In an age of multi million-dollar contracts, cut throat competition and unprecedented media exposure, athletes have more bargaining power than ever, and loyalty seems like a thing of the past.
The most successful programs accumulate more talent than their competitors, but it’s not all about good recruiting, shrewd trading and huge salaries. Winning programs are built from the ground up to attract, delight and retain high calibre athletes at all costs.
This article explains what ‘destination clubs’ do differently than their competitors. To unearth this crucial strategy you’ll learn why money has little impact on motivation, movement or loyalty, how commitment impacts performance, and what the best organisations do to earn it from their stars. Read on to find out how to build a committed team chock full of champions who play and stay for less.
What Talent Starved Teams Too Often Neglect
At the highest levels, teams that lack sufficient talent struggle to achieve long-term success. Strategy, systems and synergy can compensate for limitations, and allow organisations to be competitive, but without talent triumph is often elusive. The Oakland A’s ‘moneyball’ recruiting methods produced a winning streak that broke records, but the A’s failed in the playoffs against teams with more talent. When the Red Sox copied their approach and combined it with a higher aggregate of talent, they won the World Series and broke the curse of the Bambino.
Accumulating talent is critical to success. There are only three ways to do it:
Many programs focus intensely on the first two elements of this equation and overlook the importance of the last. The emphasis on ‘bringing them in’ implies people believe solutions for success lie outside of the program, whereas investing heavily in retention acknowledges the program is largely responsible for its accomplishments.
It doesn’t matter how much water you fill a bucket with if it continues to leak. Programs that fail to retain top talent are often punished like Sisyphus of Greek Mythology, forced to watch their hard work come to nothing, and condemned to strive and fail repeatedly. Teams take time to gel and work together, and coaches can’t succeed at the elite levels without talent. When talented players leave, confidence and cohesion crumbles, and vital experience is lost.
Money is the quick and easy retention strategy used by most. And in the short term it often works. But placating people with money does little to inspire performance or loyalty in the long run.
When Money is at odds with Mastery
In July 2016 Tim Duncan retired as one of the most accomplished pro basketball players in history. Duncan was the San Antonio Spurs franchise player for nineteen years. He won NBA championships, MVPs and was named an All Star fifteen times. In 2012 Duncan effectively halved his own salary to keep the team together and allow management to bring in more talent. Less than two ears later he played in his fifth NBA championship.
The Spurs program is famous for its team culture and winning ways. The lure is so strong that great players like Duncan stay for less, and good players from elsewhere actively seek opportunities to join them. Three years after Duncan’s self inflicted pay cut, David West turned his back on a 12.6 million dollar deal at the Indiana Pacers to play with Duncan at the Spurs for 1.6 million.
Players don’t leave programs for money; they leave in search of a different experience. That experience is more about pride than wealth, though the two are often confused. Money is a symbol of recognition, status and value. Money can cause pride, but the pride that comes from a pay rise wears off pretty quickly. Beyond the point where the bills are paid money contributes very little to our lives. Money comes and goes, being your best and winning big on the world stage lasts forever.
Pride does far more to inspire performance and loyalty than money. Money was a great motivator in the industrial age for workers whose tasks were mundane, simple and repetitive. But sporting success is not earned or achieved in a factory. Training and competition involves creative, complex and collaborative tasks under immense physical strain and psychological pressure. Under these conditions, money is often a distraction; this is no doubt why athletes often put off contract talks during the season.
Research has shown that when money is used to incentivise people for tasks they already find enjoyable, motivation can actually decline. Athletes are not motivated by money, it’s often more about what money means. To the athlete who doubts their position or standing in a group, more money means ‘I am valued, important and respected’. To inspire performance and commitment more pay is not the answer, more pride is.
How Pride Influences Loyalty and Performance.
When people feel proud they demonstrate high levels of commitment, but when pride is lacking commitment follows suit. Economist Albert Hirschman proposed that people dissatisfied with a situation have four fundamental choices; exit, voice, persistence or neglect. Importantly, the level of commitment impacts these choices. Someone who is committed to an organisation will speak up and try to change the situation, or they will persist out of loyalty. Those who lack commitment will either neglect their work or choose to leave.
Programs that fail to retain top talent often wrongly assume an athlete’s commitment to their sport will automatically extend to their employer. In the past, there were a lot more barriers to movement and the incentives were nowhere near as lucrative. Though money is not the reason athletes move, it is frequently the excuse. Committed athletes stay during good times and bad, disgruntled athletes leave at the first chance they get.
Commitment isn’t just important for loyalty, its also critical for performance. Sociologist James Baron’s extensive research into organisational cultures found commitment to be central to long-term success. According to his findings, groups highly committed to each other and shared success (‘commitment cultures’) outperformed cultures that emphasised competence (‘professional cultures’), or potential (‘star cultures’). Commitment cultures also proved to be more resilient during challenging times.
In order to accumulate talent we need talented people to look out for each other and buy into team success, ability on its own is not enough. If sporting organisations are to generate the kind commitment that leads to the accumulation of talent, they must learn to behave differently. Just as athletes must earn respect from their coaches and teammates, sporting organisations must continuously work to foster pride and earn commitment from their stars.
Why Conditions Create Commitment
In his most recent book ‘Born for This’ author Chris Guillibeau puts forward a practical model for understanding career satisfaction. The JOY-MONEY-FLOW model (see below) helps to explain the core conditions that lead to happiness and fulfilment in one’s work. Admittedly, most models oversimplify reality, though they can be useful. The JOY–MONEY–FLOW model can help us recognise that what most destination programs respect, talent starved programs neglect.
In the context of this model, money is about paying the bills and having enough. Flow is about doing the thing your exceptionally good at. Joy is about doing it in a way that delights you. Money and flow are easy enough to experience for someone with highly developed athletic talent; few pro’s struggle to pay the bills, and because only those with uncommon ability make it to the top, most elite athletes are doing the thing they are born to do. Joy on the other hand can be harder to come by.
Doing work your good at is only pleasing if you are able to do it in a way that delights you. The brilliant chef coerced to cook a bland menu set by ‘suits’ is seldom satisfied. The star athlete forced to adapt their preferred approach to preparation and practice to suit the likings of others is no different. Most programs expect their athletes to adapt to the organisation, rather than have the program adapt to them. In these programs ‘buy in’ actually means compliance.
Of course there are tasks that demand athletes work in groups in the same or similar ways in order to become predictable and reliable as a squad. However, there are other activities where individual preferences can differ dramatically. Where most programs and their staff treat all athletes the same, destination programs honour the uniqueness of each individual within the context of the team and its goals.
By working to design and deliver a program truly centred around each athlete, their unique needs and preferences, organisations and their leaders show athletes they are important, valued and respected. These actions lead to a sense of pride. This simple strategy sets off a virtuous cycle of success that builds on itself and perpetuates success and credibility. This is how championship teams are born, and become dynasties.
Pride experienced from customised conditions breeds commitment, and commitment creates loyalty. Talented teams that stay together become cohesive, and cohesive teams win more than groups of talented individuals. Winning breeds confidence and confidence creates consistency. Talented teams that are cohesive, confident and consistent win championships. Championship success creates a strong sense of pride, and this pride reinforces deeper commitment and the cycle begins all over again. (see figure below)
Most believe success must come before programs can become revered and attract great players. They are both right and wrong, results are the ultimate proof what your doing is working, however making what your doing work is the way to yield results. Once this prosperous cycle is in motion, the mythology surrounding these programs grows. Players’ talk and pride and joy are hot commodities in elite sport. Eventually talented athletes like David West recruit themselves.
So what working conditions need to be considered in order to promote pride, commitment and joy among athletes and within teams?
The Four Conditions That Create Championship Teams
Destination programs know that true buy in only occurs when programs work for their athletes, not the other way around. This is why these organisations work to discover and deliver on as many preferences for each individual as possible. There are four major categories of work related conditions and preferences that should be considered for each athlete:
The four categories are: control, education, accountability and connection. Control is about allowing athletes to feel like the authors of their sporting destiny. Education and accountability are about discovering how each person prefers to learn, grow and know. Connection deals with the extent to which each athlete values key relationships both inside and outside the organisation.
The table below summarises the key questions destination programs consider to deeply understand their athletes. The answers to these questions allow organisations and their leaders to create a unique environment tailored to each individual, which encourages them to do their life’s best work in a way that delights them.
When making decisions about the investment and allocation of resources, most programs consider their goals and capabilities first, then think about how to deliver the program. Destination programs think through their athletes goals, capabilities and preferences first , and then make resourcing decisions. In this way the program truly adapts to its athletes, instead of having the athletes adapt to the program.
To catch more bees and make better honey, you can either gather people give them nets and send them searching, or you can build a beehive. The majority of programs take the first approach, destination programs focus on the second. By investing time, energy and resources to create the kind of conditions that allow athletes to experience pride and joy in their career, these programs separate themselves from their competitors while breeding commitment and success.
Here is a list of books that along with my experience, informed my thinking on this topic.