Categorized | Career

Second Acts

Posted on 19 April 2009

As a professional writer and interviewer, I am often asked about the many celebrities I profile: “What are they really like?” And though it may sound hokey, I find that these stars share many traits with the successful businessmen and women that I profile for CareerBuilder.

Ultimately, it’s all a matter of focus.

To illustrate this, two remarkably successful men in the sporting world immediately spring to mind: NBA legend Larry Bird and former NFL coach Joe Gibbs. I had the pleasure of spending time with both men, just as they were embarking upon second careers. When I interviewed Bird in 1998, he was testing the waters as a professional coach with the Indiana Pacers. Gibbs was a Hall of Famer with three Super Bowl championships to his credit, but he was embarked on a new career as a NASCAR team owner. Both men soon found renewed success: Bird was named Coach of the Year and Gibbs’s top racer, Bobby Labonte, raced to the NASCAR championship.

What draws them to great talent is an underlying foundation of good, moral business practices.

Bird: Making The Next Move
Great players make notoriously lousy coaches–just as star office employees tend to become bad bosses. NBA players Magic Johnson, Dan Issel, Wes Unseld, and Willis Reed compiled a combined coaching record of just 385 wins and 582 losses. And you can’t keep any job where you fail two-thirds of the time.

Bird was known for his cool demeanor and confident approach. He was hardly the manic, A-type personality that we all associate with sports coaches. His method was deceptively simple: Hire good people, then let them do their jobs. Pacers center Mark West told me about the business world skills that Bird grasped innately. “The really successful businesses want to hire people who are competent at what they do,” West said. “They let innovation and imagination take over. You don’t want just a copy of your own ideas.”

The connection was clear. Workers are more productive–and more creative–when the boss sets clear goals and enables them to succeed. Alternatively, employees tend to get stifled when forced to adhere to rigid policies. “Most coaches have their thumbs on everything,” West said. “They like to dictate where their assistants sit during practices, when they can say something and when they can’t. I always thought: Why are they here? Why does a coach have four or five assistants when he doesn’t let them do anything?”

From the beginning, Bird’s way was the antithesis of micromanagement. He set a few basic rules (play hard, arrive on time, don’t pursue individual goals at the expense of the team) and stuck to them. Early on, he demonstrated his will: He ordered the team plane to take off, leaving two tardy players behind.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re a “hick from French Lick” or a product of the streets. Top performance comes from all corners of life, which is a lesson in diversity. I thought Bird might have something critical to say about new players like Allen Iverson, superstars with flashy jewelry, tattoos, and quick tempers.

But Bird liked Iverson. “Players should be cocky,” he said. “It puts fear into their opponents.” Then he paused for a beat. “If they can back it up.”

Gibbs: Saving the Best for Last
Much like we all do, Joe Gibbs has dealt with an eclectic range of personalities during his career. He guided both the nightlife-loving, often outrageous John Riggins and the stoic Art Monk toward dominant, championship performances. Gibbs himself is a devout Christian man whose idea of swearing is an occasional goshdarnit. But that doesn’t turn him away from great talents like NASCAR’s Tony Stewart, a fiery and controversial competitor who is quick to tussle or unleash a profanity-spiked tirade. Labonte, on the other hand, is a family man who avoids controversy like a flat tire; his only ‘weakness’ seems to be an addiction to The Weather Channel.

But Gibbs takes much pleasure in bringing the best out of all kinds of personalities. If he were to force Stewart to conform to a safe but hopelessly bland standard of conduct, Gibbs explained, then he ran the risk of stripping him of the passion that makes him succeed. “In football, I had all kinds of characters. I talk to Tony about his temper. I talk with him about everything. Tony is young. I say, ‘What can we learn from this?’ There’s a lot at stake here, and you’re going to have some explosions.”

Not to say that, when it comes to conduct, the sky’s the limit. Indeed, what draws Gibbs to such talent is an underlying foundation of good, moral business practices: Be fair to people. Be ethical. Do your best. Gibbs told me that it isn’t by chance that you never see NASCAR drivers accused of driving drunk or battering their spouses. They realize that their actions do affect their work; they must appeal to the corporate sponsors who provide so much of NASCAR’s capital.

Ultimately, it’s that consistent focus that impresses both colleagues and competitors. “Joe Gibbs is so professional,” Dale Earnhardt, Jr. told me. “He uses the same technique as when he was a coach, with his preparation. It makes the Gibbs team smarter as a whole.”

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