Sports Legends Share Advice on Building Super Teams

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Mar 30, 2021

What does it take to build Super Teams? That is, teams of high-performing individuals that consistently strive for and achieve success. The answer can be found in boardrooms as much as on sports teams. Indeed, this article features three sports influencers who share their views on recruiting people to be on Super Teams. They are: 

  • Lisa Brummel. co-owner of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm and former chief people officer at Microsoft
  • Arik Armstead, defensive tackle for the 49ers and founder of the Armstead Academic Project
  • Richaun Holmes, power forward and center for the Sacramento Kings 

Here’s what this group of sports and business luminaries have to say about the characteristics of hiring people to create Super Teams.

The Power of Purpose

The Seattle Storm centers around the belief that the team needs to have a voice that extends beyond what players do on the basketball court. That ethos puts the team and its players at the intersection between sports, female empowerment, and social justice. “Those have been in our mission from the beginning,” says Brummel, who adds, “We believe we’re a community asset, and we have always acted that way.”  

Armstead, meanwhile, came from a family of compassionate people who believe in giving back and helping others. In 2019, Armstead founded the Armstead Academic Project to “ensure every student, no matter their socioeconomic status, has direct access to quality education through a positive learning environment and resources needed in order to thrive and be successful.” 

For Armstead, corporations have a similar duty in helping to even the playing field. They’re powerful and “when they say they want certain things to change, those things often get done,” Armstead says. “Education, the wealth gap, and corporations all go hand in hand. Students go to school to receive high-paying jobs and create a life for their family. If corporations pour into young people’s lives and invest in educating them, it’s going to create a society that is evolving, and ultimately better prepared to make your corporation better in the future.”

With that in mind, Armstead advocates for having people with different perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds in positions of power. Indeed, organizations can gain a lot by seeking out perspectives from employees and executives from underrepresented communities. 

Simply put: Better hiring is diverse hiring — which takes drive and desire. It also demands pushing through roadblocks and biases. As Armstead puts it: 

“It is a barrier when people in hiring positions and those who run the corporations don’t really understand or come from the same places as a lot of minorities and those of different socio-economic backgrounds. There is a level of misunderstanding that is tough to break, but once it is broken, then the engagement changes to ‘I know who you are and I trust you.’ Change begins in your heart and your mind, having a genuine care for the issue and then working to break down barriers to entry.”

What does this have to do with the hiring process? Candidates want to find some way to tap into your organization’s purpose. They want to understand it. They want to feel it speaks to them in some way. They want to feel assured that your company will encourage them to bring their diverse perspectives. It’s therefore vital to communicate your purpose throughout the hiring process. This requires both hiring managers and recruiters to fully understand your company’s mission and have the training and tools to convey it consistently to job-seekers. 

Playing to Strengths

When you have a difficult problem, especially one that requires teamwork to solve, you can’t just throw the most qualified person on paper at it and hope for the best. There has to be a fit. Now, it would be great if every qualified candidate that came across your desk was the “perfect fit.” But here’s the truth: There is no perfect candidate for any one type of job. 

The reality is that the best candidate is the one who will be a complement to others in your organization in ways that will help you achieve your strategic aims. Just like on the basketball court. Each player enables others to do their best. “You can’t just focus on one person and then expect to win,” Brummel states. 

What’s more, culture can vary greatly company to company just as it does team to team. Holmes reveals that “when I got to Philly, the culture was focused on going to the next level. But in Phoenix, the team culture was all about proving you belong not only on the team but the NBA as a whole. It fostered a very competitive team culture. And Sacramento reminds me of when I arrived in Philly, looking to take that next step and become a consistent playoff team.”

Even though at the macro level, every team’s purpose is to win, the strategy to do so will vary. And it will vary based on their ability to bring out the best in each player. After all, no one plays in a vacuum. As Brummel explains. “If you decided you’re going to draft a particular point guard, then you’ve got to be on the path that says that you’re going to use that point guard in a certain way” based on a strategy of team members working together effectively. 

In the end, the best strategy is the one that uses the best of each member of your team when they are all working together, bringing everyone to the next level. It’s not primarily about the superstars on the team. It’s about everyone, working together to be a Super Team.

No surprise, then, that Brummel has an enormous belief in the power of team versus that of an individual. She also believes that finding the right individuals requires transparency around values — your own, your organization’s, and your team members’.

“You never know what people are going through off the court,” Holmes explains. “I think something that everyone needs to keep in mind is when you are dealing with someone you may think is not being a team player is that everybody has their own struggle.” 

It’s the same in recruiting. You can’t know what people are going through or have been through simply by reviewing a resume (or even via a few conversations). Holmes puts it best: “The main thing you have got to do is to try to relate to [candidates] and hear what they’ve got going on.”

Technology Is an Enabler, Not a Driver

It’s important to leverage the power of modern technology. For instance, professional sports commonly use video analysis to help break down games. Teams dive deep into how their opponents play. How often do players go to the left? How often do they go to the right? What’s their shooting range when there are five minutes to go in the game? How often do they have the ball in their hand? 

Access to the right tools and information enables them to track what leads to the success. The better they know their competition’s strategies, the better they can perform against them. 

However, data can’t speak to everything. Neither can technology, which should serve as a solution enabler, not the solution itself.

As Brummel points out, “You can analytically assess the numerical things that players have done on the court. But what you can’t assess is: Are they a good teammate? Are they organized? Can they get themselves to practice? Can they live on their own?” These are soft skills that can’t be determined just by watching someone play. 

The same is true hiring. There is a whole range of soft skills that are necessary for a proper fit that you can’t glean from a cursory skim — or even a deep dive — into a resume.

By evaluating players on both technical (hard) and human (soft) skills, the Seattle Storm can identify the best players. Likewise when assessing candidates: You can use technology to help you manage relationships with candidates, but ultimately people want relationships with each other, not with bots.

In other words, use technology to complement practices, not drive them.

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