This post is highly time critical, as the sports metaphor around which this whole topic is based is likely to have wound down by the time you read this post. The NCAA Basketball Tournament is my favorite sporting event by far, and last night we saw a virtually unknown #15 seeded team take out a longstanding basketball powerhouse program that was seeded #2 in their bracket. As momentum began to shift in the game, people around the country (including myself) started to really get behind the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles as they romped over NCAA legacy stalwarts Georgetown. These guys came from nowhere, the FGCU program is so young and so new that they weren’t even eligible for the tournament until last year.
How does something like this even happen? How do conventional wisdom and any logical statistical basis get utterly ignored by a team like the Eagles? I think there are a number of factors which help these Cinderella Teams beat the odds:
- They are led by a strong coach who believes in them and prepares them for the tough situations they are likely to face. He helps them work on the key skills they will need to excel and walks them mentally through the difficult scenarios they could face. This coach leverages his experience.
- They actually believe in themselves and know that they can win. Teams like this are rarely cocky because expectations are lower and they realize they are underdogs, but they fundamentally know that they have the ability and the drive to succeed.
- They play as a team and not as individuals. While undoubtedly, any team that advances in the NCAA tournament has individuals with high levels of skill, these Cinderella teams invariably play as a cohesive unit, complement each other well and feed off of each other.
- These teams can feel the legions of new supporters getting behind them and they use this new energy and support to accelerate their momentum.
So how does all of this relate to business? Today, many companies, even very successful ones, are facing a dearth of talent at the top. It’s a real succession crisis. There are no Cinderella teams, everyone who is in leadership worked their way up through long and predictable career progressions. As a result, the demographics at each level of the management pyramid are relatively consistent in terms of age, gender and nationality. A lack of diversity encourages group-think and impedes innovation. People who came from the same place and walked down the same road for the same length of time tend to think similarly.
I would posit that it’s highly beneficial for your company culture to have a few Cinderellas bubbling up through your hierarchy. These are the women and men who ultimately hit your executive suite in their late thirties or early forties as opposed to their fifties or sixties. Their performance and responsibility exceeds their experience, by a wide margin. Not every young person has the right makeup for such a career acceleration, but certain players can really rise to the occasion if they are given the chance. How do you make this happen?
- You can usually identify these people very early in their career, within two to four years out of college. It may be hard to put your finger on it, but there will be something about their drive, their curiosity, their inherent leadership and their desire to make each job bigger than it is on paper which will let you know that they need to be stretched, really stretched. Don’t over-analyze it. Trust your gut.
- Start developing them very, very early. Move them twice as fast as you normally would. Rotate them across functions and geographies so that they are equipped to play every position on the team. Put them in stretch assignments that very few people think they are capable of pulling off and set up an infrastructure that helps them succeed.
- Build up a small network of assistant coaches and supporters. Find a few other colleagues that also believe in these young folks as much as you do, so that you aren’t the only source of confidence and direction for these young people.
- Spend time with them leveraging your experience. With each new position, help them understand the challenges, help them understand the political hot spots, and walk them through some of the more difficult scenarios they are likely to encounter. Role play with them so that they can visualize how to deal with these battles once they invariably surface. Without terrifying them, keep them ever mindful of any potential career-limiting mistakes which could be made. Remind them that you a have a lot of your personal credibility equity invested in them and to please keep their nose clean.
- Build a strong mentor relationship which outlives your direct manager-subordinate working relationship. Just as Professional basketball players still often call their college and high school coaches for advice before a big game, build a trust relationship that will enable you to keep being a sounding board and informal personal adviser for your proteges even after they haven’t worked for you in years. It’s a rewarding relationship and a great investment in your talent pool.
Even though the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles are unlikely to make it to the Championship Game, they will develop more over the next week or so than they probably have at any point in their basketball careers to date. You have a similar opportunity to give some selected 15 and 16 seeds in your entry level ranks the same kind of accelerated development ride. Find your in-house Cinderella Teams and Root for them!!