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Ordinary People do Extraordinary Things

Apr 26th, 2013 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

ESPN started a documentary series in 2012 called 30 for 30, web which was originally meant to be 30 documentaries covering the 30 years that ESPN has been on the air. Has it been that long since ESPN first came on the air? Hard to imagine life without it now. One of this year’s documentaries is about Jim Valvano and NC State’s men’s basketball championship run of 1983. The contrast between what Valvano was like as a coach versus some of the things you hear and see about coaches now is striking, especially with this drama surrounding Rutgers’ former coach, Mike Rice.

Most of us, at some time or another, come into contact with a sports coach who has an anger problem. We ran into that problem last summer when my youngest son’s youth baseball coach lost his temper way too many times during practices and games. It was a tough situation to deal with. You can confront him, sure, but what if he takes issue with that and takes it out on your kid? As parents we spent the majority of the season on damage control. Some of those kids didn’t come back to play this season.

Valvano was a larger-than-life personality. He was outgoing, enthusiastic, positive and, when you hear his former players talk about him, loved. I remember watching that championship game in the basement of the dorm at U of O, and we were all pulling for NC State because they were huge underdogs. It was inspirational. I’ve learned a little bit about Valvano’s career since then, but now that I’ve watched the documentary, I can see now that that game was just the smallest sliver of a tiny section of the kind of inspiration that Valvano cultivated on a daily basis. For Valvano, the turning point in his life was when he heard a speaker say that God must love ordinary people because he made so many of us. That kind of put Valvano off, but then the speaker followed it up, “Every day, in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things.”

Most of us are ordinary people. Most of the people we work with are ordinary people. Most of us do extraordinary things all the time. If you’re leading a team, managing a company or a department, do you give people the opportunity to do extraordinary things? Give them the space, the time, the authority — they will do extraordinary things.

In a management meeting I attended yesterday, one manager shared some data she came across comparing employee benefits at Costco and Walmart, as well as profit indicators. It was fairly revealing (Costco came out on top, in all categories). Because we were discussing this in the context of employee happiness, one of the managers talked about friends he knew who worked at Costco, and about how strict they were with their attendance policy, for example. His point was that maybe those strict rules make employees unhappy. He’s right, of course — about the employees who want to show up late. Maybe valuable employees actually like rules to be enforced. Costco’s turnover is markedly less than Walmart’s, and the numbers don’t lie.

I’m not sure what these two different lines of thought have in common. That’s what I like to do — take two different lines of thought and see where they intersect. Sprinkle a little leadership and team-building, add a dash of empowerment, mix it with valued incentives — maybe we get a good recipe. Management is an inexact science. If you have a new program every quarter to create a more positive work atmosphere, but you don’t back it up with solid benefits, employees will sniff it out every time. It does not cost you more to offer more substantial benefits. Costco proves it — their profit per employee is higher. Profit. Not revenue.

Most of us would give just about anything to have our employees talk about us the way those former players talked about Valvano. They loved him. But you know what? It was reciprocal. They were actually loving him back. He trusted them, he believed in them, he led them and they executed. Extraordinary.

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper