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    Wanting to win is a great motivator. So is not wanting to come in last place

    Over the weekend I was coerced had the opportunity to participate in a 2-mile time trial with my son's high school cross-country track team, and the results of which were pretty sad and interesting at the same time.

    Let's step a bit to set some context. I heard about the Saturday morning time trial pretty late on Friday evening and was informed that the cross-country team coach encouraged the student runners to invite their parents and other family members to attend and even compete in the time trial, and in fact, many, many parents would indeed participate in the race. Armed only with that small bit of information, and since I am a very casual two or three times a week jogger, and I knew I could cover the two miles with collapsing, I agreed to show up early on run on Saturday morning.

    Fast forward to the actual morning of the race and it turns out that no, 'many, many' parents were not intending to participate in the race. It was just me, one other older guy, (I say older, I probably had him by 8 or 9 years), and about 30 high school cross-county athletes lined up to race the two miles. 

    My focus immediately shifted from ' I hope I can run a respectable time' to 'I can't let myself come in last place in this race', as a fairly decent-sized crowd of non-running parents, (as well as all the high schoolers), had gathered to watch the race (and eat donuts and bagels). 

    After unsuccessfully feigning a pre-race injury in order to try and back out of the race, I was off and running with the 30-odd kids and the one-odd other old dummy like me tricked into doing this.

    Here's how the rest of the race unfolded: first half mile or so I tried to stay connected to the back of the pack of kids, second half mile I lost contact with all but about five of the slowest kids, last mile or so I ended up passing a few kids, (most of whom I later found out were making their very first training run that morning).

    And oh yeah, the other 'old man' in the race? He stalked me, about 15-20 yards back for most of the race and then tried to outkick me, (term used very, very loosely), in the last 50 yards or so. Once I realized this, I managed to speed up enough to hold him off at the tape. I ended up placing about 25th out of about 31 or 32. My time, while slow, was about one minute per mile faster than I would normally run.

    What's the point of all of this, i.e., why place it on the blog?

    I was thinking about how incented I was to raise my performance level not to win or even try to win the race, because there was no chance of that, but to a level where I simply would not be the worst performer. And it worked, to a degree.

    The fear of being the worst, and having that be a public thing, drove me to perform better than I would had I been squarely in the middle of a typical pack of weekend 5K runners. I knew I had to push myself to beat even just one other person in the race and avoid the indignity of coming in last.

    All performance is relative. It is true in running, and in most every other activity we take on that calls for measurement, (and rewards).  And motivation to perform to be the best, while certainly powerful and meaningful, isn't the only kind of motivation that can drive improved relative performance.

    That's is from me. Happy Monday. Have a great week. 


    REPRISE: 10 reasons why you should quit the NFL for the Premier League

    Note: Today is the launch of the 2016 - 2017 season in the English Premier League. This is the sport you should adopt as your favorite this Fall. In that light, I am re-running a piece from last October where I laid out the case for you. Go Liverpool!

    10 Reasons Why You Should Quit the NFL for the Premier League

    October 31, 2015

    I am up early on a Saturday taking in Barclays Premier League match between my beloved Liverpool Reds and Chelsea, the defending Premier League champions currently mired in a slow start to the new season. I watch a fair bit of sports on TV, (I have pretty much no life), but after many years of increasing interest and appreciation of top-level soccer, I have mostly given over my Fall and Winter weekends to the Premier League, and have pretty much lost interest in the much more popular, (here in the US anyway), American football games (both college and in the NFL).

    Why is that? Why have I basically given up on American football, with only a passing interest in the country's most popular sport? Here are 10 reasons, just off of the top of my head. And if you are saying to yourself, 'Who cares what sports Steve likes?', I would answer, 'Probably no one. But it is my blog. And I am up early on a Saturday and this is what I feel like writing about.' So there.

    Ok, here are 10 reasons why I, (and maybe you too), should quit the NFL for the Premier League:

    1. Soccer has about 3 rules you need to understand in order to appreciate the action. Sure, there are more rules than that, but the essential ones are very few, they are pretty simple, (we teach 4 year olds how to play using these rules), and you can grasp them in about the first 15 minutes of watching a game. American football, and the NFL in particular, has about 3,593 rules, many if not most of them are incredibly complex, vary in their application, and even 'experts' of the game often fail to understand them. NFL football is akin to the worst of governmental or corporate bureaucracies - hopelessly dense, complex, and often unexplainable.

    2. Because of this complexity in the rules, NFL games are interrupted dozens of times (and on EVERY punt or kickoff it seems), by penalty flags, interminable on-field conferences amongst the numerous game officials, and delays in the game for video reviews, often frame-by-frame, of controversial plays. Again, the NFL resembles the worst in big corporations in that the games are really just a few seconds of actual things happening that are interrupted by meetings of paunchy, middle-aged men discussing and attempting to explain what just happened. 

    3. Let's talk about the actual game action then. A Premier League game consists of two 45 minute halves with the clock running constantly, with a few minutes of 'extra' time usually added for injuries and other delays. Add in a 15 minute halftime break, and the normal (meaning EVERY one), Premier League game takes a bit under 2 hours to complete, start to finish. It is a perfect amount of time to dedicate to a sporting event, a movie, a dinner with your in-laws  - pretty much anything. NFL and especially college football games regularly require 3 to 3.5 hours to complete. And for the amount of actual action that occurs in a game, (see Point 4), 3.5 hours for a sporting event is just insane.

    4. It has been estimated that the average NFL game, the game that takes about 3.5 hours to complete, and has 60 minutes of official game time, actually has only between 7 - 8 minutes of action, i.e., where the players are actually PLAYING football. The rest of the time consists of players walking back to the huddle, standing in the huddle, walking back to the ball from the huddle, and waiting for the quarterback to scream a series of incomprehensible commands and making wild gesticulations. The ball is then put into play for a few seconds, (the average NFL play lasts about 7 seconds), and the entire process is repeated. Unless it is interrupted by a penalty flag and a corporate board meeting by the aforementioned old men. Football is 3.5 hours of almost nothing happening.

    5. Premier League soccer (and all soccer really), consists of 90 minutes of almost constant action. There are no 'time outs', there are fewer delays for penalties and fouls. When there is a foul the one on-field referee in charge makes the decision, and the ball is put back into play quickly. There are no meetings to talk about the fouls, there are no lengthy delays to 'check the video replay', and there are no 'coaches challenges' like in American football. Soccer realizes, correctly, that it is a GAME, and not every tiny decision needs to be examined under a electron microscope.

    6. While the rest of this post is a little cheeky, this point is pretty serious. While injuries happen in all sports, and sometimes they are serious injuries, for the most part soccer at all levels is much, much safer than football. Despite all the advances in protective equipment, the nature of football leaves almost EVERY player injured at some point. While NFL players are grown men, and are compensated well to accept these risks, the culture of American football extends much further into society, where the participants are neither grown men or compensated at all for these risks. This season alone 7 high school football players have died from direct football related injuries. Read that again. SEVEN high school kids have DIED from playing football. I find it incredible that 99.9% of American society is ok with that. 

    7. In the US, Premier League games (that last a total of 2 hours like I mentioned), are played in the morning across all US time zones. That means you can wake up early, take in a couple of matches, and still be free by Noon or so to do whatever it is you SHOULD be doing on the weekend instead of sitting on the sofa watching sports. You can get your fill of game action and still not be a jerk to your family or friends who don't care about your fantasy team and want you to be an actual contributing member of society on Saturdays and Sundays, and not some loser who is constantly checking his phone to see how many receiving yards Odell Beckham Jr. has racked up. 

    8. The match commentators for the Premier League games are exceedingly better and more entertaining than their NFL counterparts. Premier League commentators use words like 'comprehensive' and 'beguiling' and describe players with phrases like 'He is a wily campaigner'. NFL game analysts mostly like to talk about what team coaches said to them in meetings the day before the game. When NFL commentators try to move past the obvious 'The team that makes the least mistakes will win today', and get into the intricacies of the game action, 'Tampa rolled their high safety over to the weakside to guard against the naked bootleg action from Seattle', almost no one watching the game has any idea what they are talking about.

    9. And speaking of TV coverage, in the US anyone with a decent cable sports package has access to EVERY SINGLE Premier League game on LIVE. Every game is on TV. In the NFL, America's most popular sport, the only way you can get access to every game live on TV is to subscribe to the satellite TV provider DirectTV and order a premium NFL package to get access to all the games live. There are a couple of ways to get access to streams of NFL games as well. But in 2015 the fact that I as a subscriber of Time Warner Cable, one of the largest cable companies in the US, can't order up or subscribe to any NFL game that I would like to see on my TV is absolutely insane.

    10. (I promise this is the last one. If you have made it this far well, bless your heart). The pinnacle of the NFL season, the Super Bowl, is primarily enjoyed by millions not for the actual game, 'Who is playing again?', but for the TV commercials. The actual game is just a side note for the commercials, the halftime show, the endless tweets and columns about which big corporation 'won' the game by having the best TV spot, and the discussions of what kind of plausible excuse can you come up with to call in sick to work the next morning. Aside for the fans of the two teams playing, and the people who have bet on the game, no one really cares which team wins the game. Let's talk more about that Doritos spot instead.

    That is it. I am out. Thanks for indulging me. 

    And by the way, Liverpool 3 - Chelsea 1 - Full Time. Go Reds.



    Over, Under, and Properly Rated #2 - Summer Olympics Edition

    My current favorite sports talk show is the Russillo and Kanell Show that airs nationally on ESPN radio. On the show, the hosts occasionally do a 'rated' segment where they categorize sports teams, players, and other aspects of sports and pop culture into one of three buckets. 'Overrated' for things they think are generally praised or valued more than they should be. 'Underrated' for the opposite - things that do not get enough attention or accolades. And finally 'Properly' rated, for the things that receive about the correct level of praise or derision.

    It is a fun segment, complete with sound effects, and in the spirit of running out of good ideas this week, I am going to steal borrow for this site. So here goes, the second installment, of 'Over, Under, and Properly Rated' (SFB edition). I am going with a Summer Olympics theme this time around, as I have caught just enough of the proceedings, (about 15 minutes a day), to render an authoritative evaluation of the spectacle and competition.

    So here goes...


    1. Opening Ceremony - Too long, too much nonsensical blathering by the commentators, and what essentially amounts to the the most boring parade of people wearing funny hats you've ever seen. Is it fun to see a few recognizable superstars milling about with the rest of the interchangeable rowers and team handball players? Sure. But on the whole, the opening ceremony is terrible. And overrated.  

    2. Rowing - If the entire sport consists of the activity you do to train for doing the sport, that adds up to a really uninteresting event. It really is not that far removed from watching a line of people on the treadmill at Planet Fitness. Side note: Ask the rower in your life about the classic movie, Oxford Blues sometime.

    3. Zika, deadly, bacteria-laden water, crime - In the run-up to the Rio games, much of the reporting was frightening in nature. Zika virus carrying mosquitoes were rampant, the waters for some of the competitions were horribly polluted and unsafe for the competitors, and if you strayed too far off course, you were likely to be mugged, or worse. Aside for a few, seemingly isolated issues, the games (so far) have been executed well, more or less.

    4. Judo - I watched one judo match. It lasted for four minutes, almost nothing happened, neither combatant scored a point, and the match was decided on the equivalent of 'yellow card warnings'. I've been at funerals that had more action and excitement.

    5. Golf and Tennis - Probably should not be in the Olympics, or perhaps should take a page from soccer and become Under-23 events, or something like that. The top tennis players and golfers in the word are colossally wealthy, and the source of their wealth has never been nor will ever be winning a medal at the Olympics. When the very best athletes at a sport don't really want to show up at the Olympics to compete in that sport, it is probably time to have a re-evaluation of the entire event.


    1. Rugby - I caught a fair bit of both the Men's and Women's Rugby (in the Olympics it is the 'Sevens' format), and just about every game was exciting, fast-paced, and blissfully over in about 30 minutes. Rugby Sevens might become the next big thing. After Tikka Masala flavored potato chips that is.

    2. Table tennis - Makes the underrated list as the top , 'I bet I could do that if I only had a couple of years to practice' Olympic sport. No, no, you can't. But it is still a really fun watch. Add a few red solo cups of cheap beer to the table and you have America's next great spectator sport. 

    3. Archery - Makes the underrated list solely for one reason - the cool as hell bucket hats that most of the archers wear.

    4. Javelin - Of all the 'throw this thing as far as you can' sports, the best has to be javelin. The USA would be better at this if the government hadn't banned lawn darts about 20 years ago. Lawn darts was how many an aspiring javelin thrower got their start as a 7 year-old. 

    5. Fencing - A lot of yelling, a lot of slashing at people with a sword, and a lot of normal-sized people competing that gives you at least a hint of (false) hope that someday you might be an Olympian too. I am all about the Fencing.

    Properly Rated

    1. Men's basketball - Pros: Most of the teams have several, or at least a few NBA players, and the overall talent level and competitiveness of the games has improved. Cons: It still is a little dull to watch the USA beat some over matched team by 45 points. 

    2. Swimming - Is it great as a USA citizen that we seem to win just about everything? Yes. Is it a little bit falling into Men's Basketball territory in that regard? Yes. And I hate the chlorine-heavy air that always seems to surround any indoor pool. And don't even get me started about what might be in that water.

    3. Team Handball - Sort of relatable because it seems like a combination of sorts between soccer and basketball. Sort of not relatable because after about 3 minutes you have no idea what is really going on. The one game I saw pitted Denmark v. Croatia who were wearing similarly colored uniforms and it was impossible to figure out who was who.

    4. Weightlifting - Would be on the 'underrated' list if not for the occasional gruesome injury. And it would definitely be on the underrated list if they somehow incorporated some of the classic 'World's Strongest Man' type challenges. It would be awesome if the Beer Keg Throw or the 'See how far you can pull a bus using a rope that you have to hold with your teeth' were Olympic sports.

    5. Race Walking - Ridiculous to look at on one hand, but on the other hand weirdly compelling.

    What do you think? Do I have it right? 

    Is this post itself over, under, or properly rated?

    Have a great weekend!


    VACATION REWIND: The smart leader's approach to dress codes (and any other policy)

    NOTE: I am on vacation this week - please enjoy a replay of a piece from March of this year.



    Happy Spring!

    It's Spring right, at least here in the USA, (and I suppose some other places as well, I was never all that great at geography). But with Spring comes the return (hopefully), of warmer weather and the shift to our 'summer' clothes - both for work and for not work.

    And the first time Gabe from accounting or Marcia in customer service turns up to work wearing some cargo shorts or worse, you or your organization's leaders might be tempted to send one of those beloved 'all employees' emails from HR that run down the ins and outs of the official dress code, as you know, we don't want to really treat folks like adults, at least not at work.

    But before you do send that email listing just what types of concert T-shirts are acceptable and which ones are not, I would encourage you to read this piece from ESPN.com, on how one organizational leader is wrestling with these same workplace policy issues as you are: Joe Maddon, (Chicago Cubs manager), on dress code: 'If you think you look hot, wear it.' 

    Get past the title for a second and read the whole piece. Here is a snippet to prod you along:

    Cubs manager Joe Maddon met with his “lead bulls” on Sunday to go over team rules as 11 players and their boss discussed everything from a dress code to kids in the clubhouse.

    “The biggest topic of discussion was shorts or not on the road,” Maddon said after the meeting.

    Maddon isn’t a stickler for a lot of written rules, instead preferring a common-sense approach. He believes players know the line not to cross. He used last year’s policies -- his first on the team -- as a guideline. They worked out pretty well.

    “You have like a force field, not an actual fence. Guys know if they go past a certain point you might get stung a little bit, but you don’t have to see the fence there,” Maddon explained. “I like that.”

    “Exercise common sense with all this stuff,” he said. “There are so much archaic stuff that baseball stands for. I’m here to manage the team, not make rules. I learned my lesson with that to not go nuts about it.

    Just about everything you need to know about dress codes or most other workplace rules right there. Treat folks like adults, let them know what is really important for the organization to be focusing on, (it isn't the dress code), and involve a larger group of leaders and influencers on the staff as you talk about expectations and whatever policies you have. Not only will they help you define the rules, they will likely help you self-enforce them as well.

    It is actually really simple. Simple enough for even the Cubs to figure out.

    Have a great day! 


    Are you a buyer or seller of talent?

    In sports, and I will contend, in most other industries as well, teams and organizations are either 'buyers' of talent, i.e, the best candidates and people leave other organizations to come there to work,  or are 'sellers' of talent, i.e. they tend to lose their most talented people to other, better opportunities and organizations. 

    The problem for organizations however, is figuring out where they want to be on the spectrum of 'seller/buyer' of talent, vs. where the market (and the talent), perceive them to be on said spectrum. In other words, it can be pretty easy for team and organizational management to in accurately peg themselves as a buyer or acquirer of the best talent, when the talent no longer sees the organization as all that desirable.

    And in big time sports like Major League baseball, NBA basketball, and international soccer/football at the highest levels we see this tension between desire, perception, and reality plays out often, as teams vie for the services of the best and most talented players. 

    Case in point, the potential transfer of one of European soccer's top players, Paul Pogba from the Italian club Juventus to the English club Manchester United. Juventus' management sees themselves as an acquirer of talent clearly, as evidenced by this quote from team manager Massimilliano Allegri on the Pogba situation, (courtesy of Business Insider).

    "I am calm about the English rumours. Anyone who has the opportunity to leave Juventus has to consider things very carefully, because right now Juve are among the top four European clubs. 

    "This is not a selling club that just lets its players go. Pogba belongs to Juve and at the end of the day he too will want to win another Scudetto (Italian league championship) and hopefully the Champions League.

    "We have grown in terms of appeal and awareness of our own capabilities. So far our market this summer has been eight out of 10, bringing in players of international pedigree like Medhi Benatia, Dani Alves, and Miralem Pjanic."

    Tease that out a little bit and we can see clearly that Juventus see themselves as a talent acquirer - they think Pogba would be better off remaining with Juventus instead of leaving for Manchester United, and additionally, they are 8 out of 10 in acquiring top-level players against competing clubs.

    Meanwhile, Man United, long considered a buyer or acquirer of talent themselves, but who have dropped a bit lately due to some disappointing results, see the potential Pogba signing as one that cements and solidifies their reputation as a desirable location and organization for the very top tier of soccer talent to ply their trade. 

    Where Pogba ends up deciding where to play his soccer is a decision that will validate the ambitions and self-perception of one of these two organizations, and cast some doubts on the other. Both teams see themselves as 'the' destination for talent of Pogba's level. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    Why does this matter to you and your organization?

    Because it serves as a reminder of two important points. One, it is important to understand that no matter how you perceive your organization's desirability as a place to work, your self-perception needs to align with market reality in order to better inform and shape your talent strategy.

    And two, at the end of the day, your organization's perception and position as a talent buyer or seller is a decision that the talent makes, not you. No amount of branding, or history, or posturing, or past glory will make up for the best talent deciding a competing organization over yours. 

    It's good to know where you stand in the pecking order, and it is better to know how and why the most talented people decide to put you there.

    Have a great week!