by Don Kennedy, Managing Partner.

What the NFL Hall of Fame Ceremony Reminded Me About Talent and Desire

As I watched this year’s NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony (I think Ray Lewis is still talking), I couldn’t help but think of an expression and concept that I have pondered countless times over the last twenty years of my career.  It was a theme that was front and center with each of the inductees, and spoke to a combination of God-given talent and a burning desire to be successful that resulted in these gentlemen being recognized as among the best in their profession.  Said more simply, these men were Capable and Willing. It’s a simple way to compartmentalize talent and organizational dynamics, and we all deal with people possessing the following four combinations of these two words each and every day throughout our careers.

1)  Not Capable and Not Willing – Let’s just get this one out of the way quickly.  Low level skills and a lack of desire to get better? No, thanks.  We’ve all come across these people, and they are a drain on time and energy.  I don’t mean to be short, but avoid these folks at all cost, and if you currently have anyone with this profile in your organization, it’s time to move on…quickly.

2)  Capable but not Willing – These are undoubtedly the most frustrating people that you will encounter both personally and professionally.  Back to the NFL Hall of Fame, there is no doubt a long list of former players with more natural ability than several of the recent inductees that had lackluster careers.  If you are leading a sales organization, I guarantee that you have team members that display moments of brilliance from a capabilities standpoint but lack the consistency and scaled growth to put them at the top of your team.  This is about desire, and a will to win. Hall of Famers are no doubt gifted with natural talent, but they relentlessly and consistently focus on unlocking those talents for the good of the team and their own careers.

3)  Willing but not Capable (or Capable Enough) – This one is really tricky, because it can manifest itself in many different ways, and is all about setting and clearly managing proper expectations.  There are of course extreme examples. If my “job” and measure of success is to dunk a basketball, it doesn’t matter how willing I am. My mid-40ish self could spend countless hours practicing with the best of intentions and getting “coached up”, but the bottom line is that it’s not going to happen.  Luckily most people are not trying to succeed in professions with completely unrealistic goals. Capabilities can be taught to a certain degree, but willingness is a pretty tough sell. When in doubt, build your organization around the willing. Think about the exceptional sales leader whose dream is to be CEO.  At the end of the day, he or she may just not have all of the skills needed to make that jump, and may never get there even with hard work. Does this mean they are not incredibly valuable to the organization and can’t have a phenomenally successful and fulfilling career? Absolutely not. Teams and companies comprised of incredibly willing people with aligned and transparent expectations will win more often than not.  A tenth of a percent of NFL players make the Hall of Fame, but championships are largely won due to the efforts of the truly willing, which make up the majority of teams.

4)  Willing AND Capable – These are your all-stars.  Your leaders. These are the type of people that you want to surround yourself with, as they bring a unique combination of skills and determination to the table that can’t necessarily be taught.  This doesn’t mean they are always the easiest to coach or manage. They can have a tendency to hold themselves in high regard and judge their peers on the same scale on which they exist, but without these people in the mix, you have an uphill battle on your hands.  These people are not complacent, do not rest on their laurels, and are motivated by the chase as much as by the victory.

The guys in the gold jackets that were just inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame were clearly more than capable at their craft, but every one of them spoke to their desire to push themselves to levels beyond their peers and even their own expectations.  Many of them came from tough upbringings where it would have been easy to quit or wallow in self-pity. There is a razor-thin margin in physical talents between good players, great players, and Hall of Famers. Attitude, desire, and a willingness to learn and improve are the differentiators.  It’s no different in business or life in general. Whether you’re a senior leader thinking about the next step in your career, a young manager building a team for the first time, or a parent with school-age kids, success can be achieved through strong capabilities, but greatness is about the willingness to raise the bar on what is possible.