The Comeback Kid?

Alex Smith, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers

Alex Smith - Image via Wikipe

We all love comebacks.

Those of us who are San Franciscans really love it when it involves our much beloved US professional football team, the San Francisco 49ers.

The 49ers are in the championship hunt this year after a long hiatus, playing for their first conference championship – a step before the Super Bowl and league championship – since 1998 against the New York Giants this upcoming Sunday.

Better yet, they are being led out of this playoff-less wilderness by their much maligned former #1 draft pick, quarterback Alex Smith.

Here’s the cut to the chase; can you come back if you’ve never really left? Does it count if the talent was already there but the way to shape it and bring it out its best performance was all that was missing?

Arguably there are three elements that drives success for someone like Niners’ quarterback Alex Smith – or you in your job – with an organization; fit for technical (aka domain) competence (do you have the technical smarts needed for the role) , fit for cultural competence (are you able to navigate the culture effectively), and fit for interpersonal relationships (can you develop effective and successful working relationships with your boss, peers, board of directors as appropriate, and direct reports).

We know the story; the bright, shining star at IBM moves to Apple and gets whacked, and then gets hired someplace else and thrives. The savior player from one team moves to another and ends up being a me-too rather than a championship ring bearer.

Culture and interpersonal relationships count.

Consider quarterback Smith, who is having a good season after six mediocre ones. No doubt solid on the technical side (right physical size and attributes, right work ethic, right football smarts), by virtue of their worst record in the league he ends up as the number #1 pick in the draft and with the San Francisco 49ers.

Losing teams frequently have losing cultures; they often go hand in hand. And the longer an organization gets tabbed a loser –  the Chicago Cubs come to mind if you’re a baseball fan or Sears if you ever wander into a department store – the more ingrained that culture becomes. Great talent, if it can’t make the organization get better, generally doesn’t do so great in losing cultures. There is too much that needs to be turned around too soon; just ask Carol Bartz.

When you lose a lot in sports you usually end up getting dibs on the best player in the ensuing draft. Those #1 picks frequently bomb; the players that do well are the ones drafted later in the draft who end up on more competitive teams unless the teams have the patience and time to nurture the player along slowly.

In terms of interpersona relationships, Alex Smith had two different head coaches in his first six years and six offensive coordinators in those same six years. Every year for Smith was like going back to square one; imagine a CEO that had a new chairman every year. It’s not a formula for success.

While many of the players on the 49ers are the same this year as last, new head coach Jim Harbaugh installed a different – and it turns out – winning formula for culture with the team.  The organization at the top has improved, as ownership (the York family) has stabilized and team CEO/President 30 year-old Jed York has matured. While tone and behavior at the top isn’t always critical, it is always important.

So a more effective cultural fit, better interpersonal effectiveness to go along with the right technical skills produces a winner; a comeback.

49er tight end Vernon Davis, who had his own share of challenges, caught the game winning pass from Smith for the team to put them into the NFC championship game against the Giants.  David said, “It was us against history. That’s all I could say to myself. It was us against ‘no.’ Us against ‘can’t.’ “

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

 

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