Talent to Win

Scoring the winning points at a basketball gameA big story-line in men’s college basketball this year is the outstanding crop of seniors who are leading top-ranked teams.

If you don’t follow college basketball, you might be thinking, “of course a team with experienced players at the helm should have the edge.” But that hasn’t been the case in recent years. The accolades have gone to the so-called “one-and-done” freshmen—those players who are talented enough to begin playing at the professional level right out of high school but instead play one year at the college level until they meet the minimum requirements for the NBA draft. Last year’s national championship team had three such freshmen in their starting line-up. In contrast, the four teams remaining in this year’s tournament are senior-dominated.

To those who make a living analyzing college sports, this “year of the senior” is an anomaly—a talented incoming freshman class is expected to once again make a big impact. But I’ve enjoyed this season of four-year players coming into their own. An article by sports writer Nicole Auerbach helped me articulate why it feels so satisfying:

  • Fans love seeing the players on their teams grow and develop. I admit that I have yelled at some of these seniors early in their careers (well, yelled at their image on my TV) for missing critical free throws or making careless passes that led to turnovers. Seeing them put in the hard work that enhanced their performance over time makes these seniors, in my mind, especially deserving of the success they are achieving.
  • We admire the level of maturity displayed by seasoned players. Sometimes I can’t believe these are young men in their early twenties. They are not only developing their craft, but developing as people. As Villanova coach Jay Wright said, “You watch them start thinking about their teammates, the program, and not just themselves. It’s my favorite part of coaching.” Maturation is a slow process and adversity plays a role in it. Kansas senior Perry Ellis explained it this way, “I benefitted so much from the ups and downs because I learned so much about myself as a person and as a player. When you are not playing well, there’s still things you can do and learn how to fight through that and get through it.”
  • We enjoy watching players who are having fun. Emotions are contagious. Winning games certainly contributes to fun, but there’s something about the confidence and broader perspective that these seniors have gained that allow them to more fully enjoy the sport itself, their teammates, and this time in their lives.

Are there insights here for growing leadership talent? I’ll share some of my own (and encourage you to do the same):

  • Some people have the raw talent to move quickly to the next level of accomplishment in their career track. It’s pretty easy to identify this caliber of professional talent. But organizations can benefit from investing in motivated people who—with more practice, experience, and coaching—can also perform at the highest levels. Do we do enough to identify these seeds of potential in people?
  • A lot of what makes leaders effective requires maturation—the development of more complex and less egocentric ways of making sense of oneself and the world. To support maturation, organizations need to keep individuals in challenging jobs long enough for them to experience the ups and downs, to hone skills and see the bigger picture, to master the challenges and confidently lead others through them. Do we move our talented people too fast?
  • There’s satisfaction in seeing people learn and grow. Certainly bosses, coaches, and mentors who are directly working to develop others experience that satisfaction. But don’t people feel more committed to an organization when they look around and see continuous learning everywhere? We are quick to point out high performance, but do we do enough to make employee development visible in the organization?

Sure, the world of high-profile college sports might have little in common with our own organizations. But at the end of the day, we all face the human resource challenge of attracting the occasional ready-made star and growing the rest.

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