The Return of the Regular Gal and Guy?

real people

Real People - Image by the|G|™ via Flickr

With ample help from the media, we are obsessed with the rockstar somethings – whether it be a CEO of a company, the new head at your kid’s school, or the coach of your favorite men’s National Basketball League team.

Good is not good enough; great is the order of the day. And in the hoax that is an assessment and selection myth like “topgrading and “A” players,” it means the person has to have gone to the right school, have the right degree, have the right look (preferably taller, thinner than heavier, and whiter or at least lighter) and run in the right circles.

In other words the type of people that many may secretly aspire to be, but really never like when we meet them in person; people we never really respect because it’s not clear where reality meets spin.

What this rockstar pursuit has meant is that many good people get bypassed for top roles (because of they were really good enough they’d already be a CEO) or – as in the case of pro sports – people formerly coaches just get recycled (and recycled).

Occasionally people who don’t fit the mold slip in. Many times they do well – often quite well. And if we just take the time to think about what makes them so good we might figure out that there is plenty – as the saying goes – of talent where these “regular” types of women and men have come from.

Ursala Burns is one of those “regular” people. She serves as the CEO of Xerox, a company where she has worked since 1980. A graduate of the Polytechnic Institute of NYU (mechanical engineering), she also has an an MS in mechanical engineering from Columbia. In an era were CEOs are frequently assumed to be great if they are wizardly founders (think Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison) or products of the McKinsey-Harvard Business School circuit, she is neither. What she is in plain good, and if she is as effective in the stint she began as CEO in 2009 as she was in her prior roles with the firm, Xerox prospects are bright and promising.

You can catch a sweet podcast interview of Burns here with NPR’s Marketplace. You’ll hear that though she’s been part of two “firsts” – first CEO who was female being replaced by a CEO who was female, and the first CEO who is female and black, she dismisses any talk of accomplishment. Her record, she notes, will be built by what she does, not by who she is.

Tom Thibodeau is the first-year coach of the Chicago Bulls, a men’s National Basketball Association team playing in the premier basketball league in the United States and Canada. The Bulls had the best record in the league. Thibodeau was named coach of the year for this year for his efforts. Thibodeau has worked in basketball for over 20 years, and this is his first shot at the head job.

The Wall Street Journal noted “Within the celebrity culture of the NBA, where most coaches are former stars who wear pocket squares, Thibodeau is the guy with the precariously knotted tie whose basketball career maxed out in 1981 when he captained the Division III Salem (Mass.) State Vikings.” It’s been suggested that Thibodeau looks more like someone selling vacuum cleaners or working a backhoe than he does one of the storied franchises in the NBA, home to Michael Jordan and his run of 6 NBA championships. Like Ursalu Burns, Thibodeau earned a reputation as a tireless worker.

He wasn’t a former player, and he didn’t have a big college reputation,” Peter Roby, former head coach of Harvard (and Thibodeau’s boss) said. “He just happened to be someone who understood the NBA, could relate to players, was willing to outwork everyone and knew what he was talking about.

Ursula Burns is similar; someone who worked hard, paid her dues, and got things done.

Both Burns and Thibodeau are “real people” – not flashy, not highly pedigreed, but very accomplished. Real people; people with resumes of hard work and accomplishment, not tourist stops at well known-brand name employers.

You will notice these type of people are everywhere. Even in your own organization.

And all you have to do is look.

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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