Something Special About Athletes

on 09 | 25 | 2014

Search Strategies

When working with clients to establish a search strategy, I am often asked questions relating to the advantages and limitations of emphasizing specialist knowledge over general skills and utility. The question is often framed as the dilemma between the specialist and athlete.

The Value and Limitations of Specialists

Specialists possess specific skills and expertise relevant to a particular organization. These could be in the form of technical skills, knowledge of competitors or their products, relationships with prospect customers, or expertise in a particular category or domain. As a result specialists can often deliver the most impact in the shortest amount of time. The question is to what extent the specialist can evolve as the nature of the company, its market, customers and technology changes.

Hiring decisions biased in favor of specialist knowledge are thus inherently betting on the status quo, which in Silicon Valley is seldom a safe bet. As businesses and markets evolve, often at rapid pace and in unforeseen directions, skills and experience previously deemed relevant may no longer be so. Furthermore, specialist knowledge is by its nature confined to a limited number of potential candidates. As a result choice is limited and overall quality measures will potentially score lower than within a broader pool of general candidates.

The Value and Limitations of Athletes

Generalists should not be mistaken for athletes. The athlete is not simply the leader with broad skills, but the leader who has demonstrated adaptability and success in changing environments. In order to prosper in different sectors, markets or stages of companies, leaders employ skills with enormous utility, such as advanced critical thinking, organizational development and leadership, and the ability to draw conclusions from data that drive impactful business decisions.

Because of their multi-faceted skills and versatility, athletes are highly adaptable to a company’s goals and objectives, making them a valuable, long-term investment. Because the hiring of an athlete is driven by a desire for qualities and skills not limited to any one area, the potential pool of candidates is naturally much wider and therefore the hiring decision can be optimized for quality.

The Winning Mentality

Above all else, and to justify the label, athletes demonstrate a winning mentality. By seeking out and succeeding in new challenges, where success is predicated on personal attributes on not on some specialist knowledge, the athlete must possess the drive and desire to win.

A perfect example of the combination of adaptability with a desire to win is Alex Zanardi. Zanardi was a successful and flamboyant Formula 1 racing driver, a major accomplishment in its own right. In 2001 Zanardi had fought from the back of the grid to lead a Champ Car race when he was struck by another car and in the ensuing wreck lost both his legs. After recovering from the accident and being fitted with prosthetic legs, Zanardi took up handcycling, rising to the top of the sport and winning gold at the 2012 Paralympics. Zanardi’s success comes not only from his advanced technical skills in driving and motor sport, but in his innate and insatiable desire to win.

What separates Zanardi from others who may have suffered such a setback is his innate adaptability and insatiable competitive drive, which compelled him to transform his life and master something new. Despite losing his legs—the same legs that brought him tremendous success, fame, and money—he had the immeasurable will to not only overcome obstacles and adapt to change, but also continue to seek the highest level of success.

When it comes to technology talent, I believe the winners are those who can embrace and adapt to change, and possess an unlimited desire for success. Your company needs both.

About the author: Kevin Buckby is a Partner at Riviera Partners. He focuses on helping his clients compete successfully for the most highly sought-after product and marketing executive talent.