Best Hires Often Disguised as Average

For many years, I commuted 30 minutes to work one way. I actually enjoyed my daily drive because it gave me time to ponder the day ahead…and it helped me unwind before I arrived home.

A few times a week, I took advantage of this mobile solitude to learn something new through the miracle of digital podcasts.

One day, I was profoundly taught and inspired by someone I knew little about at the time.

John Wooden

John played college basketball for Purdue University from 1929 to 1932, and is best remembered as the head coach at UCLA from 1948 to 1975. During this time, Coach Wooden led UCLA to an astonishing 10 NCAA national championships over a 12 year period. Seven in a row!

If that wasn’t enough, UCLA set an NCAA record of 88 consecutive wins, which stands to this day. Not bad for someone who took over as Head Basketball Coach of the worst team in the league in 1948.

No player or official ever heard Coach Wooden use profanity. His players proclaimed he never encouraged them to win. Instead, he expected everyone to make the effort to become the best they were capable of becoming.

Despite these amazing accomplishments, what John cherished most was the love and respect of his former players and coaches. After basketball (1975) and for the rest of his life (died in 2010 a few months shy of his 100th birthday), they frequently visited him, wrote to him, and “called Coach” for advice.

As you can imagine, leaders not only from other sports, but from corporate America, wanted to know the secret of John Wooden’s remarkable success and devoted following.

Here is just one leadership lesson I learned from Coach Wooden that helped me hire some of the best people over the years:

Quiet Self-Confidence and Determination

Eddie Powell was one of John Wooden’s English students when he taught and coached at South Bend Central High (1934-43). Coach Wooden described him as a terrible basketball player, but somehow Eddie made the team.

He rarely ever played.

In Eddie’s junior year, the top 3 teams in Indiana were Fort Wayne Central, Froebel of Gary, and South Bend Central. Early in the season, South Bend barely beat Gary 47-45.

Eddie watched the entire game from the bench.

After this narrow victory, the team went to a restaurant to get something to eat before driving back to South Bend. Eddie sat by himself. Coach Wooden went over to him and asked him what was wrong. Eddie said he might as well drop basketball because he wasn’t doing the team any good, and besides, he never got to play.

Coach told him, “You should never give up because you never know what could happen.”

Eddie replied, “I never get to play with the best players. I KNOW if you let me play with Jimmy and Bobby…I could play well” Coach paused for a minute, and then to Eddie’s surprise he said, “OK Eddie…I’ll play you tomorrow night against Fort Wayne.”

Eddie lit up.

On the drive back to South Bend, Coach said to his beloved wife Nellie, “I told Eddie I would start him tomorrow night against Fort Wayne…and that’s not right. He hasn’t earned it, and doesn’t deserve it. I made a mistake, but I must go through with it because I gave him my word. And besides…I can always pull Eddie out of the game since I only committed to start him!”

Coach figured the best way to convince Eddie of his shortcomings would be to start him against the best high school player in Indiana…Curly Armstrong . Armstrong later became an All American player at Indiana University, and then spent 8 seasons with the Fort Wayne Pistons.

To Coach Wooden’s amazement, Eddie held Armstrong to the lowest number of points he ever scored in a game.

Eddie then went on that night to score more points than he ever scored in all of his games combined. Eddie also got a number of rebounds, and played a tremendous basketball game.

Reporters after the game asked Wooden, “Coach…where have you been hiding this kid?! Did you save him just for this game?”

At the end of the season, Eddie was not only selected as the team’s MVP, but he started in every game thereafter until the end of his high school career. Years later, Eddie Powell became Coach Wooden’s assistant coach at UCLA and they remained good friends throughout their lives.

Coach Wooden later reflected on this experience and said, “How many other ‘average players’ did I miss?”

Sometimes in our quest to hire the best people, we undervalue candidates who appear introverted or lacking in enthusiasm…despite a resume of steady consistent performance.

I recall one such hire years ago who turned out to be my Eddie Powell.

Dan was referred to me by someone I knew and trusted. As Dan sat across from me during his job interview, I wasn’t impressed. He seemed too reserved and quiet for one of my key sales positions. I was also concerned that Dan had been unemployed for several weeks.

Even so, what did impress me about Dan, was his quiet self-confident way of telling me that not only could he do the job…but I wouldn’t be disappointed if I hired him.

At that moment I could relate to how Coach Wooden felt when he decided to start Eddie the next night against Fort Wayne Central.

I hired Dan.

Dan never became one of my top performers. Instead he went on to be one of my most consistent producers year in and year out. Dan never complained, or pressured me about a raise or a promotion. Everyone liked him…best of all…our customers loved him.

Over the years I discovered that the most successful organizations have a healthy balance of “average players” who simply do their job day in and day out…and are never a burden to the team, their leaders, or the customer.

Don’t be surprised that from this bench…great leaders evolve.

Written by: Michael Petras – Principal at Lodestar Executive Search, South Bend, Indiana. To subscribe to my blog, scroll to the bottom of this page and enter your email. Back to Blog Page for more articles you might enjoy.

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