Melissa sits down with Anson Dorrance, one of the most successful coaches in collegiate athletics, to discuss how to build a lasting culture in a high turnover environment.
Melissa: Hi. Welcome to the cultur(ED) podcast. I’m Melissa Jezior, your host. On this podcast we talk to top culture makers in the world today from a variety of industries and backgrounds to unpack the visible and not so visible forces that make up this often overlooked superpower, culture. Right now we’re in the heart of the women’s World Cup, and this inspired me to learn from elite athletes and coaches to unpack their tips and tricks for building winning cultures.
Today I’ll be talking to Anson Dorrance, the head coach of the women’s soccer program at the University of North Carolina, and one of the most successful, if not the most successful, coaches in the history of college athletics. Well, thank you so much for taking time today. I’m looking forward to chatting with you.
Anson: Hi. I’m looking forward to it myself.
Melissa: So it’s been fun for me because I went through the process, as I was getting ready for this interview I read about you and I watched some interviews that you gave, and I have to tell you I was positively blown away by your numbers.
And I think, ladies and gentlemen, hold onto your hats, ‘cause I’m about to blow you away with this one man’s accomplishments. Anson has 40 years in his coaching career and he’s lost less than 70 games. Think about that for a second. And he’s won more than 800. He was the first coach in NCAA history to win 20 championships coaching a single sport. In fact the Lady Tar Heels have won 22 of the 36 NCAA soccer championships.
He’s led a team to 101 game winning streak, coached 13 different women to a total of 20 national Player of the Year awards, member of the UNC Hall of Fame and the Soccer Hall of Fame, and he’s coached some of the best players in soccer history, including Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Tobin Heath, Crystal Dunn, and one of my colleagues here at Eagle Hill, Lindsay Henson. And I can’t forget to admit he also had 5 players on stage at the World Cup last week. So Anson, you are quite an accomplished man and I’m sure have lots of great insights to share with us.
Anson: Well, you’re very kind with that introduction. Thank you very much.
Melissa: So I hear you’re about to begin your 41st season as head coach of the Tar Heels in the fall. And one of the things that really interested me the most about you, Anson, after reading about you and talking to Lindsay Henson here at Eagle Hill, and one of the phrases that she associates most with you and the team culture, was “refuse to lose.” Lindsay said refuse to lose really stays with her today, and not just as a memory, but really and truly as her mindset and how she shows up in all aspects of her life. So how do you inject this mindset into your players? Maybe you can let us in on the secret.
Anson: Actually, it’s probably the core of our success. When I was a young coach our legendary former basketball coach, Dean Smith, used to let me come watch his basketball practices, and the thing I liked most about watching his teams train was the amount of data they would collect in a typical practice. Everything counted. So we stole this idea, we soccer-ized it, we took it to a new level.
And this was a game changer for us in practice, because before you came to practice the next day you could go to our bulletin board and in 28 different categories you would see where you ranked on the team. All the different elements that are critical for our success in a practice and a game were recorded by the managers and then posted on the bulletin board.
Melissa: So let’s talk a little bit about these 28 factors that you identify and grade on or rate on every day. I think right now in the corporate world we’re in a place where we’ve got so much data, but not yet a lot of insight. And I think companies and managers are trying to figure out how to identify the right data at the right time and present it in the right ways. So how did you find and figure out what the right 28 categories were to be able to provide feedback on?
Anson: It was all trial and error. We had no idea if this was the best stuff. We had sort of a vague idea that in order to be effective you had to be great 1 v. 1, so we have 5 different 1-on-1 ladders. 1-on-1 is your ability to beat someone off the dribble or stop them.
But it doesn’t mean like we stumbled upon all the great things immediately. So we’re always looking for a cutting edge idea that we think can move us forward.
Melissa: And where do you seek these new ideas? Do you have a method that you use or are you a big reader? Do you like to talk with a lot of other coaches? How do you find these new ideas?
Anson: Well, actually, I’m reading all the time, but most of the ideas we bring in practice don’t come directly from the reading, they just come from us looking at this thinking you know what, this isn’t working. And for us to see what’s working all we have to do is to go to our test. What is our test? Our test is the game we just played or the game we have to play next. And so we’re constantly reviewing our own performances and constantly trying to tweak it to change it. But a lot of what goes on, I think, that takes us and our teams to our potential is our capacity to motivate the players that are in our environment.
And so often time it’s not just the training environment that’s critical for us, it’s how we can get into, again, the mindset of the players to get them to change a certain mindset or a narrative that’s protecting them from getting to their potential. And in changing that and sending then in the right direction all of a sudden a substandard player goes to a different level because now she’s finally accountable for performance, whereas earlier she had a narrative that protected her from being responsible and accountable, and now all of a sudden we expose that, and now she’s selected to be more accountable and her game goes to a completely different level.
And so almost everything we present is done in ranking form. So if we have 30 players in the roster, in the 28 different categories everyone’s ranked from 1 to 30. They get to see exactly where they are on it. And then all of these different categories have different values. Some are much more important than others, and we make very clear which ones are.
In fact some are made so clear that on the first day of practice this August, there’s some players that aren’t going to be practicing with us because they failed the initial test to get them into training, which is a beat test which measures their cardiovascular efficiency. So not only do we have 28 different categories, but all the categories have different value, and some of the value is extraordinary if you don’t achieve in it you don’t even get to practice with us. And so that sends a very positive message to the players as to what we value most.
Melissa: That’s really interesting. So I have also read that you sit down with your players once a year to kind of do an overall player evaluation. I assume that’s where you probably look at a lot of this data. And I know that that’s something in the corporate world that’s been a really hot topic lately, are performance reviews and giving people real time performance feedback. And it’s often a sore subject, too. I think this is often where employees will interpret feedback in a negative way. So how have you been able to take those conversations that you have using this data to create a more positive motivational environment around feedback?
Anson: First of all we do it 3 times a year, not once.
Melissa: Ah, interesting.
Anson: We do it early in the fall. Then we do it post season in January, and then we do it at the end of the spring as they’re about to go on their summer break. So we have these more formal reviews basically 3 times a year. And keep in mind the data that is collected and posted on our bulletin board every day is a daily review, so they are getting constant review.
And here’s what’s critical in the performance review. In the performance review a lot of the review is done by themselves, because what most of us have is we all develop a personal narrative. And what this means is we develop a narrative to protect us from pain. So if a kid comes in and they haven’t done very well that season, and this is a post season review, they all have a protective narrative that’s usually, in my environment, organized and I guess constructed in a loop with their parents.
Because obviously if I want to be protected from the chaos of the universe and I’m a player in this environment, who are the people that are going to completely agree with anything you tell them on tell them on the problem?
Anson: It’s your mom and your dad. So you call up your mom because obviously she’s sympathetic, or your dad if he’s the more sympathetic one, and you talk about the injustice of the universe, about how you’re kicking everyone’s ass in practice, even though that’s absolutely not true, because you’re looking at the data every single day after practice on the bulletin board and you’re ranked in the bottom 5% of the team, and all this sort of stuff is telling you you’re not working that hard. But when you talk to your mom you’re claiming that you are, so like, you know, Mom, I can’t believe it, you know, I’m kicking everyone’s rear end in practice, and I’m just not given a chance at the game.
Melissa: [Laughs.] Life isn’t fair.
Anson: And life isn’t fair, right. And of course your mom totally agrees with you. And now all of a sudden there’s this circular narrative built with the player that now the player’s feeding off of.
Now the player’s thinking gosh, you know, Mom, you’re absolutely right. So even though they’ve done nothing but lie to their parents about their performance, now they’re fed all this garbage that’s based on the lies you’ve told your parents that’s created a narrative that you’ve been cheated.
So it’s critical in the player review that we do 3 times a year is you review all the data with them. But now they get to rank themselves in 7 out of the 8 categories that we’re going to review. And here they are. Because we recruit extraordinary talent. But what’s shocking to us is how often extraordinary talent never gets on the field.
So the review we have with them after we’ve looked at all the data is we want to rank them, and they rank themselves in these categories: self-discipline, competitive fire, self-belief, love of the ball, love of playing the game, love of watching the game, grit and coachability.
And so if they claim they have a 4.5 in the beat, which is professional level in terms of cardiovascular fitness, and yet their beat score was a 30, and the qualifying line to get on the field is 40, I will debate it with them. Now there’s only one of those things that I won’t touch, that whatever score they give themselves I will not argue with them, we’ll just put it down as they’ve told me.
Melissa: And what’s that?
Anson: Self-belief. I will never interfere with a person’s self-belief. If they think they’re God’s gift to the game, I will never try to deconstruct that. And as a woman you can understand the huge perils of deconstructing a woman’s confidence. If a woman is incredibly confident, I am never going to touch that. And even if it’s delusional I still won’t touch it.
Anson: Because one of the hardest things to construct in a young woman, and actually women in general—and I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here—is confidence.
I mean, what’s amazing to me is the lack of confidence in so many extraordinary women I’ve trained. And most of what we do in our environment is construct confidence. I will never touch that. I will never be negative about a person’s constructed confidence, and I will never judge them on it.
And the only one they’re not allowed to touch is coachability. And so if I tell them they’re, you know, utterly uncoachable what I’m saying is every time I tell you this, you know, you, your reaction to it tells me you just don’t think that that’s what they should be doing, and your fight with me in this area is going to prevent you from reaching your potential. So they’re not allowed to touch coachability. That’s my evaluation of whether or not they’re responding to anything I’m telling them. And I’m not allowed to touch self-belief.
But the average of those numbers will tell them what their potential is. Because obviously almost every kid we recruit on scholarship has the dream of playing professionally, so almost every one of our scholarship kids does sign a professional contract.
But there’s some that aren’t going to make it, and they just, they don’t believe it. But when we average it out, I’m telling them at your current rate of effort and commitment you’re not going to sign a pro contract. And obviously our history is so good at projecting this they have to make a change if they want to get there. And when they don’t sign a pro contract it’s not because I haven’t told them the areas where they have fallen.
But here’s the coolest thing about evaluating people with numbers. I can sit there and post the numbers, and now what happens to my relationship, it’s me and the players against the numbers.
Anson: Because now all of a sudden I’m not being critical of them. Their numbers are critical of them. So now she and I can sit on the same side of the desk, put the numbers up there on the screen and say you know what, I think you’re better than this. And of course they’re going to agree with me, I think I am better. But here’s what you’ve got to do. But now they’re listening to me on what they need to do to get to their potential, because the numbers are not a subjective evaluation of performance.
I’m sitting with them and we are parsing the data together. So what’s criticizing them? Not me. It’s the data. So who am I in this player conference? I am the person that can help them do better with the data. What I consider most valuable about objective review is there’s no subjectivity.
And even in their review of where they stand in self-discipline, competitive fire, self-belief, love of the ball, love of playing the game, love of watching the game, grit and coachability, with basically 2 exceptions—well, actually, with just 1 exception—every one of their grades is their own, so when they average it out they are doing their own evaluation. Yep, I don’t work very hard. Yep, I don’t compete because they’re giving themselves numbers underneath a 4, which is what is required of them to start, and they are telling me they shouldn’t start, and I’m agreeing with them, because I don’t start them.
So basically that’s the construction of our player conference, which takes me out of the subjective mode. And so what I’m also telling them at every opportunity is live our core values. To live the core values is incredibly challenging because this is a review of their character. And the core value review is not done by me, it’s done by their peers.
And so I want to be able to write them a brilliant recommendation into any part of their future. Just give me the tools. So live my core values and then they’ll see the quotes from the core values that are in their recommendations that are getting kids into Harvard, and Stanford and all the elite companies in America. We’re sending our top athletes all over the place and a lot of that is because they are living the core values in the most positive way and I’m writing that into the recommendation.
Melissa: So I’ve read a lot about you and your team’s core values, which I am a huge believer in core values. I think they’re an amazing thing that really sets the tone for a whole organization. And one of the things I’ve seen recently is that we, in fact we did a study on this and found that 47% of corporate America does not know their organization’s core values, which, if you think about it, on one hand is extremely surprising. I guess on the other hand not so surprising when you think about all of the newspaper headlines these days dealing with corporate bad behavior.
But I think it’s an amazing thing to hear you talk about how strong your core values are, and the quality of character of your players. How do you make sure that these core values are living and breathing in your organization and don’t just exist on a piece of paper?
Anson: Well, I’m one of these guys that, you know, loves to read. I read every business book that, you know, makes the New York Times top 10 bestseller list. And the thing, what’s interesting about reading all these books is what they’re all telling us is you’ve got to have a set of core values and you’ve got to live by them.
And I’m thinking great, we’ll have all these core values. And of course my whole evolution has been trial and error. So, you know, we had this insipid, you know, core value about working hard, but there’s nothing motivational about this core value of working hard because that inspires no one. And so I had all these ridiculous core values that I was expecting everyone to live by, but no one really lived by them except if it was a coincidence. There was nothing inspiring about them, and I was thinking gosh, none of this stuff works.
And all of a sudden, in a New York Times magazine years ago, there was a woman that was writing about her experiences studying Russian literature at Columbia. And she was telling a great story, and she said when she was at Columbia they just hired a Russian exile poet by the name of Joseph Brodsky. And they brought Brodsky in and Brodsky sat down all of his PhD candidates and master’s candidates in Russian literature and assigned them all of this Russian literature and poetry to memorize.
And she and her colleagues were insulted, and this cabal got together and basically said I don’t think Professor Brodsky understands who he’s dealing with here. We’re the best of the best. We are the most elite students in the United States in this area and now he’s assigning us work to do that elementary school students are done in the United States. I just don’t think this guy understands anything about the American educational system and doesn’t understand who the heck we are, so let’s go in and let him know this just is not what we were expecting.
So of course they all go storming into his office and told him, you know, Professor Brodsky, I’m sorry, we’re not going to do this. I don’t think you understand who we are and what Columbia’s all about. And he said, well, if that’s the case none of you guys will get your PhDs and master’s degrees.
Anson: They all left the office with their tails firmly between their legs and they got to work. And all of a sudden in this New York Times magazine article she’s talking about the extraordinary transformation that took place in her life when she was asked to memorize all of this literature and poetry.
She said it completely transformed her cerebral fabric. It completely transformed her feeling of the Russian people, the Russian countryside, Russian literature, and it transformed what she and her colleagues were discussing on a regular basis, constantly quoting stuff they had memorized because now it was a part of who they were. And I was thinking you know what, that’s what I’ve got to do.
So what we did is we took our 12 core values and we assigned a motivational quote attached to each one, and we ask every one of our players to memorize all of these motivational quotes attached to each core value. And then we also have them evaluate every teammate on whether or not they were living each core value, and we did it on a 4 point scale, sort of like a GPA, so 4 is obviously a 4.0, it’s an A average, so 4 is an extraordinary example of this core value. If you gave your teammate a 3 in this core value it meant they lived this core value most of the time.
If you gave them a two it meant they occasionally lived this core value. If you gave them a one they rarely lived this core value. So all of a sudden I was collecting all this data on all of the kids and what their teammates thought of their character. And in the old days I never shared any of this data with any of my kids. Then all of a sudden—
Melissa: So what made you change?
Anson: Well, basically I had this girl—I shared the data with her, and she’s sitting across from me in cold silence, and I’m thinking oh, my gosh, I shouldn’t have shared this with her. And I said are you glad I shared this with you? And in a very low voice she said yes. And I said why? She said because Anson, I have to change. And all of a sudden I saw this transformation that was phenomenal.
And then what was really cool is in the spring of every player’s senior year we have our final banquet. Every senior gets to have a parting speech and basically almost like an advice to all the kids that are left in the program on, you know, what they should do to become extraordinary.
And she gave the most wonderful senior exit speech I’ve ever heard. And what she talked about was when I shared with her basically everyone in the room’s opinion of her and how she felt she had to change, and then basically she did. And it was just extraordinary.
So from then on we’ve shared with everyone where they are. And we’ve made all kinds of mistakes on this because originally we would actually share where they ranked among the 30 players in character, and that, you know, I didn’t think ended up being very positive. So now what we share is we share the top 4, we share their names and their ranks and everything, and then we share a one line statement not of where this girl ranks, but of where she is in the core values. And as far as I’m concerned, if her average is over a 3.0, in other words she lives these core values most of the time, we completely embrace her, because that’s what we want everyone to live.
And then she doesn’t feel inferior, because she knows the top 4 are extraordinary. Now her challenge is to basically approach the top 4. But there is a line, and if their average is under a 3.0 in that line and you’re on scholarship, we try to get that girl to transfer, and if she’s not on scholarship we try to get her to quit the team.
And I learned about this when I was working for Franklin Covey. I was the warm-up band for Stephen Covey and Hyrum Smith. But the real star of the show was Jack Welch. And what was interesting about Jack Welch is he would sit on the stage in a comfortable chair, interviewed by someone from Fortune also sitting in a comfortable chair, and he would just answer questions. And that’s why, for the rest of my life, I am dying to have that as a speaking engagement.
Anson: I don’t want to give speeches anymore. I want to sit on the stage and—
Melissa: You want your own comfy chair.
Anson: Yes. Exactly right. And I want to sit there and I want to get $100,000 for sitting there and just answering questions.
Melissa: Me, too.
Anson: Then I don’t have to prepare—yeah, I don’t want to prepare a speech. I just want to answer. Like this interview. Podcasts for me are great. I don’t have to do a bloody thing except answer your questions.
Anson:I love it. Anyway, so Jack is up there, he’s answering all these questions, and he is great. And here’s what I’m learning from it. Almost every single time he would tell everyone in the room to fire the bottom 10% of their workforce. And of course everyone gasps, and everyone is now throwing their hands into the air. And of course these are, you know, very successful CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and their top managerial staff, and every one of them has paid like, you know, $20,000 to be in the room, and of course they’re righteously indignant with this incredibly successful man telling them to fall on the bottom 10% of their workforce.
And they all have these stories, oh, I spent, you know, time with this one person that was, you know, one of my bottom salesmen and then within 6 months he was my top salesman. And of course he’s nodding and he’s not contradicting anyone. And then he patiently waits for, you know, this self-righteous CEO to finish and then he basically calmly says, well, if you’d taken that energy that you invested in your bottom performer and you invested that in your top performers, your bottom line would be better.
You’re not a social worker, you’re not an anthropologist. Your commitment is to the widow that has invested a life savings in your company to make sure her dividend is good enough so she gets to eat every day, so that’s your moral imperative. It’s not to save the world or to save people.
Melissa: Mm-hmm. I love that.
Anson: It’s to save your bottom line. And I’m looking at this thinking, you know, well this is all I’ve done my whole life. All these kids that were substandard, I would kill myself to try to get them there, burning just so much energy on these people that didn’t end up helping me much anyway, but I did transform them to a small degree. But the amount of energy it required was overwhelming. So now what I do, if they’re below that black line, I meet with them, I talk about how wonderful it would be for them to transfer to Stanford and destroy their program.
Anson: And obviously, so now I—obviously I don’t talk about having them destroy a program.
Melissa: No, I know.
Anson: But basically I try to get them out of my system. And I’ve learned that you’re not going to change everyone. And here’s the other thing that Jack was so good about explaining to me. He says, you know, when you do fire someone, they are going to hate you for the rest of their lives, but they don’t want to work for you. And how do you know they don’t want to work for you? Because they’re not working for you, which is why they’re in your bottom 10%.
So what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to set them free. Maybe when you fire them they’re going to finally find an environment they love and you’ve actually helped them. So please don’t think in firing them you’re not doing them a positive service. You actually are. Because hopefully they will find someone eventually that they’re going to enjoy working for, and a culture they willfully support, and you’re actually doing them a favor. Now will this help them change their opinion of you? No. They’re still going to hate you for the rest of their lives. But you’re actually giving them a very positive opportunity when you fire them.
And he is so right. All these kids that I’ve convinced to transfer have gone someplace and maybe played more minutes, and then some of these kids now and I have connected in the most positive way, just because now they’ve looked back and seen that I’ve treated them very well.
Melissa: Perspective, yeah.
Anson: That’s correct. And now they know, and certainly in these other environments they had the same struggle. And so now what they’ve realized, you know what, it wasn’t the coach, it was me, and so their perspective changes.
And so I learned a lot from Jack. But the thing I learned most from him was how he would calmly sit there and listen to, you know, aggressive self-righteousness and not indict the person with his self-righteous opinion. He would calmly nod and make it seem like he was agreeing with the person, and then in a very calm and mature voice just say well, your moral imperative is not this substandard employee, your moral imperative is that extraordinary, you know, widow that’s trying to live on basically her investment in your company.
That should be your perspective, is your bottom line, and here’s the way you construct the most aggressive bottom line. And he would say it calmly and, you know, with warmth. And it just gave me a completely different perspective, because my perspective is everyone on my roster, not the one individual that’s hurting my roster. And so it was really, it was eye-opening for me.
Melissa: I love that. So tell us, how do you convince some woman to transfer or to quit the team?
Anson: Well, to transfer you let them know that—and usually a person that wants, the person that’s really below the line is someone that isn’t playing much, usually, and so as a result, you know, behind your back they’re whining about everything under the sun, which, by the way, goes completely counter to our first core value, which is we don’t whine. And then they’re all forced to…they’re all forced to memorize—
Melissa: [Laughs.] I like that core value.
Anson: We have to do it, yeah, ‘cause, you know, it destroys everything, you know, teams, companies. And they’re all forced to memorize this, “The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” So any time we catch anyone whining in our program they’re forced to recite that. Every one of them has memorized that. And so we just don’t tolerate any kind of whining in any part of any practice, and hopefully there’s no whining behind our backs either. So that’s our first core value.
Melissa: I did look at your core values before this, and I was impressed, and I also thought they were extremely comprehensive. In fact thought maybe I should adopt these, these are fantastic. [Laughs.]
Anson: Well, they are good. And obviously you’re going to have a different set just based on your own culture. And we’re not…we’re flexible. We added one last year and it’s a fabulous one, and I’ll read it to you. It’s basically about accountability. And so what we’ve written is this is the biggest challenge for Millennials. And of course you hire Millennials.
Melissa: We do.
Anson: And what’s written here is, “Now is the period to escape the protection of loving parents.” We don’t want you to get hurt, so right now even in that line I am addressing the narrative. “Now is the period to escape the protection of loving parents that don’t want you to get hurt.” You have 4 years to get ready for the chaos at the university.
And now we bring in our own university people. Mark Cohen, an award winning UNC assistant professional of English and comparative literature, when asked who was the best teacher you ever had and why, said this, “The best teacher I’ve ever had is failure. Samuel Becket said it best, ‘Ever try, ever fail, no matter, try again, fail again, fail better,’” And here’s the quote they have to memorize. “Some want to be exempt. They do not want to excel. They do not want to exert. They want to be considered excellent for desiring to be held exempt from all accountability.” Now that’s typical of the Millennials.
They don’t want to be accountable. Now here’s the rest of the quote. “And what protects them from all accountability?” And here it is. “Their own narrative that is not interested in exploring their potential but is crafted to keep them comfortable while recruiting every possible excuse along the way.” So how do we want to live? Paraphrase, and obviously we’re bringing in our culture. To paraphrase Alex Ferguson of Man United fame, “We want to take responsibility for our own action, our own errors, our own performance level, and eventually for every result.”
So this is where we’re trying to drive them. We’re trying to drive them to be accountable and to take responsibility for everything because in a typical narrative you don’t. In a typical narrative it’s laced with protections about why they haven’t achieved their potential. And usually it blames someone else. And you don’t want them to blame anyone else. If they take responsibility it’s amazing the things that they’re going to accomplish as soon as they take responsibility for everything.
Melissa: So you talked a lot about trial and error. And one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is, is a leader made or is a leader born? So assuming that you might say that a leader is made, given all the trial and error that you yourself have had, what advice might you have to someone trying to build their own strong culture and their own organization?
Anson: Actually, I don’t think you can make a leader, I think they’re born.
Melissa: Wow, okay. That’s interesting.
Anson: The irony is I speak in moral leadership conferences, and any soccer coach alive, and I always warn them if one of them raises their hand and asks me do you think you can develop leaders I’m going to say no. You can just make—
Melissa: Tell me why.
Anson: Well, because of my experience. I’ve never developed a leader. Now I’ve had leaders and I’ve given them opportunities to lead. But basically we all live on a leadership continuum, from people that can’t lead worth a lick, people that are extraordinary leaders, and all we’ve done is we’ve moved them down the continuum a little bit, but not much.
I mean, that’s why it drives me nuts, you know, when I look at all these different people that claim to be developing leaders. In my experience it’s a crock. I have tried so many different ways to develop leaders. I’ve had so many train wreck failures in leadership I don’t know, I could write a book on failing to develop leaders. I’ll give you my favorite example.
Anson: And this will crack you up. And you’ll appreciate this because you’re a woman. One of the toughest things with women is to get them to lead verbally, because what every woman in the room understands, as soon as a woman leader opens her mouth everyone’s going to think she’s a bitch.
Anson: So as a result no woman wants to take this mantle on because they know what everyone’s saying about them behind their back. So it’s almost like a gender pressure against leadership. Now obviously I need verbal leaders. And so I’m thinking, well, I’m going to correct that this year. Here’s what we’re going to do.
So I get all my leaders together. And by the way, I have a leadership class that meets once a week all off season for 1/2 hour called my leadership council, and it’s my leadership training platform. It’s my laboratory of the human spirit for leadership development, which is the most failed leadership platform in the world, because I’ve never developed a frigging leader out of it.
So anyway, so here is one experiment I tried 1 year. So what I tried 1 year is I said listen, the press is going to call me next year and they’re going to ask me who my leaders are, and I’m going to sort of mention all of your names. But let me tell you what the truth is. If I say you lead by example, what I’m basically saying is you’re not a leader because leading by example is not leadership, you’re just my best frigging player. But I’m going to, you know, I’m going to conform to the B.S. language of the media and the world by saying you lead by example. But you’re not a leader.
Now if I say you are a leader, here’s the way you’re going to have to qualify. You have to lead verbally. And I know all you chickenshits are afraid to open your mouth, but I’m going to need some of you to open your friggin’ mouths because we can’t have a bloody, you know, committee meeting in the middle of a freaking game to solve our damn problem. You guys have to lead them verbally on the field. And so basically I had this one wonderful kid that is listening to me, and she must have nodded inside because by George, the following year she was…she was a verbal leader.
Anson: She would, you know, say something before the game, she would be saying stuff throughout the game, and finally, when we’re about to end, at the end of the NCAA tournament, and my real leaders came up to me and said Anson, you’ve got to get so-and-so to shut the F up.
Anson: And I said you know what, I agree with you. So I pulled her aside and I said, you know, so-and-so, I’m sorry, but shut up. [Driving] all of us freaking, you know, batshit crazy, just keep quiet.
So anyway, we got her to shut up and we made a nice run. I think that team won the national championship. But basically that’s one of many failed experiments that I’ve done with my leaders. But now honestly—
Melissa: So then—go ahead.
Anson: Go ahead.
Melissa: No, you go, you go.
Anson: Okay. I’ve had some great leaders, but they were leaders before I got them. Now did we give them an opportunity to lead? Yes. Did we tweak their leadership a little bit and maybe help them to a small degree? Yes. But these were leaders. Because I have tried to completely change someone and I haven’t.
So what’s critical for you, and actually the hiring process is everything for you, and so this is where, again, this is something that Jack Welch used to say, and I loved it. He would say every one of you guys are underpaying HR. HR is the most important arm of your company. Your companies will succeed based on who you hire.
And so what all of us do is the vice president that’s the least highest paid in any company is the HR person because they’re basically dealing with whiners and, you know, litigants and everything else. That’s a mistake. If you guys learn one thing from me today, make sure your HR person has incredible insights into hiring the right people because your HR person is going to determine whether or not your company is going to be successful or not. And obviously it sounds like, Melissa, you do your own hiring. Is that true?
Melissa: Yes. I do. But my HR person is also fantastic and plays a huge role in it, so I agree with your concepts.
Anson: Well, yeah, because basically I’m listening to this guy and he’s absolutely right. And that’s where we run into problems, too, because we see this kid that has huge talent. Of course we’re all excited by huge talent and so the temptation is always to recruit talent. It’s a huge mistake to recruit talent. What you have to recruit and who you have to hire is character. But talent is just so overwhelmingly tempting.
So in your case, you know, someone with an incredible high IQ or some Harvard graduate that finished, you know, summa cum laude.
Anson: I mean, it’s so tempting to hire that. But if this person’s going to be toxic to your culture and is going to be so incredibly selfish, that’s not the person to hire. And so what is critical is, you know, who we end up recruiting.
And for me, because talent is so attractive and because you look at talent and you think I have taken that talent to a world championship or an Olympic gold medal, I have to sign that kid, and all of a sudden they come in and they’re toxic, and then yeah, you’re playing them, but, you know, you don’t know if playing them is helping you or hurting you because everyone hates them, everyone hates playing with them even though they are good players. And so for me it’s all about trying to figure out a way to sort out their character before you hire them.
Melissa: So do you incorporate your core values back into your recruiting process?
Anson: I wish I could. But if we started having all of these, you know, kids take the, you know, Angela Duckworth grit test or, you know, some sort of, you know, psychological profile or take my core value test, we’d lose them, and the word would get out that, you know, that’s how we’re evaluating them, and it would kill us. And so I wish there were ways for me to sort out their character before I brought them in because that would have a huge impact on the kids we would end up offering scholarship money to.
Melissa: So how do you identify culture fit for your organization right now?
Anson: Well, it’s hit or miss, I mean. And but here’s the dilemma for us. Every coach wants their kid to play at the University of North Carolina. When we call them and ask them about the character of their kid, they’re not going to say oh my god, the kid’s toxic. You know, she’s a great athlete and she’ll kick everyone’s ass on the field, but outside the field she’s a royal pain in the ass. No one tells us that.
Anson: And you speak to a parent, you know, they’re doing the same thing. And of course on the recruiting visit they’re on their best behavior. One thing I loved about what Dean Smith did, though, our legendary former basketball coach who was the coach for Michael Jordan, is when back in the days when people didn’t commit early, whenever he took an in house visit he would study how the kid treated his parents.
Melissa: Oh, that’s interesting.
Anson: And if the kid treated the parents poorly he wouldn’t offer them a scholarship because obviously if the kid doesn’t treat the parents poorly the kid’s not going to treat him well or his culture well. So he had his own methodology for sorting out character selection.
Every now and again I’ll work with these different groups that are sorting out a way to test character, and there’s some group I’m working with, but right now I can’t remember them, although I am doing some work with Angela Duckworth on performance. And she runs a character lab. She’s the woman that wrote “Grit.”
Anson: And she and I are good friends, and so I’m going to work with her, and I’m hoping through some of her psychological profiles she can sort out character because I would love to have that as a tool that I can use before a kid gets here. But right now for us it’s hit or miss. And I’d love to tell you something differently, but I just don’t have an effective tool yet.
Melissa: Yeah, that’s definitely, I mean, I think recruiting and hiring really good culture fits is a, it is a hard, hard thing. It is an elusive holy grail in a way figuring out—
Anson: No, it really is.
Anson: Yeah. It’s hard.
Melissa: So 2 more quick questions for you. What’s the 1 word you think of when you think about culture?
Anson: Positivity or optimism.
Melissa: Oh, I love that. And my last question, and this is a fun question that we actually ask all of our new hires when they start at Eagle Hill, is if you could have 1 superpower, what would it be and why?
Anson: I would like to be able to see the future.
Melissa: Ooh, even your own?
Anson: Absolutely. Because what it tells me is it tells me about potential. And again, this solve the problem you and I were just talking about.
Melissa: That would. That definitely would solve the problem. [Laughs.] Most certainly.
Anson: Well, actually, I mean, I’ve got a lot of others that I can throw out there for you, because let me tell you about potential. And this is what I tell all of my kids.
It’s similar to, you know, me telling that player that, you know, if I say you lead by example what I’m saying is you’re not a leader. We have other things like that. I also tell them if I tell the press you have great potential what I’m saying is you’re not worth a shit right now.
Anson: So basically we have this hidden language the players know that I’m using with the press that’s designed to sort of protect them, but also designed to let them know they’re not good enough yet. But also, the other superpower I would love, if I couldn’t see the future, was I would love to be able to see an individual’s character.
Melissa: I’m with you on that 1, yeah.
Anson: So I would love to have that superpower. But also I’d love to be a mind reader. In other words, I’d love to be able to read the narrative that that person is using—
Melissa: Telling themselves.
Anson: —to protect them from being responsible for success. Because if I can deconstruct the person’s excuse-ridden personal narrative, I can help them get to their potential.
Melissa: I love that. That’s awesome. Anson, thank you so much for taking time. I really have to tell you how much I was looking forward to chatting with you today. I think you’re such an impressive guy and I love everything you’ve accomplished. You are definitely an inspiration. So I really, really appreciate it.
Anson: Melissa, it’s been a joy. Thank you. And obviously continued success and—
Anson: —please call me any time. Take care.
Melissa: Bye-bye. Thanks for listening to our cultur(ED) podcast. If you liked the show and want to learn more, check out our cultur(ED) website, culturedcast.com. And please follow us on iTunes. If you’d like to know more about our research, visit eaglehillconsulting.com/culture.