Gregg Popovich just taught you how to be an A player

201602-unsplash-basketballGregg Popovich is the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, the most successful franchise in professional basketball over the last 20 years. The Spurs have won five NBA championships under his watch.

Last week, he was asked what the Spurs look for in their employees. Here’s what he said:

“For us, it’s easy. We’re looking for character, but what the hell does that mean? We’re looking for people — and I’ve said it many times — [who] have gotten over themselves, and you can tell that pretty quickly. You can talk to somebody for four or five minutes, and you can tell if it’s about them, or if they understand that they’re just a piece of the puzzle. So we look for that. A sense of humor is a huge thing with us. You’ve got to be able to laugh. You’ve got to be able to take a dig, give a dig — that sort of thing. And [you have to] feel comfortable in your own skin that you don’t have all the answers. [We want] people who are participatory. The guys in the film room can tell me what they think of how we played last night if they want to. [Former Assistant GM] Sean Marks would sit in on our coaches’ meetings when we’re arguing about how to play the pick-and-roll or who we’re going to play or who we’re going to sit.

“We need people who can handle information and not take it personally because in most of these organizations, there’s a big divide. All of the sudden, the wall goes up between management and coaching and everybody is ready to blame back and forth and that’s the rule rather than the exception. It just happens. But that’s about people. It’s about finding people who have all of those qualities. So, we do our best to look for that and when somebody comes, they figure it out pretty quick.”

There’s a ton of wisdom in there. Here’s Gregg Popovich’s recipe for becoming an A player in your organization:

  1. Ditch your ego
  2. Keep your sense of humor
  3. Know the limits of what you know
  4. Speak up, when you have something to say
  5. Separate ideas from people

That’s it. Sound easy? It’s not. Think about all the incentives to violate these rules.

Ditch your ego? How are you supposed to get noticed? Aren’t you supposed to beat your chest, broadcast your victories, and make sure everyone knows how valuable you are?

Keep your sense of humor? The workplace is too politically correct. Cracking jokes makes me look unserious.

Know the limits of what you know? If someone asks me a question, they expect an answer. I’m not getting anywhere with a bunch of “I don’t know’s”. I need to make a call and show my courage and conviction.

Speak up when you have something to say? The executives are too busy to listen to me. They know way more about the business than me. They have access to a lot more information than me. I’ll look silly if I say something ridiculous.

Separate ideas from people? The people with the best ideas get the promotions. It’s a zero sum game. There’s only so many opportunities for promotion. I need to find ways to attach myself to my best ideas and disown my worst ideas.

Popovich is telling you how to be a human being at work. The Spurs are looking for human beings. They’re not looking for talented cogs. They want people that will contribute, regardless what their job title says, regardless who else is in the room, regardless of who said what before.

Fear leads us in the opposite direction. Particularly for scientists and engineers, trying to assert themselves more in the business. We don’t have formal business educations. We don’t have sales or finance backgrounds. We come from a black and white technical world, and we’re trying to fit into the nuanced grays of business.

Bull. Your choice. Let the fear lead you to the same place it leads everyone else, and you’ll get the outcomes everyone else gets. Dance with the fear, know when to keep it close, know when to push it away, and you’ll get the results you deserve.

Sure, being a human comes with disappointment. And embarrassment. And frustration. But you’ll learn. You’ll approach the best version of you at work, the version that attracts your friends and family at home today. You’ll get the same rewards in business, if you don’t mute yourself.

Start giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. Assume that you, as a person, are a better fit for your organization than you, as a talented scientist or engineer. The sky’s the limit.

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