When in Doubt, Hire Corporate “Athletes”
May 29, 2012 Leave a comment
My nephew and I got into a discussion a few years ago about soccer and its popularity—or lack thereof—in the United States. I was teasing him, pretending I didn’t much care for soccer. It just so happens that I played “American” football my whole life, so like him in the other direction, I was biased toward the oblong-shaped pigskin rather than the perfectly round ball used in admittedly the most popular sport in the world. But while I respect all athletes and, truth be told, probably didn’t play much soccer growing up for the sole reason that it happened to be a fall sport just like football; I purposely poked and prodded, doing my best to annoy him. I am his uncle, after all, and that is at least part of my job.
The foundation of my argument was basic, though. I completely respect soccer players, who are as conditioned as they come and tougher than most casual fans give them credit. But the teams put together in America, I contended, would never be as good as their counterparts in other countries around the world. And for one simple reason: the best athletes in America don’t play soccer.
Boy, was that the wrong thing to say. All of a sudden, I excited both his dad—my brother who, by the way, tormented me growing up, calling me amongst other things, “Barbara”– and his wife, who, like any loving mother, had to come to the defense of her baby boy. “What do you mean not the best athletes?” “Have you seen some of these guys?” “What do you consider an athlete?” The avalanche of criticism over what I meant to be an innocent, almost factual, comment was heavy. It was unrelenting. But actually, it was kinda fun. Because there was no malice intended. Because I really did–do– respect soccer players and what they can do athletically. And most importantly, because I’d given this topic a lot of thought and really felt my hypothesis had serious grounds.
So what is an athlete? Really, the dispute comes down to the answer to that seemingly simple question. But alas it’s not simple and if you asked ten people to define athlete, you’d probably get ten different answers. Well, to me it’s pretty simple. An athlete is someone you’d pick to be on your team…dramatic pause…before you knew what sport you were playing. It’s probably the same way chiefs and leaders chose whom they wanted on their hunt and battle teams hundreds of years ago. Sadly enough, it’s probably also the same thought process that went through the minds of slave owners when they bought slaves to tend to their crops. Just like the hunters who probably chose to hunt with the men in their tribe or family who were the fastest and best jumpers, or the slave owners who chose to purchase for the heavy workload those men (and women, actually) who were bigger and stronger; if you were picking a team for an unknown sport, you’d choose those players who were above average in areas that would likely be needed in any physical activity or endeavor. And since jumping, running, throwing, and moving large things (or people) quickly and powerfully are skills that are used in a number of different sports, those people who are better at more of these skills are what I’d consider athletes.
I tell that story to make the point that the same approach is successful in business, especially in small or growing ones. In an environment where employees must wear multiple hats, be extremely flexible, and adapt quickly to different environments and challenges, proficiency in general business acumen–for example, general accounting principles, non-specific engineering skills, or a broad understanding of graphic design and marketing techniques–is much more valuable than being a rock star in any one area would be. To be what I call a good “Corporate Athlete” indeed requires a more generalized knowledge and set of skills. Being a great accountant is not as important in a startup as understanding how to build a great accounting system is. Specific engineering and development talent in, for example, C++ or Java is great. But having a solid foundation of programming knowledge, in general, is a tool better suited for the ever changing business models that many startup or small companies go through in which both the target market and the products developed to meet a need in those markets changes quickly and sometimes often.
All of this underscores my extension of the “best athlete” argument away from sports and into the work environment. When we are hiring or otherwise recruiting talent, we should focus more on the applicant’s business “athletic” ability. I’m not saying we should ignore the comfort that comes with knowing we’ve hired someone who went to a great university or has a ton of work experience. Instead, what I’m saying is that talking to an individual, reading and conducting references, and looking holistically at the person’s career when making the decision will ultimately yield better employees and a much better team in the long run. And while this approach is certainly beneficial for larger corporations, it is absolutely critical for its smaller, younger brethren. As Jim Collins stated in his best-selling book, Good to Great, it’s important to get the right people on the bus, before deciding where the bus should go. In other words, let’s choose the best corporate athletes before we know what game we’re playing.