probably yes, but in the end, he did not suddenly forget how to be a quarterback.

Who he is working for and with changed dramatically.  Jim Harbaugh left as head coach, and with him went the entire coaching staff.  The individual players who make up the team also went through massive change.  While the job did not change, his leadership, his coaches, his coordinators, and his co-workers all changed.  That is an enormous issue.

With leadership change comes cultural and organizational change.  Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is bad, but it does change.  By all accounts, the 49ers were a well run, professional, no-nonsense organization before.  Now, well they seem to be struggling to find an identity; they are not the organization they were when they were winning.

Change the members of the team, change the leadership, and change the culture, and the result is you change the very things that enable one to succeed.  Talent, hard work, dedication, and passion can only get one so far.  To borrow a phrase, to one degree or another, it actually does “take a village”.  For Kaepernick, the talent around him on the field, on the sidelines, in-game planning and preparation, the culture of the locker room, in the front office, everything changed.  Apparently not for the better.  Regardless, it is not a scenario where one is set-up for success.

In less than 2 seasons, he and the team have become a glaring illustration of how there is much more to the debate than just compensation.  Kaepernick, based on his earlier success, was able to secure a lucrative contract.  Good for him.  It is not healthy to begrudge someone getting paid.  However, his level of compensation impacted what the organization had available to pay others.  The team around him slipped in talent level.  There was a conflict in leadership, and his coaching staff changed.  The culture around him and the general work environment changed, and the support and tools to succeed went away.

When debating that next promotion, that great new job with the great pay, the new bonus potential, the corner office, the sweet benefits, the next contract, stop and think about Colin Kaepernick.  Pro Bowler, Super Bowl playing, NFC Championship winning quarterback, huge new contract, to the bench in less than 2 years.  Sure, he gets some of the blame, but just as his success was not a one man show, neither is his failure.  Take a hard look at that offer, make sure what the job is, who you will be working for and with, do you have the resources, is the corporate culture good, and then worry about the money.

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Change and the “Too Long” Syndrome

Clichés*.  Though it is in vogue to see clichés as “silly”, I for one have always found them refreshing.  In our politically correct world, clichés are actually one of the few ways we are allowed to tell the truth without fear of offending.  “Change is never easy” is a classic, and it is one we hear and use frequently in our business.  Changing jobs, roles and careers.  Relocating.  Changes in family status, economic status, relationship status, or a host of other areas, change is, as the saying goes, “never easy”. Clichés exist because they are true.

Have had the good fortune to reconnect with quite a few old friends, long time business partners, and just a lot of folks who I had not seen in a while. Just been one of those months. And as always happens, the conversation always turns to the classic “how have things been” question.  Typically there is a “since…” lingering at the end of that question.  Since the move, since starting the new job, since whatever life event.  Not always, but certainly more often than not, the conversation ultimately includes the phrase “too long”.  It is absolutely amazing, the majority of the time, once the change has come, folks wish it had happened earlier.

Started jotting down some of the phrases we hear quite often when it comes to change:

– “I waited too long”

– “should have done it x years earlier”

– “I stayed too long”

– “it was long overdue”

– “so much happier”

– “was so comfortable with what I knew”

– “never realized how unhappy”

– “grown complacent”

– “in such a better place”

– “so much better off”

Change is never easy.  It is the question of unknowns, of “what ifs”, of starting over, of friction, of uncertainty, of “walking away from a good thing”, of “the devil you know vs. the devil you don’t know”.  It is scary.  It is emotionally draining.  It is challenging.  It is often physically hard.  It might be financially costly.  Change can come by choice, or it can be forced on you.  It can be expected or totally unexpected.  Regardless of what it is, how it comes, what it entails, or otherwise involves, it is never easy.

It is always great to see old friends, to renew old acquaintances, to just enjoy the company of others.  But it is absolutely reassuring to know that much more often than any of us realize, change brings about good.  New opportunities, new relationships, renewed purpose, energy and yes even fun.  It is cliché, but change is not something to fear, rather it is something to be embraced.  Easier said than done, but it has been nice to have that reminder.

* not sure the final count, but I know I used a lot…

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Belief, Short Cuts and Remembering…Jens

Jens. To those that know, it is self-explanatory. To those that don’t, it means nothing.  One of the classic characters of professional cycling rode his last race Sunday, and the world of sport lost a huge personality.  He was the old man of the sport, the wily veteran, a Hardman as they say in cycling.  Jens was never the fastest, the strongest, the most gifted rider, but he was one of the toughest men to ever ride in the pro peloton.  The guy has spent all his adult life on a bike, and the last 10+ years entertaining fans across the globe both on the bike and in quotes.  “Shut Up Legs” is a go to phrase in the cycling world.

For all his one liners (there is even an app for that), all those days hauling teammates to victories, to the countless breakaways that failed, and even the handful that stuck, the crashes and chases, Jens has been a source of inspiration.  The physical achievements on the bike started it, but it has been the “wisdom of Jens” that has struck a lasting chord.  The 90 second clip he did in the spring of 2014 for Bicycling Magazine has stayed with me and it summarizes some of the timeless lessons of life, in that quirky way that is classic Jens, he said so much.

– Believe in yourself, have confidence beyond reason.  To really achieve you have to take the chance, and it is that risk, that fear of failure, that all too often is the insurmountable barrier.

– There are no short cuts.  Hard work, Dedication, Discipline and Self-Sacrifice.  There is no other way but to grind, to do what is painful and to keep doing it.  We are surrounded by the ideal of “work smarter not harder”, but in the end even smart work is work.  If you are going to do the work, do it and give it your all.

– Remember who got you to the top, you will see them all again on the way back down.  Life is so very much easier when you are nice.  Be nice to others and surround yourself with positive people.

Throughout his career Jens was renowned for going in the break.  Rarely in professional cycling does the breakaway ever survive.  However, sometimes it does.  Not often, but sometimes.  And therein rested one of the great Jens quotes: “If you go (with a break), you can either win or not win. If you don’t go for it, you definitely won’t win.”  Jordan and Gretzky spoke of how they could only score by taking the shots…they missed many more than they made.  You have to believe you will succeed.

Jens has literally made a career out of working hard.  It brought him wins on the road and countless contracts and sponsorship opportunities, the respect of his peers and teammates, and the adoration of fans around the world.  He is savvy enough that he will parley his reputation as a hard worker and source of great quotes into what is sure to be a very lucrative broadcasting and speaking career.

Above all else, Jens has always been nice.  It is that affable, self-deprecating humor and honesty that really sets him apart.  He made time for others, was positive and upbeat, and clearly enjoyed the time with fans.  Having seen it first hand more than once, the guy is absolutely mobbed before a race. He takes the time for pictures like the one below back in 2008 (I was manning the camera that day), for a quick chat, for an autograph and a smile.  And after a stage, you could always count on a Jens interview.  He might be smoked from the road, but he would give some sort of quote, a quick interview and usually some quirky comment about suffering and being too old.

As a fan, it will not be the same with Jens not in the peloton.  However, I am pretty confident we will see and hear a lot from him in the coming years.  The guy is tailor-made for color commentary.  Old Jensie has been one clever dude, taking a folksy, German, blue-collar, hard worker, affable character into an international brand.  That takes some smarts.  Well done, or as they say in cycling, chapeau!

Phil and Jens 08

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The Tourney – Hiring, Rules and the Value of Having a Sir Charles

The Tournament has become one of those events that has become a cultural phenomena.  No need to say “which tournament”, it is just The Tournament.  It goes beyond college sports and basketball, it permeates the public consciousness.  Pools and brackets become the thing of water-cooler conversation and office bulletin boards.  It produces drama, stories, heroes and goats, as well as some timeless moments and memories.  And this year the tournament was brought to us on every possible delivery medium the media has at their disposal, and we gobbled it up.  And in this festival of March Madness, I found myself thinking of 3 particular people:   Billy Donovan, John Calipari and Charles Barkley.

Find them on the rise, give them the opportunity, support them, pay them well, and let them do their job.  That is the model for really successful, long-term hiring.  In college basketball, or any sport, one would be hard pressed to find a better example than Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators.  Two National Championships, 5 Final Four Appearances, multiple conference titles and a winning tradition for 16 years and counting.  All of this at a “football school”.  Billy Donovan was hired as the Gators head coach and given a 6 year contract at the age of 30.  Was it a risky hire, yes.  But it was a calculated risk.  Billy Donovan had a very clear record of having studied and learned from some of the best in the business, a relentless work ethic, and an ability to relate to players, administrators, alumni and boosters.  Billy Donovan is a great example of taking the long view in hiring – find the right person, regardless of age or experience, support them and then let them do their job.

John Calipari has proven himself yet again to be the master of the “one and done” model.  His Kentucky team was again a collection of phenomenally talented freshman, arguably the finest collection of future professional players on any one team in the tournament.  John Calipari takes a fair bit of heat for his overt recruiting of those young men who clearly state they have no interest in being a “student athlete”.  His recruiting pitch is in effect “I will get you ready to go pro”.  Like many, I was initially put off by his approach and embracing of the “one and done” mentality.  However, what I have come to realize is that John Calipari is simply playing by the rules.  John Calipari did not make the rules, but he has become the best at playing within those rules.  He gets more of the best players to play for him than anyone else.  That is amazing recruiting.  He is also clearly an impressive coach.  He is able to take a collection of individuals and turn them within a 30 game season into one of the best teams in the country.  That is great coaching.  Someone like John Calipari should not be judged for abiding by the rules.  Don’t fault the person for being good at their job.

Mentors. Counselors. Coaches. Trusted Advisors. Advocates. Regardless of the title, we all benefit from having a core group of those “who have gone before”, who can share their wisdom, some hard-earned lessons, and above all be that voice of reason and honesty when we need it most. We all need a Charles Barkley in our life. Sir Charles is a unique character, and to a degree is maybe playing to the part, but make no mistake he is one savvy dude. And above all, he tells it like it is. What little I saw and heard of the various broadcasts, you could count on Charles being very honest in his assessments. If a kid did not play well, he said it. If the stars failed to live up to the hype, he said it. No sugar-coating. No hyperbole. No positive spin or feel good comments; just raw, unfiltered, and technically based feedback on performance. We could all benefit from someone like Charles…especially if they are as colorful as Sir Charles.

I do not watch a lot of college basketball, but what I do watch tends to be in March.  The Tournament is just a special event…it is fun to have on in the background.  It also reminds us of some great fundamental lessons in business:  hire well, do not begrudge others success, and have someone in your circle that will be honest.

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