Kobe the Mentor

I live in Los Angeles and the city is still coming to grips with the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and 7 others in a helicopter crash.  Like most humans, he left a complicated legacy.  His included: Championship basketball player, accused rapist, entrepreneur, a selfish driven competitor, devoted father, philanthropist, Academy Award winner, and mentor.  LA is a city of rediscovering and remaking yourself, and we gave Kobe that opportunity.

On the basketball court, he was more like Michael Jordan (his idol), but in his brief second act, Magic Johnson comes to mind.  Kobe knew that during his basketball career he could learn things that would help him for the next 40 years of his life and he prepared for that as he would for any opponent—with relentless determination.  In this forum, I want to talk about how he mentored others.

Kobe’s passion was his craft.  He wanted to dominate each opponent and play the game better than anyone.  This approach did not lend itself to friendship on the court, or sometimes even in his own locker room.  But, in the latter stage of his career and after he retired, Kobe wanted other talented players to try to achieve what he did.  His last public tweet was congratulating another player eclipsing him on the all-time scoring list.

He was particularly interested in reaching out to players (male and female, college and professional, basketball and other sports) who had suffered career threatening injuries.  He would recommend doctors, talk about his approach to rehabbing, and instill in them the confidence that they could recover and succeed.  You can go online and read the testimonials from all kinds of people he directly impacted in this way.  He wanted the best players to love basketball as much as he did so they could make the game better.

Kobe’s second act shows us that great mentorship is more than providing knowledge and advice.  Great mentors excite our passion and challenge us to be the best we can be.  We can look for those who do that for us.  And, like Kobe would want, we can be the ones who lights the fire for others.

Mentoring For Turnover

This is an interesting time of the year in college football in the U.S., and not just because the final games are about to be played. As head coaches who had a poor year get fired (what should constitute the criteria for firing a college football coach is a topic for another blog), schools have begun looking for their next head coach. In some, but not many, cases an assistant who reported to the fired coach will get the job. In others, a head coach from another school will be head hunted. But, the most common instance is when an assistant from another school is hired. That is as if you wanted to hire a new vice-president of your company and you felt that the best candidates were directors at other firms. Why does this happen?

Part is that the athletic directors (those responsible for hiring the new coach) feel that the failure that led to the coach getting fired belongs to the assistant coaches as well. It is hard for them to go to their stakeholders and say, “We had a really bad season, but we think that one of our assistants is a diamond in the rough.” Note that some schools will groom a successor to the head coach when there is a retirement time frame set.

Picking head coaches from other schools typically involves a bigger school (read: one with a larger budget for salaries, practice facilities, etc.) poaching a successful coach from a smaller one. Think of this as an executive doing well at a competitor with less revenue and a firm with more sales thinking that s/he is ready to move up.

The last option, hiring an assistant from another school, is an interesting one because it reflects on the culture of coaching. Head coaches are thought of well when their assistants go on to getting better jobs. Most of them feel that part of their job is to mentor their assistants so they can get a better job—either at the current university if the head coach leaves or anywhere else. Unlike in corporate America, where losing top lieutenants is seen as a sign of a toxic culture, a head coach who has assistants move on (and be successful) at other schools is perceived as having a great “coaching tree” and attracts even better talent.

This culture comes from the coaching profession being relatively small (130 schools at the top level and 124 at the next). Even with 7 to 10 assistants for each team, everyone eventually gets to know everyone through movement, conferences, etc. Almost every college head coach got his job after being an assistant at another school (most likely, after being an assistant at several schools), so a head coach knows how big of a deal it is when an assistant gets the call to run a program.

In business, it is not a good thing if your high potentials are getting their big opportunity someplace else. However, what are you doing to ensure that they get meaningful promotions internally? Is a VP rewarded when one of her directors becomes VP in another division? Or, is she seen as someone who can’t keep good talent? If it is the former, she will attract more high potentials (internally and externally).

You can create this kind of culture if you encourage and train your executives to mentor talent. Recognize them publicly when their direct reports move on to better positions so they will be encouraged to continue to nurture talent and high potentials will want to work for them.

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