I love football. In my youth, I was fortunate to play football longer than most and was blessed to enjoy a collegiate career and a short “cup of coffee” (as we called it) in the NFL. When there is a slight chill in the air and I catch the whiff of freshly cut grass—I harken back to those days and I miss it. Even today, as Managing Director, when I cross those white lines for a ceremonial coin toss or to hand out a victory trophy, I still feel the adrenaline spike and miss the game I love.
But here’s the thing. What I miss is not the cheering fans, the victories, the sense of achievement—what I miss is the camaraderie, the team, the guys, the coaches. That time in the huddle with all eyes transfixed, with a quiet confidence that we will move the ball forward together. Yes, I miss the laughs in the film room but I also miss those moments when coaches said that small thing that made a difference at the right time. That made me work harder, made me better. I was blessed to be a part of a championship team in college and I can tell you what made the difference with that particular group of players was the chemistry and the coaching. That great team had respect and yes—even love for each other but it was our collective chemistry and the coaching that put us over the top. The coaches who brought that unique group together, put us in the best position to contribute, to win and then actively coached us to be our best. Those coaches made a huge difference in our success.
So this begs the question: in today’s workplace, can you coach talent and an employee’s character? A frequently repeated parable suggests the answer is no.
It’s called “The Scorpion and the Frog” and it goes something like this,
“There once lived a Scorpion and a Frog.”
The scorpion wanted to cross the pond, but, being a scorpion, he couldn’t swim. So he scuttled up to the frog and asked: “Please, Mr. Frog, can you carry me across the pond on your back?”
“I would,” replied the frog “but, under the circumstances, I must refuse. You might sting me as I swim across.” “But why would I do that?” asked the scorpion. “It is not in my interest to sting you, because you will die and then I will drown.”
Although the frog knew how lethal scorpions were, the logic proved quite persuasive. Perhaps, felt the frog, in this one instance the scorpion would keep his tail in check. So the frog agreed. The scorpion climbed onto his back, and together set off across the pond. Just as they reached the middle of the pond, the scorpion twitched his tail and stung the frog. Mortally wounded, the frog cried out: “Why did you sting me, because now I will die and you will drown.”
“I know,” replied the scorpion as he sank into the pond. “But I am a scorpion. I have to sting you. It’s in my nature.”
This fable, made famous in the business world by Marcus Buckingham’s book First, Break All the Rules teaches one of the most applicable lessons on a managerial constraint. The scorpion couldn’t help but be a scorpion because, well, he was a scorpion. The same idea generally applies to your team. Can you actually coach talent, success or character? You can certainly coach capabilities: new skills, new processes or new technology but can employees learn and whole-heartedly adopt new character traits?
For the most part, the answer is NO. Too many managers invest too much time in the idea that it’s possible. They spend months—years even—nudging, persuading, inspiring and pushing people to redefine themselves but these constant efforts only do one thing: enhance traits that already exist. These efforts do not create anything new. If you are doing those things with an employee, you need to ask yourself: am I trying to put an all-pro lineman at quarterback?
The potential success of an employee lies in the foundation of what their natural talents are. This foundational talent can be enhanced through coaching but not created; employees are either born with certain talents or they aren’t. I believe work ethic, passion, practical smarts, integrity, positive attitude, a world view, resolve, frustration level and creativity need to be there. These are things that cannot be created by managers; they cannot be picked up after a seminar or conference; they cannot be learned from any book (or management blog)—if these traits aren’t there in the first place, they won’t ever be. But if they are present, even in the smallest amount, you can improve those things and MUST improve them, if an employee is to reach their full potential.
This lesson is as much about hiring as it is about managing existing employees. In my hunt for the City of Philadelphia’s first Chief Innovation Officer, I spent over 40 hours interviewing Adel Ebeid, the man who eventually won the job. Through meetings, dinners and detailed personal conversations, I learned about Adel’s character, his past, his decision making, management style, about what made him get out of bed in the morning, the talents and traits that formed his foundation. Although any experienced executive can perform well in a first, second or even third interview, after a while, who they are tends to comes out if you are doing things right. Sometimes their talents are creativity, integrity or work ethic—sometimes there is something just missing. At the end of the 40 hours, Adel Ebeid won the job because of what already existed in his character and his obvious talents. While every hiring process does not need to take 40 hours, you should make every effort to uncover an employee’s key talents and character—particularly when it is a role so vital to everything we are doing like the CIO for the City of Philadelphia.
But what about the employees you have already hired or those who were already there when you arrived? How do you best utilize them if talent and character can only be marginally coached? The answer is simple, POSITIONING. You best utilize the employees you have by positioning them in roles that best fit their natural talents. While coaching to create a trait is impossible, it is entirely worth your time to develop existing strengths and strategically place your employees in positions where they will thrive. That is what the best coaches do. They take what is already there and push it to new levels of breakthrough.
Picking the best team members, who complement each other because of their various talents, putting them in the role best suited to their talents; and then developing them through careful coaching creates the best conditions for great chemistry and maximizes your chances of success. That is what many teams were trying to do in last week’s NFL draft. That is what great coaches and winning teams know.
Writer John Buchan once said, “The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.” Great coaches find your greatness, they don’t try to create it. If you don’t figure that one out, you might not end up like that frog drowning in your workplace, but you will not be part of a championship team!
Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.