It’s not enough to do what you love: Russell Wilson, Keith Olbermann, and the importance of organizational fit

Last night in his interview of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on ESPN’s new sports show ‘Olbermann’, Keith Olbermann noted admiringly that Wilson went in last year as a rookie and, before playing a single game, provided a list of goals to his coaches, including a goal of winning multiple Super Bowls. “Where,” Olbermann asked, “does the confidence come from to do that, before you’ve played a game in the NFL, and did you give them a new list this year?” Wilson’s response:

“Well, I think, for me, I’m a self-motivator. At the end of the day, you have to be a self-motivator if you want to do something great and, I’ve got a long ways to go. You just take one day at a time, you take those steps, and just continue to climb and continue to grow. And so, I think, you know, I definitely want to win multiple Super Bowls, but to do that you have to win the first one first and…to do that too you have to win the first game, the second game, and keep going on from there, and when you get those opportunities, when you have those game-altering plays – I call them GAP plays – when you have those GAP plays, you’ve gotta capitalize on them and when you have those game-altering situations throughout the season, you have to, you know, do the best that you can to be successful and that gives you a chance, and that’s where I’ve started, that’s where our football team starts.” (The full interview can be heard here starting at 31:30.)

Break your goals down into shorter goals, and break those down into action steps. Develop discipline. Motivate yourself. Plan your work, work your plan. Capitalize on opportunities. It’s all true. Hearing the words, you know he’s right. He’s an inspiration. You want to believe. **I** want to believe. But many of us – Olbermann included – have the career scars to demonstrate that talent and discipline are not always enough to carry the day. As it turns out, there’s more to Wilson’s story.

It goes without saying that talent – or at least decent competence – is the first requirement for any amount of success at what you do. (Note that I said success. Let’s set aside for now any snarky discussions of people who get jobs solely based on connections or favors; by definition, they’re not performing well.) And discipline and motivation are the oil and gas that get the engine running. But there is a third critical factor: the work environment. If there is a mismatch between your core values and that of the organization, or if the structure is not aligned so that you can do your job effectively, or if you have a toxic or incompetent boss, or if you just simply can’t get the resources you need, your effectiveness will be limited no matter how talented or motivated you are.

Pete Carroll, the head coach and executive vice-president of the Seattle Seahawks, has for the past several years been implementing his dream of fundamentally changing the team environment by changing the way players are coached. He’s adopting a people-positive approach: “I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?” His strategy includes an interesting mix of sports psychology, brain performance testing, meditation and visualization, yoga, and an overall focus on the mental as well as physical well-being of the players. It’s an unorthodox, Moneyball-style fresh-thinking approach that I’m betting will have a big payoff.

But it’s not enough to have a strategy; you have to have buy-in. You have to have a team that agrees with your vision. Carroll has been building a team both off the field and on that is operating in alignment with those values and vision. He brought in John Schneider as general manager in part due to his outside-the-box thinking during his tenure as director of football operations with the Packers. He built an entire staff devoted to player health and performance. Since he took the job three-and-a-half years ago, there has been an almost complete turnover of the player roster. His scouting and draft preparation efforts look not just for physical talent but for additional evidence of personal traits like accountability and optimism. Russell Wilson was picked not only because he is talented, but because his goal-oriented visualization and positive attitude are aligned perfectly with Carroll’s vision.

Wilson’s found the right organizational fit to fully utilize his talents and drive. So has Olbermann. It is a tremendous pleasure and privilege to be in the right place where you can really stretch out and do what you do best, and it will be a pleasure – and an inspiration – watching them do it.

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