The Dreaded Sports Analogy Highlights the Importance of “Team”

So far, I’ve been able to avoid using sports in my weekly articles highlighting sound business practices that reveal themselves in daily life—but this week I can’t help myself. My regular article was nearly complete (now you’ll see it next week) when I became wrapped up in watching Sunday’s Ryder Cup coverage (and the resulting analysis and commentary following the event) and was really struck by the difference between great individual performance and great team performance—and how that simple difference means so much in todays’ highly competitive business world.

The Ryder Cup is a team golf event staged every 2 years that currently pits 12 of the best professional golfers from the U.S. against the 12 best European golfers. Originally the matches were just the U.S. against England, but over time the English squad was expanded to include the rest of Great Britain, then Ireland, and finally in 1979 all of continental Europe. This expansion was done not only for competitive reasons but also because many Europeans were beginning to come over to the U.S. to compete and American fans wanted to see more of these fun and engaging new stars.

The Ryder Cup is a “team” competition instead of a typical professional golf tournament in which the player with the lowest individual score wins for the week and prize money is paid out in proportion to how each player finishes versus all the other individuals in the tournament. In the Ryder Cup, players are combined with their 11 teammates in a series of pairs and individual matches against the other team, and team points determine the winner. There is also no prize money awarded to either team (although there is a profit-sharing arrangement, but the money the players make is nothing compared to a regular tour event). Everything about this bi-annual event is different than the professional golfer’s normal competitive life, and to a man these golfers say it is the most pressure packed and intense competition they experience.

Where this gets interesting is just how lopsided this event has become. Even though every time the competition is staged the U.S. team has a huge statistical advantage over the European team, and the U.S. is always heavily favored to win, in the 17 Ryder Cups played since 1985, Europe has won 12 times versus the U.S. winning 5 times.

The numbers are even more stark when you look at the records based on whether the matches are played in Europe or the U.S. (they alternate continents every 2 years). On U.S. soil the matches are even with each side having won 4 times. But when the event is held in Europe—the home team has won 7 Cups versus the U.S. side winning only once. A famous sports quote states, “You are what your record says you are” and in this case it’s clear—the Europeans are very definitely the better team. How is this possible? The U.S. always has the better players (based on world rankings, etc.) and yet in this hyper-intense competition where the success of the team trumps individual accomplishment, the Europeans dominate.

This exact issue confronts most businesses each and every day. How do you recruit and train the very best talent, and how do you get them to function as a high performing team? I have a recruiter that I follow who posts a ton of very good information, and he is all about recruiting “rock stars”, making sure you are looking to identify the very best talent, and not to settle for anything less than the best. I fully understand this idea, and hiring smart, driven, inquisitive high-performers is a worthy goal. But rarely will these rock-stars perform by themselves. For your company to be successful your high-performers will need to work together towards common goals, which will often mean working for the success of others and the team instead of simply individual success. Just having stars doesn’t insure your desired outcome.

Back to the Ryder Cup—just because you have Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson (2 of the greatest players in golf over the last 25 years) doesn’t guarantee team success. In fact, in the team-based competition of the Ryder Cup Phil and Tiger are ranked #1 and #2 all-time in losses in Ryder Cup matches! Again—2 of the very best individual golfers to ever play the game are 2 of the very worst Ryder Cup performers in history. What? Somehow their great talents and accomplishments don’t translate well to team-based competition—and you have to be very aware of this dynamic within your own company.

As you assess your current team and potential outside talent, probe for multiple examples of team-based actions and successes. Was team performance improved by adding this individual to the team, and did other team members performance improve as well? Can the person easily speak to team achievements of company goals where they were an important contributor, or can they only recall and communicate their individual “stats.” Do they exhibit easy and comfortable pride in the success of teammates, and can they easily recount others’ accomplishments? Do they celebrate team success more than their own individual success? Do teammates want to win “with” this individual or do they feel like the oxygen gets sucked out of the room when they’re involved?

Secondly you have to consider team make-up and insure you have some complimentary players. Not everyone in your organization is a superstar, but you undoubtedly have some people who are tremendous employees but may not want to lead or be the center of attention. But they are high performers in their own right, and shine when called upon in specific spots and always willing to do what’s needed for the success of the team in actions more than words. These people are hugely beneficial and in fact completely integral to any teams’ success in either athletics or business. Your high functioning team must have some complimentary players, and your ability to identify, recruit, and retain these complimentary players is critical.

And thirdly you must train and develop your employees on how to perform and thrive together as members of a team. Please don’t rely only of “kumbaya” team-building exercises – like “trust falls” and open office ping-pong tables – as real training on how to function as a high-performance team. Just ask the U.S. Ryder Cup team about ping-pong. They have openly and often touted their team-room ping-pong matches as great teamwork exercises—well how’s that worked so far? Having fun and building competitive spirit amongst team members is good—but there are real training methods and techniques, as well as expert trainers, available for when you want to get serious about building high performance teams.

Superstars are great, and essential for building up the functional abilities of your organization, and you should always look to identify those superstars that already work in your company while looking to recruit more from the outside. But in order to drive truly high performance for your organization you need superstars who thrive on team success, skilled and motivated complimentary players, and to provide them all with targeted teamwork training. You’ll get happier, more relaxed, safe, and engaged employees, who will drive your business forward every day.  Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.

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