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    Entries in Sports (111)

    Wednesday
    Apr302014

    The Silver Hammer: Three reasons to come down hard on your first big leadership test

    I probably don't need to re-hash the Donald Sterling v. the NBA (and the World) narrative once again for you, by now you have heard the important details of the story. But just to re-set, and set up this piece, you need to know two things.

    1. Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was just suspended from the NBA for life for making racist statements, fined $2.5M, and is going to be forced by the other 29 NBA team owners to sell the Clippers.

    2. This disciplinary judgement was handed down by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, whose name may not be terribly familiar to you, and is not that familiar to even many NBA fans. Silver just became the Commissioner about three months ago when he succeeded former commissioner and NBA legend David Stern, who had a 30-year reign leading the NBA. Stern in many ways became synonymous with the modern NBA, and while not perfect, will probably be remembered by history as one of the two or three greatest sports executives of his time.

    Adam Silver, the new person in charge, had to not only deal with the Donald Sterling situation, he also had the added challenge of this very public and high-profile problem being the first true test of his leadership. And in this test, Silver elected to mete out the harshest and most significant punishment that was possible according to the NBA constitution. Silver could have suspended Sterling for a fixed time period, like one year, could have fined him less than the max of $2.5M, and did not have to elect to push for Sterling's removal as an owner. But instead Silver went heavy, and in his first leadership test, (at least one that involved a disciplinary decision), he made a  pretty bold statement.

    That statement was essentially, "There's a new sheriff in town."

    Here are three reasons I can think of why it makes sense for a new leader to come down super heavy in their first big leadership spot:

    1. Old-school territory marking - A new leader, especially one succeeding a highly successful and influential predecessor, has to make sure the rest of the team knows who is running the ship now. One of the best ways to send that message is with really bold, decisive actions that help to instill confidence in the team. I have read lots of accounts of the NBA/Silver decision, and not once have I read "What would David Stern have done?" 

    2. If the decision is a "Should he/she stay or go?" one, you should almost always pick 'Go' - One of the biggest challenges for the new leader is evaluating the team around them. And it is usually obvious who needs to go, and most of the time the leader will know it in their gut but don’t do anything because they don't want to shake things up too soon.  It’s hard to face that there is some house cleaning that needs to be done before the new leader and team can move forward. Or they might think that with a new approach or style that the person can be coached. This almost never works out. A new leader is better off cutting bait nine times out of ten. These kinds of tough decisions can also open up opportunities for other members of the team who may have been languishing under the former regime, feeling stuck or blocked by folks that needed to be (gently) moved along.

    3. It's easier to lighten up later, than it is to get tougher - Did you ever have a teacher or coach or manager or even one of your parents that was kind of easy-going and took a laissez-faire kind of approach? The type of leader that generally liked to keep their hands clean, avoided most unpleasant confrontations, and tried to guide you more so than lead you? But later when there arose some kind of situation or screw-up where the leader really had to get tough, crack the whip, bang the hammer, (you get the idea), no one really took them seriously since they were always more of a friend rather than an authority figure? The point being it is almost impossible to pivot from 'nice-guy' to 'tough guy' once your reputation as a nice guy is established. It is much, much easier to ease off a little bit over time, once the team sees you as someone that is not afraid to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions. Good luck trying to go the other way.

    What do you think, about Silver's decision here and about how new leaders stake out their position in general?

    Chalk up another 8 Man Rotation post for me, Professor Stollak. 

    Wednesday
    Apr232014

    It's tough to succeed a legend

    From the sports world yet another enduring and timeless lesson in talent and career management. Here is the headline - Manchester United sacks manager David Moyes

    Some backstory.  

    Manchester United is one of the most well-known and successful soccer clubs in the world. They are the defending champions of the English Premier League, (arguably the best league in the world), and regularly compete at the highest levels of European club soccer in the Champions League. At the end of last season, Manchester United's longtime and legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down, capping a stellar managerial career with his 13th Premier League title in 26 seasons at the helm.Farewell Mr. Moyes

    Ferguson was (and will probably will always be, given the nature of English soccer), by far the most successful club manager of the Premier league era. For USA readers who might not be familiar, think of Ferguson as some kind of combination of John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Phil Jackson, and Red Auerbach. Except even more successful and globally famous.

    The kind of legend with the track record of exemplary performance that is tough, if not impossible to replace. No matter who stepped in for Ferguson, even Ferguson's hand-picked successor Moyes, it was going to be an almost impossibly difficult pair of shoes to fill.

    When someone has been so astronomically successful, over such a long period of time, and achieved legendary status in the organization and industry, then no matter how prepared and talented the successor is, it is going to be almost impossible for them to match (or even approach) the standards that have been established before them.

    Succeeding a legend, in sports or in any business really, is such a risky, dicey proposition that it makes sense for super talented people to avoid it at almost any cost, tempting and enticing as it may seem.

    Again, taking it back to the sports angle: Can you name the coaches that succeeded John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Phil Jackson, or Red Auerbach?

    The answer is, 'Of course not.' No one remembers them because the combination of almost impossibly hard to match performance standards and the huge shadow that their legendary predecessors cast proved to be a combination even previously successful and competent performers, (like David Moyes), could not overcome.

    Trust me, you DO NOT want to try and succeed a legend.

    You want to be the person that succeeds the person who succeeds the legend, just after they fail.

    Postscript: This isn't just a sports phenomenon. Ask Tim Cook how things are going at Apple these days.

    Thursday
    Apr172014

    When things don't work out: Lessons from the New York Knicks

    My beloved New York Knicks wrapped up a disappointing 2013-2014 season last night with a win, but despite the win and some solid play in the season's late stages the season ended with a playoff-missing 37-45 won-loss record.

    Since I spent a ridiculous amount of time this season watching the Knicks I better have gotten something out of it (or I will be really even more depressed), so I figured I would share five quick lessons from disappointment from the 2013-2014 Knicks debacle of a season.Knicks coach Mike Woodson, in his standard 2014 repose

    1. Be careful with celebrations and self-congratulation

    Last year the Knicks had a surprisingly strong season, winning 54 games and also winning their first playoff series in about 20 years. They were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, but still went out with a feeling of "We've had a great season!" But the good feelings and accomplishments from a prior success don't really mean anything when it comes to tackling the next challenge. This year's Knicks team had a lingering hangover from the celebrations of prior accomplishments that themselves were not all that great. Lesson? Don't celebrate too long and especially for 'wins' that are not all that remarkable.

    2. Sometimes you are the worst evaluator of your own capability and potential

    Prior to the season, a computer analysis of their prospects predicted the Knicks would finish with a 37-45 record, and miss the playoffs. And that prediction was predictably mocked and derided by the team's players and coaches. But as we see, this is exactly the terrible record the Knicks ended up with. The lesson here? When a neutral, no-skin-in-the-game third party (like this computer), gives you an assessment of your performance and capability, you should at least consider its point of view and findings. Like the Knicks, most of us are pretty bad at self reflection and examination.

    3. You can't fix other people's problems

    One of the major off-season moves the Knicks made was to acquire via trade former Toronto Raptors forward (and former 1st overall draft choice from 2006), Andrea Bargnani. In Toronto, Bargnani was essentially hated, and the Raptor fans even made celebratory videos when his trade to the Knicks was announced. While Bargnani might be a nice guy, he is not a very good NBA basketball player, despite 'seeming' like he should be (he's tall). Bargnani's performance with the Knicks, (before getting injured and missing the last half of the season), was almost exactly in line with his career average performance level from seven years in Toronto. Bargnani was a mediocre-at-best player that the Knicks somehow felt in their system could perform at a higher level. The lesson is that they were wrong.

    4. Past performance is not indicative, except when it is

    Last season's 54 win Knicks team was powered, in part, due to career-best performances by two players, Point Guard Raymond Felton, and shooting guard and NBA 6th Man of the Year, J.R. Smith. For various reasons, both of these player's performances were substantially better than their career averages, and consequently helped lead the Knicks to what was really an over performing 2013 finish. In 2014 instead of repeating that level of relative over achievement, both players regressed back to their typical or expected performance levels, (and at times, even below that). They both returned to who they are. Your takeaway? Veteran employees don't usually and suddenly start performing much better or much worse than their career history suggests. And when or if they do, you can expect a return to the mean level of performance (good or average) eventually.

    5. When things are really bad, you have to send a message

    Towards the end of what would be a lost season, the Knicks signed NBA coaching legend (and former Knicks player) Phil 'Zen Master' Jackson to be the team's new President. While this was too late in the campaign to make much of a difference in 2014, at least it sends a message to the team, the fans, and the other execs that the Knicks are at least finally realizing they are a dysfunctional mess. Will Jackson be able to actually turn the Knicks around next year? Hard to say but the lesson from ownership to the team and for you as well is clear: When there is a performance problem, you can't expect it to just work out on its own, you have to take some steps to shake up the organization, the culture, the staff, etc. in order to get at and improve the problems.

    Ugh, I am just as drained from this (silly) post as I have been watching this disaster of a Knicks team this season. But talking/writing about it is a little cathartic, I think. I guess that is the last lesson from this terrible team - no matter how bad things get it helps to vent a little bit about it.

    Have a great day!

    Tuesday
    Apr152014

    Is "In which month were you born?" a valid interview question?

    Quick 8 Man Rotation take for a busy Tuesday. Check out the chart below, a birth month distribution of about 240,000 professional soccer players taken from a database that tracks player signing and transfers and was compiled by David Bauer:

    Notice anything strange in the pattern distribution?

    How about the unusually high (relative) percentages of professional soccer players born in the first quarter of the year, particularly in January (11.3%), and the relatively lower percentages of players that were born at the end of the year (down to a low of 6.5% in December).

    It might not seem like that much of a disparity, but consider a similar chart that shows the birth month distribution of the entire population of the European Union, (below), and you can see some striking differences.

    As you can see from the total EU chart, people are born more or less consistently across the months of the year, with only small differences in percentages born in the highest percentage months.

    But professional soccer players? They show a striking and increased likelihood to be born in the first three months of the year.

    This phenomenon is attributed to the traditional soccer (and other sports as well) youth development process that groups players of the same age (Under 10, Under 16, etc.), for training and competitions.

    The theory then is that at those younger ages the physical size and skill differentials between an Under 10 year old player born in January and one born in December are really large, and noticeable. The player born in January then receives more attention, better coaching, more opportunities, etc., as he/she is simply deemed a better prospect than the player born in December. This then plays out again and again over time resulting in more of the 'early year' born players making it to the professional levels.

    No one knows if this is really true and explains the birth month disparity of professional soccer players compared to the overall population, but it does seem at least plausible.

    So circle this back to your HR/Talent shop. Does this kind of analysis make sense for you to consider? Is there a similar performance effect that can be seen in other types of occupations besides professional soccer based on birth month distribution? Are comparatively "older for their grade level" people likely to turn out to be better at more than just playing sports? Do you care about the birth month of a candidate or an employee?

    I don't know. I guess it seems unlikely. But even so there is still a takeaway from this data which is this: If you want little Junior to grow up to be a pro soccer player, you may want to plan around a January birth date, (if it isn't too late).

    Have a great Tuesday.

    Monday
    Mar312014

    The analytics takeover won't always be pretty

    Seems like it has been some time since I dropped a solid 8 Man Rotation contribution here on the blog, so to remedy that, please first take a look at this recent piece on ESPN.com, 'Fears that stats trump hoops acumen', a look at the tensions that are building inside NBA front offices and among team executives.

    In case you didn't click over and read the piece, the gist is this: With the increased importance and weight that a new generation of NBA team owners are placing on data-driven decision making and analytical skills, that the traditional people that have been the talent pool for NBA team management and executive roles, (former NBA players), are under threat from a new kind of candidate - ones that have deep math, statistics, and data backgrounds and, importantly, not careers as actual basketball players.

    Check this excerpt from the ESPN piece to get a feel for how this change in talent management and sourcing strategies is being interpreted by long time (and anonymously quoted) NBA executives:

    Basketball guys who participated in the game through years of rigorous training and practice, decades of observation work through film and field participation work feel under-utilized and under-appreciated and are quite insulted because their PhDs in basketball have been downgraded," the former executive, who chose to remain anonymous, told ESPN NBA Insider Chris Broussard.

    One longtime executive, who also chose to remain anonymous, postulated that one reason why so many jobs are going to people with greater analytical backgrounds is because newer and younger owners may better identify with them.

    "Generally speaking, neither the [newer generation of] owners nor the analytic guys have basketball in their background," the longtime executive told Broussard. "This fact makes it easy for both parties to dismiss the importance of having experience in and knowledge of the game.

    The piece goes on to say that since many newer NBA owners have business and financial industry backgrounds, (and didn't inherit their teams as part of the 'family business'), that they would naturally look for their team executives to share the kinds of educational and work experience profiles of the business executives with which they are accustomed to working with, and have been successful with.

    The former players, typically, do not have these kinds of skills, they have spent just about all their adult lives (and most of their childhoods), actually playing basketball. A set of experiences, it is turning out, no longer seems to provide the best training or preparation for running or managing a basketball team. 

    But the more interesting point from all this, and the one that might have resonance beyond basketball, is the idea that the change in hiring philosophy is coming right from the top - from a new generation of team owners that have a different set of criteria upon which they are assessing and evaluating talent.

    Left to tradition, hiring and promotion decisions would have probably only slowly begun to modernize. But a new generation of owners/leaders in the NBA are changing the talent profile for the next generation of leaders.

    The same thing is likely to play out in your organization. Eventually, if it has not happened yet, you are going to go to a meeting with your new CHRO who didn't rise through the HR ranks and maybe is coming into the role from finance, operations, or manufacturing. In that meeting your 19 years of experience in employee relations might be a great asset to brag on. Or it might not be.

    And you might find out only when you are introduced to your new boss, who has spent her last 5 years crunching numbers and developing stats models.

    Have a great week!