Originally published @ PROFIT.
Famed UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden once said, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” A considerable body of social science research has explored the positive impacts of athletics, in particular team sports, from youth into adulthood. Playing sports can be a tremendously positive influencer on us physically, emotionally, socially and ethically.
I’ve certainly bought into this idea: I play hockey on several teams three or four times a week. I’ve also invested years of time and money into building RosterBot, a service designed to increase the accessibility and enjoyment of team sports for youth and adult athletes of every skill level.
But when I set out to hire a team to help me carry the company up the hill to future success, and I decided that each of our staff should be a team athlete, my intent was rather more direct. The thinking was that as athletes—and particularly team athletes—each of the crew would be bringing a useful set of perspectives from their own daily experiences with their teams and apply those to building the product. In short, by hiring team athletes, we would be assured they’d be eating their own dog food.
This is largely true. But I actually ignored the rather more significant set of benefits to hiring and working with a crew that is truly inured in team athletics. And since then, I’ve learned a valuable lesson, one I will carry with me as we continue building our team in this company and on to the next venture.
Here’s an interesting study result: the multi-decade U.S. National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 found that men at age 31 who played high school sports were paid 12% more at their jobs than those who did not. That’s compellingly outside the margin of error for such a large sample size.
But hey, money isn’t everything. Multiple studies have shown that sports participation can help build character, encourage emotional growth, and teach players the value of honesty, respect, teamwork, dedication and commitment. Call me crazy, but these are attributes I value in a co-worker.
One of the more frustrating aspects of my time spent working in Silicon Valley during the 1990s technology bubble was working with people who were in it purely for themselves. They were mercenaries and were on board with the plan for as long as it seemed clear that things were moving forward unobstructed. Whenever their startup encountered choppy waters, employees would simply hop over to the next venture-backed vehicle, rather than sticking with it and doggedly facing the opposition.
This job-hopping happens quite often in the current froth in Silicon Valley, too. A friend recently shared with me an unconfirmed but totally believable rumour that the most senior software developer working at Twitter these days has been there only two years. There isn’t even any shame in having a string of 10-month-long employment engagements spanning half-a-dozen companies in Silicon Valley anymore; it’s just par for the course.
I think this is a really big problem. As an employer, and as the captain of an ambitious startup plying the choppy waters of a volatile sea, I’m not interested in mercenaries. I’m interested in people who wake up each morning thinking about how they can build better tools for people just like themselves. I’m interested in co-workers who understand accountability to their teammates, to their coaches, and to their investors and customers. I’m interested in people who will inspire the people around them as well as empower (and enrich) themselves. I’m interested in grinders, playmakers and snipers who work to fill whatever role(s) they can in helping advance the team.
In short, I am now resolved to exclusively hire people who have the emotional makeup to join us for the long haul because they grew up playing, and with luck still play, team sports–whether it’s a business dedicated to sports, or any other.
Startups are hard. You need to be working with a team you’d gladly go to war with. I want to look at everyone around me and know that if we’re under fire, they’ll have me covered. I expect them to hold me to the same account.
For more than a year, this approach has been paying daily dividends in my day-to-day dealings. I suspect that it could lead to long-term success for all of us. In the interim, it’s also helped us to field a pretty good company hockey team.