I counted it up and over the last 30 years, I have hired over 1000 people to work in my organizations. I have learned many lessons. But let me just write about one of those lessons. Hiring college athletes especially those from team sports has been a home run for me. No, I am not talking about hiring “stereotypical dumb jocks or jockettes.” You have to have the mental horsepower to survive in tech. But I am talking about any smart high level athlete: D1, D2, D3…they all work for me. Also the sport doesn’t really matter: Football, Baseball, Basketball, Volleyball, Rowing, Water Polo, Rugby, Soccer, Track…it really doesn’t matter. Why do college team athletes succeed so often in business? Its not what people mostly think. Yes, they are goal driven and often type A personalities….but in my experience that’s not why they succeed. They succeed because they have three proven traits that I value a lot.
Trait #1: They understand a SCOREBOARD!
Athletes “get” that there is ultimately only one measure of success. They don’t try to make up their own metrics and call it success. They understand that moral victories don’t get you a trophy. SCOREBOARD! Do you have more points than the other team? That is what matters. They also get that the SCOREBOARD has a CLOCK on it. They understand urgency. We need to have more points than the other team within a specific time period! Yes, we would all like more time and play for the longer term, but the scoreboard doesn’t allow for that. If you don’t have more points than the other team at the end of the allotted time, you get the “L”. Very simple, very clear, no ambiguity.
I am continuously amazed by how many people in business do not understand SCOREBOARD. They bring me beautiful powerpoints outlining products or projects with few success metrics and usually incredibly long “investment periods” before results can be achieved. Are you kidding me?!!! We are not starting a project without a freaking SCOREBOARD and we are certainly not starting a project without an agreement that we have a CLOCK on that SCOREBOARD. I have had very smart business people tell me that annual, quarterly or monthly targets and measurement are an impediment to long term thinking. I cannot count the number of times that a sales team has come to me and said “ We didn’t lose, but we can’t get the deal this month/quarter/year”. Really, thats like a football coach saying we didn’t lose , we just ran out of time. Here’s a newsflash, you LOST. Time has run out. SCOREBOARD!
Another thing I love about SCOREBOARD oriented employees is that they are not afraid to admit they are losing. Why? They look at the SCOREBOARD! And if they are losing they will try to change something in order to win.
I am constantly amazed by business professionals running business units, products, projects who refuse to admit they are losing. I have sat through Quarterly Business Reviews where everyone is doing great. Nine out of ten slides in every presentations trumpet their greatness, while one lowly slide is allotted to “challenges or lessons learned”. Really?!!! How stupid do they think I am? If every product, project, campaign was going great wouldn’t the scoreboard show that we are 200% of Plan!
An athlete understands SCOREBOARD and will tell me: “This is how we are doing on the original metrics. We are behind in these areas and we are making these changes. We understand that there is a limited time for success and we are acting with urgency”.
Trait #2. They can handle failure.
If they have been an athlete they have failed more than they have succeeded. They have lost, they have been injured and they have been cut. Hell, if they haven’t been cut, they would not be in my office looking for a job. They would be playing pro sports!
Business is predominantly about overcoming failure. Most product launches are not immediate hits, most marketing campaigns miss the mark, NPS scores usually start low and a 33% win rate in sales is pretty damn common. Success in business comes most often through iteration, through the ability to learn and adapt and the ability to be persistent.
Athletes don’t have to learn this on the job. They have learned it already. You won’t have to pat them on the back and give them a participation medal. They will hate their failure and regroup.
Trait #3. They know how to play their position.
If they have played team sports, then they know that you cannot achieve your goal alone. They understand team dynamics. They have been on teams where they were the superstar and teams where they have been a role player. They understand that there are forwards and defenceman or backs and lineman. They understand that not only do they need to be excellent individually, but they have to be part of a system that works together. They understand that they can’t do everything themselves and they know how to be positive and encouraging with their teammates.
Business is the ultimate team sport. But I have spent a great deal of time officiating disputes between sales and marketing or customer service and product. I have met a great many sales people who think they are great marketers or vice versa. I have met many product people who don’t have team first attitudes. It kills me to listen to one department bitch about the other department. “Our salespeople could not find a dollar in bank vault” or “If our product team was in a 100 yard dash, we would use a calendar to time them”. If you have been an athlete, you have likely seen teams break apart because of bickering and you know that mutual respect, constructive feedback and setting guidelines on how we work together makes for a championship squad!
So there you have it. I am not saying that this is the only hiring profile or that every athlete has these traits, but I am saying it improves your odds. Go Team!