If you’re a follower of the NBA, live in New York or maybe just somebody who has a twitter account, you might have heard of a guy called Jeremy Lin by now. In case you haven’t, here’s a video that might give you some idea.
One week ago, Jeremy Lin was a no name basketball player who had been scratching around the league for a roster spot and buried in the depth chart of a dysfunctional New York Knicks. 1 week, 4 games, 4 straight wins, 4 MVP awards and a record breaking 127 points later, Lin is the biggest story in US Sports, asocial media phenomenon, and – suddenly – a renewed symbol of the American dream.
The story of Jeremy Lin got me thinking about Talent – how we assess it, recruit for it and manage it once we’ve got it. It seems to me that there are lessons in the Jeremy Lin story that we recruiters have probably heard before, but never seem to really learn. Here’s what I think they are:
1. You’ve Got To Know What Good Looks Like
We are constantly told to look for the best. Our clients want – of course – ‘A Players’, ‘Elite Talent’ and ‘Top 5% of Market’. And most of the time we charge off onto the search without really thinking through What Good Looks Like. We assume we know; worse, we often assume our clients know.
Jeremy Lin teaches us that we need to constantly challenge these assumptions.
In the notoriously stats driven US sports culture, where every shot, pass, dribble and foul is captured, measured and analyzed, Lin’s talent should have been easy to recognize. And yet he has been mysteriously and routinely, under-recruited throughout his sports career. The consensus top high school player in California at the age of 18, Lin received no scholarship offers from any of the Colleges he applied to. Of the 10 applications sent, only 4 bothered to reply, all of them saying ‘no’, with one of them even getting his name wrong. And so he walked on at Harvard – who did not offer any sports scholarships – and subsequently led the hitherto inept Harvard basketball programme to it’s best ever seasons, becoming MVP in his final year and ultimately being in contention for recognition as best Point Guard nationwide. But again, upon graduation, the pro’s didn’t come calling and he went undrafted by all of the 30 teams in the NBA that had the opportunity to take him.
He walked on again, and this time when he did make an NBA practice squad, he was either sent immediately to the developmental league (4 times) or cut in order to make salary cap space for others, before he got any meaningful time on court. And when he finally latched on with the New York Knicks, Lin only got to play because injury crisis had left the coach with no other able bodies. Team coach Mike D’Antoni – a guy who might know better having mentored another non stereotypical point guard in Steve Nash earlier in this career, had Lin in training, liked what he saw but…..didn’t know.
Head coach Mike D’Antoni said on Tuesday that he was “afraid” to play the 23-year-old guard because the Knicks had fallen seven games under .500 just six weeks into the season, and he didn’t know what to expect from Lin.
D’Antoni had seen “bits and pieces” of what Lin could do during team scrimmages, “but there were other things I questioned just because I didn’t know. And I was afraid to do anything. We’re already in a little bit of a crisis and I just couldn’t be, you know, pulling straws,” the coach said.
What is a coach for if he can’t judge a talent? And not just any talent, but one that would immediately set about breaking league records, piling up the wins and demonstrating his skill level against the top players in the game? The coach must have seen his ability, but chose not play him until he ran out of bodies and out of options.
The war for talent in pro sports is fierce, and yet team after team, coach after coach ignored the evidence on Jeremy Lin – both facts collectedly by leagues he played in and that which was evident in front of their very eyes.
It’s hard not to think that it was because Lin did not ‘fit the profile’. And it’s because everyone thought they knew What Good Looked Like. And What Good Looked Like was not a skinny, Asian guy, from an Ivy League school. The fact that a player of this type of profile hadn’t happened before, meant that – at some level – people thought it wouldn’t or couldn’t ever happen – even when the evidence suggested otherwise. The entire basketball establishment succumbed to a vast confirmation bias – looking for information that fits into preconceptions – rather than drawing conclusion based on the facts you see. And in the case of Lin, he was a aberrant twice over – not only Asian American but also from a posh school.
Recruitment Lesson No1 of the Jeremy Lin story is: you have got to know WGLL. And WGLL must be based on data you can measure, rather than preconceptions that you inevitably bring into the process.
2. You’ve Got To Give Talent Opportunity
It’s undeniable that it took the most unlikely sequence of events for Jeremy Lin to get his opportunity. Some sources say that he was within says of being cut by theNew York Knicks before the line up problems gave him his chance. It’s scary to think if that might of happened – that Lin might now be out of a league he’s just set alight with his phenomenal play. How much talent has gone out of the NBA in this way? How much talent has gone out of any league or organization or company, simply being allowed to walk out the door for want of opportunity?
Recruitment Lesson No 2 of the Jeremy Lin story is: Every talent needs an opportunity. Recruitment is often a manager’s knee jerk reaction for a need for resource, but before you go and reach for the externals, you might do better to assess whether you have anyone in the organization would could perform in the role. Who knows – the difference maker you’ve been looking for might already be on staff – but without the chance to prove it, neither you nor he might never know
3. You’ve Got To Avoid Collecting Star Names
The intriguing subplot of the Jeremy Lin story is that the New York Knicks have won 4 in a row, without their two established players – NBA Superstars, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. Its also been clear that the performance of lesser lights on the team – previous squad fillers like Steve Novak and Iman Shumpert – have taken a significant step up in their level of play since the superstars have been out, and Jeremy Lin has been in. A big part of what makes Lin good is that he makes everyone else around him better. Now we all believe that team chemistry is a significant factor in organisational success – this has been proved, by science – but we struggle to understand it, and hence tend to do little other than mumble management mantras on team fit and missing opportunities to make the decisions that actively encourage and reward team based behaviour.
No one disputes the star quality of players like Carmelo Antony – he is, what is he – an outragously gifted athlete, who is brilliant at playing his game. However his is a talent which sucks the life out of all others and needs the ball all the time as he does not know how to play without it. Can he play second fiddle? The answer for Melo is no – he’s a great soloist, but one that eveyone else must adapt to accomodate his ‘me-first’ style.
Recruitment Lesson No3 of the Jeremy Lin story is….. don’t be obsessed by big names and big reputations. When you are building your organisation, you start with a clear philosophy – a clear style of play – of how you want your team to function. You then build a culture that encourages the behaviours that deliver this style, recruiting the personnel who have the attributes to fit into the scheme. The big name might be the glamour pick – and what on the surface might feel like a safer option due to industry renown – in reality is a high risk move to drop in a centrafugal talent into a team framework that had developed without him.
4. You’ve Got To Be Careful of Linsanity
It’s no metaphor to say that Jeremy Lin is taking the US by storm – his remarkable story, winning personality and oh-so-punable name – is creating a cultural movement across the States – complete with it’s own language, dress and sense of community. The phenomenon has even got it’s own name – Linsanity – and so if you’ve never been on a bandwagon before, jump on board now and feel it for yourself.
But this brings us to the final lesson the Jeremy Lin story has to teach us.Recruitment Lesson No4 is to be ever mindful of the power of emotions generated by group think; the momentum driven by crowds can set the agenda, stifle intelligent debate and create onclusions based on feelings, rather than sober analysis. How often have we agreed to a requisition, a candidate, a technology supplier or a strategy, because everyone else in the room seemed to think it was a good idea? When everyone else goes Linsane, it’s worth while taking a step back from the exuberance and recognise, once more, what the facts are
Jeremy Lin deserves his plaudits, but he has, as yet, only started 4 NBA games* in his young career, and a few weeks ago, nobody even knew his Li – name.
*5 after another Linspired victory against the Minnesota TimberWolves on Saturday 12th February