Team Building Lessons from Leaders in Pro Sports


May 12th, 2015 | Posted in by

If you’ve never been involved with a technology company, you’ve likely painted a picture in your mind of hooded figures slouched over computers and empty redbull cans overflowing out of the trash. It’s not often that tech companies are associated with sports (let’s be frank, they don’t have a reputation for being the most active bunch), and aside from the occasional ill-advised sport analogy, technology and sports don’t have much common ground, until now.

Given the STEM (science technology engineering math) talent deficit that’s developed over the last few years, technology companies have had to get creative with their hiring. There are simply more jobs than people to fill them. It’s no longer about ruling people out. Instead, managers and recruiters need to identify hidden talent and potential.

Have you read Moneyball, or more likely, seen the movie? It’s the story of how Oakland Athletics coach Billy Beane built a contender on a comparatively miniscule budget. He recognized that top baseball players (like top-performers in all fields) are over-priced by the market because of preconceived notions and herd mentality. But, Beane simply couldn’t afford to sign the best players in baseball, so he signed players that nobody else wanted – players that simply didn’t match the long-held stereotypes of what constitutes quality. Instead, Beane recruited black sheep that could be woven together into a competitive team with a payroll that was fraction of what his competition was paying. By reinventing his selection criteria, he assembled a team where the whole was much greater and better than the sum of its parts.

Unlike baseball, professional hockey imposes a salary cap on its teams. When every team has the same maximum budget there is a tremendous advantage for those who can truly see talent and potential. The NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning have used the same Moneyball mentality to build a team that blends superstars and depth players. They have been signing players who are considered too small by NHL standards. By doing so, they have saved millions of dollars while other teams paid a premium for ‘bigger players’ that are not necessarily better. They’re looking a little too good as they enter Game 6 of their playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens. Go Habs Go!

In the tech sector, Moneyball is equivalent to hiring individuals who are motivated, naturally curious, and passionate about what they do, but don’t necessarily have the skills you need today. It means ditching resumes and stopping the industry’s obsession with keywords and replacing them with actual conversations. By relying strictly on a resume, many tech teams are delaying and impeding their growth, and overpaying for talent.

One Toronto tech CTO, let’s call him Billy, has made it his mission to assemble a team that’s passionate about their work. When his recruiting partners introduce him to a candidate, they include an analysis that scores creativity, motivation, and other telling characteristics, on a 5-point scale. Billy interviews the people he likes through an informal conversation about who they are, what they want to do and what they believe.

The next step is a technical test, but instead of just submitting a sample of code, candidates are given a small assignment to complete and present to the team. The presentation is the real test. The panel asks questions and challenges the candidate with curve balls in order to see how they think, work and behave. This real-life evidence is much more telling than any technical assessment. Can the candidate solve problems or just crank out code? Can he think on the spot? How does he take criticism? The selection team wants to know how the recruit will mesh with the team and if they share common values.

This selection technique has worked wonders for Billy and other executives who have adopted this more open-minded and conversational style recruiting. It also provides a breath of fresh air for job applicants who have been traditionally passed over for the wrong reasons. Some may not have a computer science degree; others don’t have the requisite number of years with a specific expertise. By seeing past the resume and getting to know motives, beliefs and values, smart employers are beating the skills shortage and helping people realize their potential. It’s an opportunity to fuel careers and teams with people who care about the type of person you are, not just what syntax you know.