Michael Sam – What Most People Missed


I’m proud to be a Mizzou fan.  Even getting spanked outplayed outlasted by Auburn in the SEC title game was a pretty great moment.  But the coverage this week of SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam coming out?  Even more so.

Yes I’m proud that he’s a Tiger.  And yes I’m proud that the school and program have produced a young man willing to step up share who he is.  And yes I’m proud that he chose to do so before the NFL combine, knowing it could impact his draft position and his contract.  But that’s not what I’m really proud of.  What I’m really proud of is that he came out to his team at the start of the season.  Months ago.  And not only did it not cause any problems, but it also did not get any coverage.

No leaks.

No ugly incidents.

No turmoil.

Just a team.

It would have been easy in this season of Tiger football for someone to make an innocent remark that gets picked up by the press.  It would have been understandable if someone on the team decided to make a big show of their own homophobia and ignorance.  It would have been commonplace for Sam to keep his mouth shut and go through the season quietly, then let his teammates wonder later why he didn’t trust them enough to be honest about who he was.  But it was his trust in his teammates, their solidarity and support, and the way in which they acted as a team that is not only remarkable, but has been mostly missed (though not completely) in the coverage of this story.

We’ve all been members of teams, some of which we trusted, and some we didn’t.  The impact on our performance is noticeable, especially our long term engagement and productivity.  When we are surrounded by those we trust, who work to make our lives easier, and whom we know we can depend on day in and day out, we are better.  What’s more, we are programmed for reciprocity, so our inclination is to return trust and helpfulness.  This can snowball into an amazing cycle of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men (and women) if we let it.  I’ve been part of teams that defied all expectations of productivity and tenure, all because they truly enjoyed working together.  (As an aside, how together was this team?  Sam came out to his teammates in August.  He came out to his parents in January.)

It doesn’t always work that way, of course.  A breakdown of trust can sink a team faster than unrealistic expectations, a poor leader, or cement loafers.  I’ve seen teams that should succeed fail simply because of that lack of trust.  If the Tigers weren’t acting as a unit, this season could have quickly gone from SEC East Champion to complete disarray.  Credit to Gary Pinkel, the coaching staff, the university, and the young men who served as locker room leaders for not letting this happen.  It’s a great example of teamwork and togetherness overcoming adversity to succeed.

I won’t pretend to understand the burden carried by someone who has to hide who they are every day.  But I hope that this at least gives them comfort in the thought that coming out is not an event that you go through alone.  There are people around you that will support and uphold you.  Having a strong team can make even the biggest of mountains a molehill.

(And yes, I’ve heard the comments about “I don’t care if he’s gay, it shouldn’t be a big deal.”  You’re right.  It shouldn’t be.  But it is.  Let’s make it so in a positive light.  Because there are plenty of people out there who will take a opposing view, and do so very vocally.  These young men deserve all the positive reinforcement we can muster.)


Lessons from the 2012 Cardinals’ Collapse


As defending world champions, there were high hopes for the Cardinals this year.  What started as a great playoff run with flashbacks to the 2011 World Series (universally hailed as the greatest of all time) ended with three straight losses to the San Francisco Giants.  In the wake of the team collapse, here are a few lessons you can take and apply in your own organization.

It’s Not All About Leadership

The Cardinals made an interesting move this year, appointing Mike Matheny as the heir to Tony LaRussa. While my feelings on TLR are well documented, Matheny came in with no managerial experience. On any level.  But he was a great field general as a player, and he was given a shot.  It wasn’t an easy gig, to be sure.  While the team had hoisted the hardware in 2011, they would face 2012 without Albert Pujols.  Then they lost Lance Berkman.  And Chris Carpenter.  And Rafael Furcal.  And Jamie Garcia.

Despite all that, the Cards had a commanding 3-1 lead in the NLCS over the Giants.  A fine job by a rookie skipper, to be sure.  But the offense, pitching and defense all disappeared in game 5, never to return.  While there were some questionable decisions made by Matheny along the way, the player have to execute.  An no manager in the word can field a ground ball from the dugout.

You have leaders in your organization that will, from time to time, be given too much credit for a success.  The good ones, you may have noticed, pass that credit along to their team.  They may also get too much blame for failures.  The good ones keep that for themselves. But we all know that leaders can only set people up for success. Execution has to happen on the field.

Be Careful In Selecting Your Stars

With Pujols likely on his way out of town, the Cardinals invested a lot of money and years in acquiring Matt Holliday in 2009 and then signing him to a long term deal.  He’s a solid investment, at least on paper.  He’ll hit 25-30 home runs,drive in 100, hit .300 or so each year.  But Matt also has something in common with almost every car I’ve ever owned.

No clutch.

When your talent team is sifting through candidates, trying to find the right person to add to your team, remember that it’s not all about the results.  How you got there matters, too. A leader who makes their goals by burning out their team and running off their players isn’t one you want.  Nor do you want a team member that can’t come through when the pressure is on.  Dive a little deeper, and find the ones that strive when the spotlight is on them.  You’ll be glad you did.

Sometimes It Really Is A Team Sport

The Cardinals may have had a better group of players, more experience, and a bunch of rings that make them the better bet, but they were beat by a team that outperformed them in every aspect of games 5-7.  Would you trade rosters straight up if you ran the Cards?  Probably not.  But the process equation holds true.  The team’s outcome is a function of their inputs, and no two groups of inputs will react in the same way.

When you put your team together, they will form in their own way.  You can’t recreate an old team, even with the same people, in a new place.  And you can’t hope to succeed long term on the backs of one or two people. Pay attention to who you acquire, create an environment that accepts them for who they are and allows them to play to their strengths, and you’ll be amazed at what they can accomplish.  It’s why the business world sees David whoop the pants off of Goliath over and over and over.

Whole Foods Team Voting System

I’m a sucker for personal ownership of decisions.  I especially love the system in place at Whole Foods for new hires graduating from their trial period.

The process of selecting a new Whole Foods Market team member doesn’t end with the hiring process! During your orientation period (typically 30-90 days) you will attend orientation and training classes, and you and your team leader will discuss your progress.

If your team leader then recommends that you be considered for team membership, your fellow team members will vote on whether to add you to their team. The team vote process empowers team members to share in the building of a quality team and strengthens communication. The criteria used to vote a new member onto a team are positive job performance, adherence to policies and procedures, excellent customer service skills, and teamwork.

You can’t ask for more transparency than that, right?  Here’s how it will go, here’s who gets a say, and here’s the criteria.  Good luck.

I compare this to most organizations with which I’ve worked who don’t have much to offer by way of onboarding.  If you aren’t the self-motivated type, if might takes weeks for you to figure out what is really happening and what is expected of you.  WF solves that problem by telling you up front what they will be looking for, and who will be doing the looking.

On top of that, your team now has a vested interest in accepting new members.  Once the vote is over, they have responsibility for their decision, and the new people know they have been accepted from the beginning.  What a great way to start a new gig.

So what’s your process look like for getting new people comfortable?

What “Top Chef” Teaches Us About Teamwork

I admit, I am a huge kitchen geek, so I love Top Chef.  I look forward to each season, especially to the Restaurant Wars episode.  I do this with no small sense of irony, given how much I despise reality TV in general.  I can justify my love because I learn a ton from the competitors, gaining from their culinary school experience without having to go myself.
We can all gain from the experience, though, outside of the realm of the kitchen.  In the Restaurant Wars episodes, competitors are split into two teams, each of which must create a restaurant them and menu, then work together to execute.  One member of the winning team usually gets a nice prize, one member of the losing team usually goes home.  
Even if you don’t care about kiwi foam, braised guacamole or deep fried bits of formerly living things, there are lessons we can take away about teamwork in a heated environment.
  • It is possible to be teammates with your rivals.  On TC, it is required for the day.  In real life, it’s just as forced, but usually lasts longer.  The successful competitors realize they depend on their teammates to be successful if they want to remain.  We sometimes must do the same to be successful at work.  It is rare to have a team fail and still have a member or two look like a star.
  • Someone has to take the tough job, and can suffer for it.  Many of the losing teams see their “executive chef” go home, even if they were not the weakest performed that week.  Sometimes when you are in charge, you take the blame.  It might not be your fault, but that’s part of the job.
  • Taking the tough job doesn’t always mean reaping the rewards.  As often as the team leader goes home, it is rare that the team leader is declared the winner.  That honor goes to the individual contributor who really shines, more often than not.  It’s just another lesson that leadership isn’t the easy path some believe it to be.
  • When the heat is on, alliances can fall apart quickly.  Many teammates have turned on each other in tough times.  Issues that were thought to be minor or resolved spring up, seemingly to blame for the failure of the team.  Always be aware of those who declare a problem resolved, only to continue to simmer over some injustice, real or imagined.
  • Each win is simply a step in the process.  Restaurant wars is fun to watch, but is never the ending of the season.  The next week, those teammates will be back to individual challenges.  Just like we work side by side with our teams, but are eventually judged on our own merits.  Take those team tasks as a chance to learn from each other and better ourselves, but never forget that we must improve our own skills in the process if we want to be successful long term.

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