Friday, November 04, 2005

Special Teams, Indeed

From 1987 through 2004, Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech football teams blocked a total of 105 kicks in 213 games. That’s almost one block for every two games – something it takes some teams an entire season to accomplish (or not, in many cases). Beamer’s secret is, in fact, no secret at all. His special teams employ as many starters as possible, both offensive and defensive, in an effort to get the best athletes on the field. When the best athletes for the job do not happen to be starters, they are given the call. The result? Top ten teams year after year. Using the best talent available at each position - what a revolutionary concept.

It has often been said that we are living in a talent economy. Unlike my father and grandfather, no one ever told me to become a doctor, lawyer, or accountant. Instead, my parents, teachers, and mentors all said to do what I was best at. After a woeful attempt at learning computer programming my sophomore year of college, I decided that all other things being equal, talent and passion beat guilt and struggle every time. As a fearless communicator and writer, I’ve had jobs in editing, marketing, and headhunting. As a bumbling, incompetent, uncommitted programmer, I would have lasted two seconds if I’d even finagled a job at all. As a result, I’m a great believer in the talent economy.

Not everyone is, though. Last April, I got a call about an entry-level position with a sports marketing firm. Now, I’m a sports nut with a jones for relationship-building. I took the first slot available and the very next day I walked into their office, located in a slick commercial building next door to a major tobacco company. The interviewer was young, probably not yet thirty, and swore freely. He asked me two questions: 1) Tell me about a time you took on a leadership role, and 2) Rate your interpersonal skills on a scale of 1-10. For the first, I related my experiences as the anchor of my four-man kayak team, and answered a confident “10” for the second. The interviewer said “Great, that’s the interview – can you start next week?” I was shocked. I replied that I could not, but I left with an unsure feeling.

Perhaps I had just closed a door on myself unnecessarily. After all, I’d been looking for a new job for several months, without luck. Then it hit me: They’re more desperate than I am! How did it get this way, I wondered, if they were, as they claimed, an expanding company with a rock-solid customer base? My hunch is it’s an ingrained habit: when you make a practice of seeking anyone at all, and on short notice, anyone at all is exactly what you get. Maybe that’s how a company claiming to serve the sports markets of Oakland and San Francisco ended up in a small, depressing town in the no-man’s-land between San Jose and Sacramento.

Entry-level positions are the special teams of the professional world. They are taken for granted, and, at many firms, the least amount of care goes into filling them. For many people, they are more about not screwing up than distinguishing oneself, although a few folks do every year in almost every company. Too often, however, entry-level people are considered replaceable. Those sports marketers clearly believed that – I couldn’t name you one friend of mine with a college degree and decent grades who wouldn’t have landed that job provided he or she had bathed that day and put on clean clothes.

It sounds silly to say that the best companies are those that hire the best people – but the whole truth is that they don’t only do this for their best jobs, but for all of them. Frank Beamer has proved that even at invisible positions, talent proves to be anything but. Of course, football is different from the corporate world. While the star linebacker can also handle kickoff coverage, the CEO can’t take extra time and double as junior analyst. But star linebackers are born from kickoff coverage all the time. Similarly, a junior analyst candidate might prove, on closer inspection, to have “CEO” written all over him. The company that hires for an entry-level position with the goal of only filling that position has already lost the talent war. The question is not whether you can afford to invest the resources to hire top talent at the entry level. It’s whether you can afford not to.


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