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    Entries in Sports (111)

    Wednesday
    Dec102014

    Prepare to be disappointed

    The full title of this post really should be 'Prepare to be disappointed: The 2014-2015 New York Knicks', but I wanted to at least try not to scare away any potential readers, particularly ones that get tired of the 8 Man Rotation 'Sports and HR' posts.

    I promise this post isn't really about the Knicks or sports, not completely anyway.

    The backstory:

    I arrived back home at HR Happy Hour HQ at about 7:55PM ET last night and realized that it was about 5 minutes before the tip off time for the Knicks, (my favorite NBA team since forever, my favorite holiday picture from my childhood features a 5 or 6 year old me sporting New York Knicks pajamas that Santa had bestowed), who were matched up against the New Orleans Pelicans, (not a very good team, but better than the Knicks, much like just about every other team so far this year is better than the Knicks). 

    As I quickly gathered up some snacks and a needed beverage, scurrying to be in my favored easy chair for the start of the game the thought that popped into my mind was that all I was really doing was preparing to be disappointed - the Knicks are one of the worst teams in the league and have lost a number of close games recently, the kinds of losses that really sting for longtime fans (and I suppose the players too). Heading into last night's game, there was no logical reason to expect the Knicks would be able to defeat the Pelicans, I didn't think they had much of a chance anyway, so all I was doing by planning my evening, (partially), around watching the game was really just preparing to be disappointed by the eventual Knicks loss.

    OK, that was a lot of nonsense about basketball to get me to the point, so here goes.

    I have ceased letting Knicks loss after loss bother me. Sure, I would rather they were better, I would enjoy more frequent wins. But I get that this is not going to be a very good year for them. And so as a hedge against the Knicks stumbling and bumbling, I have adopted the much better (and much more fun to watch), Atlanta Hawks as my proxy team for the season. 

    The Hawks have a solid winning record so far this season, play an upbeat and entertaining style of basketball, and, importantly, have never been a significant or hated rival to my Knicks. They have always just been another team in the league, so supporting them is not really traitorous to my team, but rather serves as a way for me to keep invested in something I enjoy, (NBA basketball), while not allowing the terrible Knicks team to ruin the overall experience of the sport.

    So now the point (no one has kept reading until this point I am thinking).

    The Knicks, and there relentless way of disappointing me and their other fans probably represent a lot of our real lives too. Jobs that we really can't stand. Managers that are always on our cases. Co-workers that let us down, (at best), or stab us in the back (more likely). Significant others that just seem to do the same annoying things over and over again. And if you have kids, well, I don't need to delineate all the ways they manage to exasperate, frustrate, and yes, even disappoint us. 

    How do we deal with all that, with all that disappointment?

    I think we have to find the version of the Atlanta Hawks in all these varying situations.

    The part, even if it small or insignificant, that is pretty reliably positive. The element that we can latch on to in a bad situation and take something positive from. 

    There is something about your crappy job that has value. Your slacker boyfriend probably takes good care of your cat. There is likely at least one person amongst the clowns you work with from which you can learn something.

    This isn't about seeing the bright side in a given, bad situation, it is about seeing a different side.

    I am stuck supporting the terrible Knicks because they are my team. But I can still take enjoyment from the Hawks, (up until they play the Knicks), without being a traitor.

    And you can find something to love about your job while not betraying your very real hatred for it.

    Ok, that is it, I am out.

    Note: It is halftime of the Knicks-Pelicans game. The Knicks are only down by 2. Maybe I won't be disappointed after all. 

    Wednesday
    Dec032014

    The Performance Curve

    If you are a fan of baseball you might be familiar with the maxim or rule of thumb that states for Major League players that an individual player's performance (hits, home runs, wins as a pitcher, etc.), tends to 'peak' at around age 29 or so (give to take a year or two), then most often declines until the end of their careers.

    This phenomenon, most often raised when a team elects to offer hundreds of millions of dollars and 5+ year contracts to players on the wrong side of 30, has been pretty well observed, studied, and documented over the 100+ years of data about Major League player performance.

    Since charts make everything better, take a look at the generalized performance by age chart from a 2010 study published on Baseball Prospectus:

    The specifics of the Y-axis values don't really matter for the point I am after, (they represent standard deviations from 'peak' performance', but simply looking at the data we see for both the original study sample (veteran players with 10+ years of data), and 'less restricted' players, (more or less everyone else), that performance peaks in the late 20s and declines, predicatbly, from there. Keep this data in mind the next time your favorite team drops a 7-year, $125M contract on your best 31 year old slugger. Those kinds of contracts, for hitters or pitchers, almost never work out well for the team. And again, the reasons are completely obvious and predictable. Almost all players skills begin to decline by age 30. All players are in decline by 32.

    What does this predictable and observable performance curve for baseball players mean for you as an HR/Talent pro?

    I think at least three things can be taken from the baseball performance curve that apply more generally.

    1. While baseball, and sports in general, allow more precise and discrete measures of performance that allow us to pinpoint when performance 'peaks', this phenomenon applies in many other scenarios as well. You, or your managers, know after how long in a given role that an employee's performance has likely hit its apex, and continued tenure in that role is likely to results in lessened performance. Put more simply, you can't keep people, especially good ones, in the same roles for too long. They get bored, they figure it all out. And after too long, they start to tune out. The time to move people to the next role isn't when they are on the decline, it is when they are just peaking.

    2. In baseball gigantic contracts are often bestowed on players in their late 20s or early 30s, mostly on the basis of several years of prior high performance. While this on first glance seems to make sense, it almost always results in a bad deal for the team And again, the reason is not usually the fault of the player. It is just that 100 years of data show that almost all players are simply not as productive from ages 30-35 as they are from ages 25-30. The lesson here: We need to remember that most compensation should be about ongoing and future performance, and not predominantly as a reward for what has already happened. Past performance is not always, maybe not even all that often, a great predictor of future performance.

    3. Baseball player performance is very predictable, as we see in the above data, and there really is no excuse for baseball team management to pretend that is not the case. Decades of data make it plain. I think soon, maybe even fairly soon, the kinds of data and predictive data that organizations will have about employee performance will be similarly robust and powerful. Just as baseball team execs find it very difficult to heed this data, it will be tough for HR and business leaders to 'listen' to their data as well. But the best-run organizations, the ones that make the best use of their resources will be the ones that do not fail to heed what the hard data about performance and people are telling them.

    Ok that is it, I am out 

    Trust your data.

    And don't give 32 year old first basemen $100M contracts.

    Tuesday
    Nov252014

    Great players win early

    I remain convinced that everything, everything (pretty much) you need to know about HR/Talent Management/The Workplace you can learn from watching the NBA. I even said as much a few weeks back.

    The dynamics of NBA basketball exhibit remarkable similarities to many of the most common workplace situations: Relatively small working teams, (even in large organizations, most work gets done in much smaller groups), a need for the team to function cohesively, and, importantly, plenty of opportunity (and need for), individual expressions of creativity and high performance.Yao

    With that setup, I want to call out yet another example of how understanding the NBA can help you with HR and Talent management, this time a look at how early-career NBA player performance can help you in evaluating tricky things like how long should it take a new hire to be 'fully productive' and an even more challenging question - 'What is the performance ceiling, or potential of this new hire?'

    At Deadspin, they took a look at the early career results, (defined by team regular season win totals), for high draft choices (in HR-speak 'Top talent'), over the last 15 or so years. What they found after examining the data is for the most part is that really truly great players begin to show positive results for their (almost always 'bad') teams, by their third season in the NBA.  Here is an excerpt from the analysis, then a couple of comments from me about how you might be able to consider this data in a 'normal' workplace context.

    This is a look at regular season wins. Taking just the regular season gets us out of theringsssssss mentality. The NBA playoffs are the most meaningful of any sport's, but geting 66 wins out of Mo Williams, Boobie Gibson and Delonte West is a version of greatness that hasn't been explored as deeply as it probably should. (Steve here - this is a reference to the stiffs that LeBron James carried on his back in his first stint with the Cavaliers).

    So let's draw a totally arbitrary line in the sand at 50 wins, and plot out not just who gets there, but when they get there, the idea being that in those first few years, we can isolate talented players on inferior teams. As it happens, the hunch mostly bears out: In today's NBA, good players win, great players win early.

    The Deadspin piece goes on to list the players that meet this (admittedly subjective) criteria - 50 wins by year three, the player was a high draft pick, and the 'new hire' played significant minutes from the beginning of their career. And the list reads like a 'Who's Who?' of current NBA stars - Chris Paul, LeBron James, Kevin Durant etc.  The point is not really that LeBron and Durant and Paul are great players, it is pretty easy to tell that by just watching them, but rather how that greatness actually manifests in organizational success, i.e., wins.

    The point is (quoting from the piece), 'Good players win. Great players win early.'

    What takeaways about new hire productivity and longer-term potential might you be able to glean from the data about NBA stars? I have three quick ideas:

    1. The 'learning curve' for really talented, special performers is likely much, much shorter than for average performers. They will 'get' the basic elements of the industry/organization/role really quickly, and might be bored if your typical onboarding/training program feels too slow and too restrictive. 

    2. Great, transformative talent will likely demonstrate that talent in some manner pretty early in the process. It might be a great new idea for a product/service, an improvement in an existing process that saves time or money, or simply how they begin to elevate the performance of those around them. But the point is, you likely can tell pretty quickly if you have a potentially great performer on your hands.

    3. But in order to one; not be bored with a slow training cycle, and two; even have the chance to demonstrate great ability and potential, the new player on the team has to be given some opportunity to do just that. In the NBA study, the new players had to have averaged 28 (out of 48) minutes of game action, i.e. they had to essentially be starting, featured players even though they were new. The same is true in any workplace really. In order to contribute meanigfully, you have to have a chance or platform to do just that. The overwhelming tendency is to shield new hires from the most complex and important projects until they are 'ready', but by doing that you might be preventing both their chance to demonstrate their true capability and potential. 

    It's all about the NBA. It is. I will convince you eventually. Ok, I am out.

    Have a great day! 

    Tuesday
    Oct282014

    How the NBA can teach you (almost) everything you need to know about talent management

    Tonight is the opening of the 2014-2015 NBA season, (also known as the greatest day of the year in my house). I am a firm believer that sports, and particularly NBA basketball, offer some of the best real-world and public manifestations and examples of what HR and Talent pros would refer to as modern organizational Talent Management.

    I am also a firm believer that you too can learn just about everything you need to know about modern Talent Management from close observation of the NBA - the teams, the stars, the coaching, the executive decisions, even the marketing. Sure, I know what you are saying, sports isn't like real life and real business, and you can't constantly keep comparing the two very different worlds. To that I say, you're wrong. Or at least that is the argument I am going to make.

    Here are five (easy, and just the most obvious ones I could think of in the 26 minutes I allotted myself to write tihis post), of how following the NBA can raise your HR game in the major Talent Management process areas.

    Recruiting/Selection - The most obvious parallel between the NBA and 'real' business is probably in recruiting and selection. In both examples you have to make the critical determination of just who is likely to succeed and perhaps more importantly, succeed in your specific business/team/set of circumstances. Even really talented NBA players sometimes find themselves on the 'wrong' team or in a system that does not suit their talents, (see Paul, Chris). You know you have been there too, dealing with a smart, talented employee who for some reason or another doesn't 'fit' or simply needs a change of scenery, (maybe a transfer, a new boss, maybe leaving altogether), in order for them to realize their potential. 

    Learning/Development - Most players get to the NBA (mostly) fully formed, i.e., their skills and abilities are reasonably developed, and only need some refinement and experience in order to succeed. But there are some players, especially players later in their career, that end up adding new elements or skills to their games in order to extend their usefulness and their time in the league, (see Carter, Vince). I would argue that for successful people, just like for NBA players, learning and development needs have two peaks, right at the start of one's career, and again towards the end. What is the HR/Talent lesson? Probably not to neglect the learning and development needs of longer-tenured employees, who still have plenty to offer, but might just need a little more time in the gym learning a new skill or two.

    Performance Management - Coaching doesn't make a ton of difference in the NBA, as success or failure is primarily a function of the talent level of the players. But there are a couple of exceptions to this. Namely, the coaches at the very top, the ones that consistently have the most success, find a way to coax superior performance out of their players, (see Popovich, Gregg). Much like with players, the difference between the very best coaches and average coaches is incredibly significant, (and apparent). The HR pro takeaway from this? The best talent does not always win. The best talent, guided by the best managers usually does win. Don't skimp on trying to build the best team of managers that you can.

    Succession Planning - Lots to learn about succession planning from sports, but the best recent example might be what has been happening to the proud Los Angeles Lakers franchise since the passing of owner Dr. Jerry Buss in 2013. Under Buss' stewardship, the Lakers enjoyed a lengthy run of high performance and numerous championships. After his death, his ownership interests passed to his six children, with each one having an equal vote in team matters. Two of the children, Jeannie and Jim have the most direct involvement with the team, and their performance has been to put it kindly, less than stellar. The franchise seems kind of adrift, they have made several questionable decisions, (see Bryant Kobe), and are facing down what is likely to be their worst season in years. The takeaway here? Even the best performing, best-run companies have to have a plan for when their owner/leader moves on. Nothing lasts forever, but organizations with a deep bench of solid leaders will last longer than most. 

    Compensation - All NBA teams operate under a salary budget (cap), just like your organization does too. Allocating that budget intelligently across the roster is paramount to a team's success in the league. Spend too much on one or two superstar players, (see Bryant, Kobe), and then you're left with filling out the team with a collection of less talented players. But, fail to spend (or offer) top-level talent the top-level money they demand, and watch them walk to a competitor, (see Parsons, Chandler). Hey, that is exactly what happens to some of your best people too!

    Simple, right? Lessons abound everywhere in the NBA where you can see the actual outcomes of Talent Management strategies and decisions play out in real-time, every night, in arenas around the country.

    I am down with the NBA, and not just because basketball is by far the greatest of all team sports, but also for how studying the game can help us be better at what we are charged with doing - helping our organizations manage and utilize talent for successful results.

    Welcome back NBA and Go Knicks!

    Tuesday
    Oct212014

    Talent Attraction: The Real Reason to Keep Top Talent

    A few months ago I posted a recap of 'Why Stars Matter', a recent study out of the National Bureau of Economic Research that concluded the most important contribution that so-called 'Top Talent' makes to an organization is that they increase the organization's ability to recruit even more Top Talent.

    Here is an excerpt from my piece from April, then I will hit you with the reason why I wanted to revisit this topic today:

    ------------------------------------------------

    A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study titled Why Stars Matter, has attempted to identify just what are these 'top talent' effects. It turns out that just being better at their jobs only accounts for a part of the advantage these high performers provide and that possibly the more important benefit is how the presence of top talent impacts the other folks around them, (and the ones you are trying to recruit).

    Here is a summary of the findings of the 'top talent' effects from HBR:

    The researchers found that the superstar’s impact on recruiting was far and away the more significant driver of improved organizational productivity. Starting just one year after the superstar joins the department, the average quality of those who join the department at all levels increases significantly. As for the impact of a superstar on existing colleagues, the findings are more mixed. Incumbents who work on topics related to those the superstar focused on saw their output increase, but incumbents whose work was unrelated became slightly less productive.

    So 'top talent' (mostly) gets to be called 'top talent' because they are simply better, more productive employees. But a significant benefit of these talented individuals is that they help you recruit more people like them, who in turn also are more productive than average, continuing to raise the overall performance level of the organization.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Back to October when we have from the world of sports, specifically the NBA, this effect of 'Top Talent as a recruiting magnet' playing out with one of the league's most well-known and successful teams, the Los Angeles Lakers, and superstars, 5-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant. Except in this case, if Henry Abbott's reporting on ESPN is accurate, the 'Top Talent', i.e. Kobe, is no longer attracting talent, he is in fact, serving to repel other top players (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, etc.), from even considering joining the Lakers when all three players had that option this off season.

    In Abbott's short video he essentially concludes that at this stage of his career, Kobe's personality, need to take most of the shots, (and claim all of the spotlight), and his past history of not being able to co-exist with other top players has made the Lakers, once the destination of choice for NBA legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Shaq, and Magic Johnson, into a place where no top player will consider playing for.

    It is worth watcing the quick (1:20) report from Abbott, even if you are not an NBA fan, just because it serves as a reminder of what the NBER talked about in their research. Once 'Top Talent' stops serving as a magnet for other top talent, then it is probably time to take a long, dispassionate look at what they are contributing to the organization overall. Not just in what they are producing themselves, but how they might be holding the organization hostage so to speak, if they are keeping away the next wave of star talent you need.

    Happy Tuesday.