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Managing Stars

6 things we can learn from top sports teams.

Talent Wins Games. The success of technology companies is primarily defined by the quality of their teams. An A-team will crush almost any problem. We all want to have a team of A-players.

Tech companies compete fiercely for great talent

New hires in Silicon Valley know they are the talent that wins games — the short supply — and companies make amazingly generous compensation packages that have upfront and performance based incentives similar to athletes. The parallels to sports teams is significant. Once they join the company they are assigned a manager who gives the employee work, helps them do it and evaluates them on their performance in annual or semi-annual performance reviews. The parallels to sports teams end at this point. While sports teams obsess about quality, performance and self improvement, our technology companies and their managers bumble along a fairly distasteful performance review process that sports teams would never use.

There are 6 key lessons to learn from how sports teams are coached and performance managed that can work out really well for the manager, the employee and ultimately the company.

One. Establish a transparent starting-point

In sports, every athlete has a well published set of performance numbers. With high tech employees, that becomes much harder. Neither the resume nor the interview can benchmark the candidate the same way athletes are benchmarked.

By using a transparent and analytical skills yardstick (a framework I will share in a future post), I level all new team members by observing their performance for about a month. Everyone wants to be better — and so the employee is thrilled that the manager is paying very close attention to their performance and has a framework to benchmark them and a plan to grow key areas. Without a plan, both of us will not go anywhere in a hurry. Your biggest value add as a manager is to accelerate their development and growth. Unfortunately, since we don’t have a culture of coaching in the valley — new employees value the pay package more than the learning and development opportunities. If this is happening at your company, focus on your managers and help them tell the story of how great they are at being coaches. In the sports world, some athletes join teams to work with a specific coach. This rarely happens in the tech world, and thats everyone’s loss.

Two. Coach from the sidelines — and don’t touch the ball!

Cheer your team from the sidelines, try hard not to ‘touch the ball’

Many new managers suffer from the over or under delegation syndrome. In an over delegation scenario the employee has been given enough rope to hang themselves (and the manager, but hopefully not the company!). Their newly hired rockstar employees demand freedom and empowerment and push their managers to over delegate. Playing the active coach from the sidelines means that the coach is very involved in the key decisions, the overall strategy and each players game time performance. With my teams I’ve borrowed a practice of “Tag-Ups” from managers at YouTube/Google, which lets me go deep on key areas with my team making sure that our game and strategy are top notch. Tag-Ups bring core team members (product, eng, design, analyst) together for an ad-hoc deep dive on something important. This is also a safe place for employees to really learn how to think and apply strategic frameworks that are necessary to win big games.

Outside of the Tag-Up, the individual product manager has to run everything — setting the vision and roadmap, the requirements gathering, stakeholder management, the team meetings, the exec updates, make & own decisions etc. They are the talent that people came to watch. They are the ones on the field—making the plays and getting the credit. If the team has a loss, it is as much on me as it is on my team. That much is always clear.

Managers will also appreciate that there is a clear separation between the employees own performance and output — making it easier to point out areas for improvement. Sometimes we do too much ‘building together’ and it isn’t clear what was the managers contribution and what was the employees’. This frustrates everyone involved.

In the under delegation scenario, the newly minted manager, who was previously a star performer, is just not comfortable with letting the team have the ball. He/she is too scared to fail and needs to both come up with the play and run it. No one really wants to work with such a manager, obviously. This is why the “don’t touch the ball” rule comes in. If your team sucks — your job as a coach is to get them to be better. You should not do their job for them. I know this is super hard and perhaps the right thing to do is ask for better players. Or ask for easier games. Try and remain in coach mode. If you must be a player, give up your coaching job and focus on carrying your team through the game as a player.

Three. Establish a culture of instant feedback & constant learning

Delivering active feedback is a key part of coaching.

The next behavior to copy is all the real-time shouting/feedback that the coach is giving the players. Coaches observe. They have the perfect vantage point to see things the players cannot see or focus on. It is super important to give real time feedback and information to your team. You’re collecting this information by investing your time in what is happening in your business and your company. What is the competition up to? What are other teams doing? What are executives up to? What is the score? Who is performing and who is not? What can they do better right away? Should you put in a new player or give the under performer more time? There is a lot to do. Spend a lot of time guiding your team to what happens next. Remember you need to help them get into a posture where your team has the time to setup that perfect touchdown. At Uber, we give feedback instantly. It is that walk from the meeting to our next meeting where the feedback is delivered. On our teams we trust in each other and so there is little need to sandwich or sugar coat anything. Everyone knows getting the execution just right is the right thing to do. This lets the player course correct in real-time and further solidifies the player-coach relationship.

Four. Focus 1-on-1 time on skill development

One thing athletes have in common is a training regimen that puts tech companies to shame. They usually all get up early and practice and practice. Do we really put in that kind of effort to improve? We should if we want to see results. In a 1x1 setting as a manager you are working with your employee to get their game better.

I try not to discuss product or business specific details in a 1x1 setting as these are best done in the Tag-Up. Instead I focus our 1x1 in getting creative about how we address skill improvement for the employee. For every skill level, you should have a set of learning tools that let the employee quickly build up to the next level. This is exactly how it is in the sports world. Want to dunk the ball more? Jump higher. How? Do these squat exercises to build specific muscles. You’ll need a similar action plan that is tailored for your discipline. For example, if an employee needs to improve in verbal communication, I’ll have them run me through a deck they presented recently. I’ll point out places for them to improve their delivery and I’ll show them how I do it (not that I am the gold standard) as another point of view. In the case of communications, I also ask them to watch a lot of Apple’s WWDC and MacWorld presentations to understand how to tell the story. These usually get the employee super excited that they can actually overcome their communication bottlenecks.

Everyone runs into the same old, well known problems. Develop a playbook that ties in your own personal experiences with really great content that is readily available and push your team to keep growing everyday. If this all sounds like a lot of work, you bet it is — and you OWE IT to your team. It is tempting to start performance managing someone out of the company and hire more rockstars, but the core of the problem usually lies with poor coaching and leadership.

Five. Push your leaders for a bigger stage

If you’ve been doing a good job with coaching, your team should be getting bigger and better. And this means shooting for a bigger stage. Your team is ready to play at a larger venue or a larger tournament — in tech speak, this means a wider scope of responsibilities for the business. As a manager it is on you to tell the story of how your team has executed the previous opportunities and how they are now ready for newer challenges. Having all the tools I’ve already laid out like the yardstick make it a lot easier to make the case. Every company has a limited number of great opportunities, so this is fairly competitive and its important to go in with a sports team like performance mentality versus the “trust me, my team is good” soft pitch. CEO’s know that in today’s super flat organizations where individual contributors are highly sought after and greatly empowered, the one difference that still matters is great coaches.

Six. Improve your own coaching abilities!

Finally, keep a close eye on your own coaching abilities. Your only real asset is time. If you can improve a player by a full level with half the effort, can can double your team and get more done. It is very important for us to stay ahead of the talented team that is growing quickly and make sure we retain the ability to be their coach. Luckily there is a lot to learn and apply in these fast moving times. Your biggest learning opportunities are already in your company. They are the more senior leaders around you. Definitely get some 1x1 time to study their methods and borrow/steal their playbook’s. Also stay in touch with all your former managers so you can ‘crowdsource’ your ideas and keep learning from their experiments and efforts. Lastly, be honest about your own performance as a coach. It is not something everyone is cut out to be. There is a lot of value in remaining a Michael Jordan. Think hard before you want to become a manager — because once you do, you’re stuck on the sidelines, waving your arms and hoping your team gets a little better every day. Happy Coaching!


At Uber we take growing your talent and career very seriously. If you think you’re a top player in your field, come work with us to take your game to the next level. Look at our open jobs and feel free to start the conversation with me on LinkedIn or follow me on twitter @ubervinay

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