Build For The System

With the NBA season just finishing up, it is time to take a look back at the year and try to make some sense of it all. The Warriors shocked the world and won more games in a single season than any team ever just to be upset by LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. One event of the season which surprised nobody was the Spurs competed yet again. Why is it that every year the team gets older and players move around but we all know the Spurs will be around come playoff time?

You probably recognize something similar in business. Why is your one competitor always first to market with a new innovation? Why is one of your business units routinely beating expectations? These questions are plaguing your business every single day. How can a team that has stayed the same continue to compete when everything around them is changing? I thought change is supposed to be good!

In 1988 the San Antonio Spurs hired new Head Coach Larry Brown, who brought along with him a young assistant, Gregg Popovich. At the time, Gregg Popovich was an unconventional choice for assistant coach as he was coaching at Division III school, Pomona-Pitzer, when Brown hired him. That same year the team used the number one overall selection to draft David Robinson. The message was clear - a new strategy built around a big man.

For the last quarter century, the Spurs have had a great player playing down-low. As Hall of Famer David Robinson began to show his age, a Wake Forest prospect, Tim Duncan was brought in to backfill. Last summer, as the guaranteed Hall of Famer is starting his swan song, the team went out and signed perennial All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. Did the Spurs just continually get lucky that the best player available was a center or were they making decisions based on a strategy?

Let's walk you through an example that turned out a little differently. I was once working with a client who was seeing upwards of 30% turnover in their sales team. Leadership was beside themselves, they had been going out to the competition and paying top dollar for their competitors best sales associates on the market. The organization even restructured compensation packages so the bonuses were so good, it was impossible to leave the organization for competitors.

Through a little poking around, it became obvious what the problem was. In general, sales people can be lumped into two types: hunters and farmers. The hunter is the sales person that gets their motivation from the quick win, instant gratification. Farmers on the other-hand are cultivators, organically growing relationships before making a sale (or growing business within an existing account). Instant gratification is not a huge motivator for the farmer; they find themselves driven to solving a problem, fixing a need of their clients (and building relationships).

In this particular case, the sales cycle for the organization's products tended to be long. The salesperson needed to navigate the client's political waters and gain their trust before they would become consumers. The competitors they stole talent from, on the other hand, tended to sell in a much shorter sales cycle had a sales strategy of sell now and course correct for account development as needed. The top people of the competition were pure hunters while to be successful within my client, they needed to be a farmer.

Hire people that fit the strategy of your organization, it sounds so simple, right? It is a lot more difficult than it seems. When a "blue chip" resume comes across your desk that has an Ivy League education and experience with all of your competitors, it makes it very difficult to take off the rose colored glasses.

Mike Krzyzewski has been the head coach of Duke University's basketball team for 35 years. In those three and a half decades, he has won five national championships and made the NCAA Tournament 20 consecutive years. It is safe to say that any top high school basketball player would love to play for Coach K.

Krzyzewski has discipline in his recruiting. He does not take the best player that wants to be part of the Tobacco Road legacy; he takes the players that will fit his system the best. This is why it is not surprising that many of Coach K's players go on to have mediocre professional careers while just down the road, rivals from University of North Carolina have been known to be a factory for the NBA Hall of Fame. Christian Laettner, considered to be one of the best college careers of all time, the lone collegiate player on the 1992 Dream Team, played for six different teams professionally, never living up to his college career. Laettner is not the only Krzyzewski player to have a similar fate. The point could be made that some of his players both fit his system and have an incredibly transferrable skill set, allowing them to succeed in other systems (e.g., Grant Hill, Shane Battier).

In college basketball, it is easy to know when you will need to reinforce your strategy since players only have four years of eligibility. In your business however, things are not as predictable. Today we always need to be building the pipeline for succession planning.

The hardest transition I see within clients is the promotion from individual contributor to manager. People are often promoted to manager because they were the best person at doing what people they are expected to lead are doing. Take the best person out of the role and then you get a drop in production from the team because their all-star is gone and on top of it, the individual contributors are not being properly supported because their new manager does not know how to lead.

This is where things get tricky. You do not always have the luxury of succession planning but you do always have the opportunity to understand which employee's skills are transferrable to other roles. Identifying who wants to be in management or those happy doing their job. Late comedian Mitch Hedberg had a joke about how comedians were always asked if they could act or write. On the surface, these skills are connected but not exactly transferable, similar to asking a great chef if they could farm. Not all individual contributors want to or have the ability to be a competent manager.

In business, just like sports, specialization is the way of the future. Like a Major League Baseball team, having pitchers for various situations, organizations are putting their people into systems akin to the Henry Ford assembly line. There has been an influx of research showing the benefits of moving away from the generalist model.

The majority of performance reviews are focused around what employees are doing poorly and how they can improve their faults. What leaders should be doing is telling employees to focus on doing what they do really well and surrounding them with others that are strong in the areas of weakness.

Very few players are LeBron James or Magic Johnson and can play any position on the court well. More often than not, a great player like Tim Duncan needs a strong point guard to pass him the ball. Just as it is probably a better use of time to have Duncan work on blocking shots than shooting 3-pointers, it is better for your team to focus on what they thrive in than the aspects of an organization that are outside of their core competencies.

W. Edwards Deming once said that if you put a good person in a bad system, the system will win every time. Great coaches like Popovich and Krzyzewski have built a system and over the years focused on selecting the players that fit that system over those with the best raw skill. While it might be tempting to steal the best employee your competitor has, stop and ask what motivates them and if it is consistent with your system.

Selecting, motivating and engaging talent is a science, not an art. Using techniques I have discussed in previous articles, give an empirically supported method for making sure you are making the right decisions. Taking the right person and putting them into the right system is sure to turn you and your team into champions.

Any questions? Feel free to contact me at