The Calm, Confident Organization

Date:   Friday , April 29, 2011

For golf fans, April is a big month, a time for the biggest of the major tournaments – the Masters. For me, and I suspect for most golf fans, watching the Masters is not about the expert shot making, but rather about the underlying human drama. The pin drop silence, the incredible tradition, the career altering significance – some thrive under the pressure and limelight, whereas others wither away, in often excruciatingly bad performances. Ultimately, it’s not the shots themselves but the stories that we remember – the triumph of Jack Nicklaus in 86, the meltdown of Greg Norman a decade later – because they separate, often in a brutal and cruel fashion, those with the mental fortitude and determination to win versus those without.

Of course, this delineation is not exclusive to golf; it’s true in all sports. In the really big games, a select few (think Michael Jordan in 90’s or Joe Montana in the 80’s) come through like no other, finding that extra gear and performing even better than they would in other games. They are the rarest of rare talents, combining both physical and mental excellence, and we celebrate them.
What separates them from the rest? At the top levels, everybody practices hard and is physically gifted. I doubt that there is as much differentiation along those dimensions as one might think. Instead, the difference is in the head – that inner reservoir of strength that the winners can draw upon when they really need it. I call it the ‘calm confidence’ of champions. At times of high stress, they maintain a zen-like calmness, focused and intense, but also comfortable and relaxed. They’re fully absorbed, “in the moment,” and I believe honestly enjoying themselves.

Those who falter lack the inner calmness and confidence, and instead are filled with nervous energy, doubt, and probably a healthy dose of fear. They try to avoid losing rather than going for the win. When the pressure builds, they can’t draw on a reservoir of strength, but rather begin to doubt themselves, lose focus, and let their emotions get out of control. They look fidgety and uncomfortable in their own skin. Anger and frustration boil over, and often they can’t execute even something basic. It’s painful to watch, and it’s all there for the world to see.

How does this translate to the world of business? Quite simply, building high performance teams is generally the same whether in sports or business – recruiting top talent, building trust and teamwork, and competing. The successful business shares many of the same qualities as the championship sports team. As managers and leaders, I believe that we all strive to build the “calm, confident” organization. We want our organizations to thrive, and to perform even better when the chips are down. And moreover, to have fun while doing it.

More than anything, confident teams exude an air of inevitability. They don’t sugar coat the situation, and in fact, accept negative information readily, but at the same time, they never doubt that success is assured in the long term. That level of confidence is contagious, and readily apparent to other key stakeholders – customers, new employees, investors. It becomes self-fulfilling.

Building such a team starts with recruiting. You set the tone and stage by the initial hires, finding the right mix, and just as importantly, avoiding the really toxic choices. Often, the bad choices come in the guise of talented and experienced professionals, with resumes packed with impressive bullet points. But it’s important to dig deeper. Has the individual been part of winning teams? Was there pride in the output? Have they been part of teams that have faced adversity and overcome it? If the answer is no to these questions, especially for an experienced professional, it’s a warning sign to move on. You could be running into a history of underachievement and learned pessimism. For some people, a “black cloud” follows them because I honestly believe that they want it that way – being part of something successful can be scary to some people because they are then accountable for delivering on their commitments.

In contrast, when recruiting those with a habit of winning, they speak with glowing pride of what they’ve accomplished, the collective excellence of the people they worked with, and the joy of the journey. They’re open, honest and optimistic. Even if the project they worked on “failed” in the market, it doesn’t shake their confidence. As the great football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “We never lost a game, sometimes we just ran out of time.”
Getting the right people on board is a critical first step. Confidence is contagious and has a positive effect on everyone in the workplace. One of the first benefits that you’ll see is more intensity and less emotion. I never really understood the difference between the two until reading a book on leadership by the great basketball coach John Wooden. Emotion is fleeting, it burns out, and it’s often out of control. Intensity, on the other hand, is marked by strong and unwavering focus and balance. Whereas the “emotional” organization will vacillate between extremes, sucking energy from productive uses, the “intense” organization weathers problems as small speed bumps, never losing sight of the bigger goals.

As managers, it’s important for us to reinforce the behaviors that we value within the organization. At Infineta, we instituted a quarterly MVP award, in which everybody on the team votes for the person who best exemplified the values that we hope to achieve: technical excellence, work ethic, teamwork. There is a small cash reward but the more important part is being recognized by your peers. For everyone else, it’s a reminder of the qualities that we value as an organization.

Ultimately, the only sustainable competitive advantage is in our people and culture. Building the “calm confident” organization isn’t easy, and it’s much easier to reflect and write about rather than to actually do. But half the battle is knowing where you want to go, and then taking steps, however small, to get you moving in the right direction.