“You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” – Charlie Jones
Last summer, Dustin Imdieke recommended I read Good to Great by Jim Collins. Although I did not get around to finishing it until early fall, once completed it made an immediate and significant impact on how I viewed the growth and development of any performance center.
In the writing of the book, Collins and his team logged something to the effect of 15,000 hours of work spanning a five-year research effort in their quest to answer the question: “Can a good company become a great company and, if so, how?” I will not go into the nuances and minutia of Collins’ criteria for what constituted a “great” company, but instead will assure you that they were numerous. To top it off, Collins and his team developed a list of control companies that did not make the leap from ‘good to great’, or, if they did, were unable to sustain their results. The search, simply due to the amount of data collection needed, focused on the examination of large companies that had – at one time – been on the Fortune 500 list.
After finishing Good to Great, it was clear that the principles and concepts outlined in the pages of the book were not limited in their application to major corporations with thousands of employees or billions of dollars in their budget, but had a far wider-reaching scope.
In my journey to try and understand excellence in sport, I have been fortunate to work in a multitude of settings with some incredible mentors. It has been my observation that there are key common denominators between these people, the environments they work in, and the messages they deliver. Most importantly, however – their actions exhibit synchronicity.
Below I will outline the key concepts that carry over from Collins’ book to any high-performance center. This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor does it include all of the major points examined in Good to Great; my aim is instead to spark thoughts leading to conversations affecting potential change.
Level 5 Leadership
The first major consistency across all great companies was the presence of what Collins and his team referred to as Level 5 Leadership. Level 5 leaders are people who create organizations and environments that last – always past their resignations, through a seemingly dichotomous blend of humility and professional will. These are not ego-less individuals without personal ambitions, but instead, people who are able to funnel their unrelenting drive into the development of the organization, rather than themselves.
The most recent example of this in my professional journey has been experiencing first-hand the growth of ALTIS within the past few years. John Godina’s vision and passion to create something unique in the world of Track & Field go well beyond achieving success at major meets. The vision is to create a system where ALTIS as an organization can assist with the support of professionals competing in the sport of Track & Field, in the same way athletes operating at the upper echelons of other pro sports can make a livable wage. I sat across from John during dinner a year ago and listened to him unabashedly outline this vision – there was no hesitation in his voice, nor doubt in his mind that it could be done. I knew then he would work relentlessly until this mission becomes a reality.
In the same vein, none of this is accomplished with the intention of growing his personal brand over the reputation of the company. You will find fewer facets of the company headlined by the name “John Godina” than you would have at the inception of the World Throws Center. As he put it with respect to ALTIS athlete clinics, the fewer people that come to learn because of his name versus the reputation of the organization, the better.
As I read through the chapter on Level 5 Leadership, it became clear that this doesn’t necessarily need to pertain to the obviously important role of a great CEO. Coaches have an obligation to the athletes they work with to set them up for sustained success. This point was exemplified in a recent conversation with Dan Pfaff. He gave multiple examples of both athletes he had worked with at the end of their careers, as well as those who had moved on to other coaches. In the former group, he was sometimes fortunate to have inherited them from great coaches. These athletes had refined skills and abilities, and Dan was the beneficiary of years of progress. He felt like any credit he received for their successes was much more deserved by their former coaches. For the latter group, he was comfortable watching from a distance and finding joy in their triumphs, despite the fact that he no longer played an active role in their progress.
Art Horne, former Director of Sports Performance at Northeastern University and current Head Athletic Trainer for the Atlanta Hawks, was recently in town – and his approach to organizational development is rooted in concepts outlined in Good to Great. I had the privilege of interning for Art during his time at Northeastern; not only does he embody Level 5 Leadership qualities, but strives to set athletes up for sustained success. As he put it bluntly one day: “Someone [an athlete] leaving your university after four or five years should be healthier than when they walked in.” Elite sport is massively demanding in nature, and this is no easy task, but should serve as a brutally honest assessment for those coaching and keeping the athlete’s well-being as a first and foremost priority.
First Who … Then What
By far the most crucial point highlighted in Collins and his team’s analysis was the concept of first who … then what. The importance of getting “the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figuring out where to drive it” cannot be overstated. The executive members of your team will guide the course of the company, and not the other way around. Being highly selective in whom you bring on the bus, and which seat you put them in, is another crucial aspect to the long-term growth and success of a company. Hiring people for the sake of filling seats will ultimately throttle how far the company can go.
During my reading of Good to Great, I realized Collins was describing how many of our current staff members, and even athletes, had come to ALTIS. It wasn’t necessarily that everyone had a clear image in their mind of where the company would be in five years. How could they? Instead, coaches and athletes uprooted their lives to work with people like John Godina, Dan Pfaff, Stu McMillan, and Andreas Behm. As Collins described: “if people are on the bus because of who else is on the bus, then it’s much easier to change direction.” When Kevin Tyler was hired, he subsequently brought Ian Warner on board. I watched a shift occur in how ALTIS presents educational programs and saw new plans develop to continue to grow online platforms in this way. Without Kevin’s experience in this realm, combined with Ian’s expertise and unrelenting drive to make things happen, the coach education quest ALTIS looked to embark on would have taken a different turn. Tying this back into Level 5 Leadership, it’s very clear that many of our staff do things differently, and often even better, than John Godina would have done it himself. However, having the right people on the bus allows him to step back and let people autonomously do the job they were brought in to do.
Three summers back I had the opportunity to intern at Cressey Sports Performance. Having followed their growth since 2009, and knowing how they had grown since the company’s inception in 2007, it amazed me how each staff member helped define the course the company would take. At the onset, the key trio of staff members had little intention of turning the company into a center for baseball development. With Eric’s thorough, and unique understanding of the shoulder and elbow (stemming from his injury history), training baseball athletes from the youth to professional ranks fell naturally into place. In the same vein that Eric and Tony’s skill-sets and knowledge allowed them to effectively program, manage, and coach athletes, Pete, with entrepreneurial skills and an educational background in business, was able to grow that side of the company. While Pete has written extensively about the business side of fitness, this is an area that Eric clearly respects, but does not dedicate the majority of his time to master. This separation of interests is reflected in their role within the company.
As Cressey Sports Performance has grown and hired a diverse staff with a variety of perspectives, the amount of support services and programs expanded secondary to this. What always struck me about Eric and Pete’s managerial styles was the confidence they placed in their employees, including interns. If the staff made the executive decision to bring someone on board and pour numerous resources into them, there should be no reason to micromanage their every move. To ensure that they bring the right people on the bus, the staff at CSP have developed a policy that they will not hire from outside of the internship program. With the right people on your staff in the right positions, motivating them to do their job, and be exceptional at it, is a non-issue.
When Art was the Director of Sports Performance at Northeastern, he specifically sought out sports performance and medical staff members to add to the team. He opted to fill the bus with people he was confident in and knew would be the right fit, rather than trying to motivate and change the mindset of people already there. This attitude was contagious to those he worked with – as a few years later when Keke Lyles (a former colleague of Art’s at Northeastern) became the Executive Director of Player Performance with the Hawks, he began to do just that. The current performance and medical staff of the Hawks have ties to Art and Keke and are people with diverse backgrounds and the full confidence of those at the top of the organization.
One of the final points of the “First Who … Then What” chapter in Good to Great that is clearly exemplified in the culture of ALTIS, is the intrinsic drive of those employed to pursue their goals and fight for what they believe to be best for the team, but at the same time ultimately stand united behind the company’s final decision. It is necessary to have team members who are willing to violently debate and argue to search for the best answer to a problem, without losing respect for one another. Our staff meetings, whether it’s with regards to programming for an upcoming cycle of training, or discussing a future project, always involve people questioning the merit of one decision over another. This can be traced back to a core training philosophy that all of our coaches hold in that, if you can’t justify every aspect of the training program, it shouldn’t be in there. Upon beginning my journey with ALTIS a year and a half ago, it struck me how much of an open forum these staff meetings were. It was not John, Stu, or Andreas lecturing and asking everyone to follow blindly, but instead, an honest conversation where everyone’s opinion was heard and acknowledged, even if it did not change the team’s course of action.
I hope this blog sparked some unique thoughts in how you view the development of excellence in sporting culture. I would highly recommend you pick up a copy of Good to Great as this is just the starting point of Collins and his team’s guide to building a great company. What follows next is Disciplined Thoughts, Disciplined Actions, and the Flywheel of how to keep things building upon one another.
You can follow Mike Boykin on TwitterFor more coach and athlete resources from ALTIS, see ALTIS 360.
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