The easiest way to be a successful coach is to have the best talent -- it beats all the other ways. And how do I know this, you ask? I tried several ways in successive years teaching little league.
One year I was lucky in the blind draft and got several of the best athletes (and one who was clearly the most talented player in the league). He could pitch superbly, hit the ball hard and far, and when not pitching, he was a great shortstop. Better yet, he had a great attitude and work ethic, and loved learning how to get better. Thanks to him, and several other talented boys, we easily won our league and the area championship. I looked like a masterful coach with great game plans because the kids could execute them well.
The next year, I wasn’t so lucky. The blind draft went poorly and the talent we had was much weaker. Our draft choices left us with fewer of the large, well-coordinated kids and more of the smaller and less-talented ones on our team. Needless to say, the season was not easy. I had to be a much better coach that year, using more intelligent game plans, and juggling players constantly to keep key positions covered with talented players while getting playing time for all the boys.
First, I had to convince the kids that they could win, which was no small task. Then I had to help them to learn how: hustle, hard work, attention to the basics of the game, and have an opportunistic attitude about finding ways to score. When you run a lot in little league and get the other team throwing the ball around, you often get to keep running, and therefore, scoring runs. That was something my smaller, less coordinated kids could still do: run. And they did.
Fortunately, they learned well, followed our plan, and in the end we won the league again -- just barely. But a league championship is still a big win, and the trophy didn’t say “just barely” on it. It said champions!
Lesson learned: Having the best talent makes winning a lot easier. With less than the best talent, it is still possible to win, but it requires a much more carefully crafted strategy, using the talent you have in the best ways, constant attention to good execution, and lots of hard work and hustle.
The second lesson from this experience, and one that is exhibited time and time again in college and professional sports, is that blending the talent with strategy is critical. The same is true in organizations of all kinds. This integration of talent, strategy and execution manifests itself in any setting where a small number of “players” are interacting at once.
In basketball, when one player is seriously deficient, 20 percent of the five-person team creates a weakness that competitors can exploit. This is often the ratio in business where management teams of five to six people are common. One weak player is a challenge; two or more is a real problem.
A wise coach makes plans to compensate for a weaker player. A wise manager or executive does likewise. In both cases, the truly successful leader quickly decides whether the weakness can be overcome by learning, or whether the person must be replaced. Note that I said by learning.
People’s basic behavior cannot be changed much once they are well into their mature adulthood (age 30, more or less). The only way their performance can be altered is if they learn new behaviors and unlearn the older, less effective ones. This idea of learning and unlearning is important since it presents a great opportunity to save a loyal, experienced person from imminent failure. It can also be a dangerous trap because of relapses into old behaviors.
The conclusion of my little league learning can be summarized in a few points:
1. Having the best talent is the best way to win and it gives the leader a chance to excel. Choosing, finding and keeping the best talent and maximizing success is a special skill-set for leaders.
2. Winning is possible without the best talent if the strategy and execution is designed to take advantage of the talent available and capitalize on opportunities -- but winning this way is lots harder.
3. A leader will almost always have a weak performer in a group. Maybe even more than one. The wise leader learns to compensate for the weakness and help the weak performer improve through learning/unlearning. Or, if that doesn’t work fairly quickly, they replace that person.
4. Winning is important, but the margin of the win is not as important. Whether you get the big job, the big order, etc. by a little or a lot, the “trophy” seldom says, “just barely” on it.