4 min read

Bad coach. Good coach.

Some grown-ups only stick around when you're making them look good.
Bad coach. Good coach.
How to get your team to play hard for you.

Show Notes

I'm not a particularly athletic person, but I did play sports when I was growing up. Kids learn a lot in sports, for instance, I learned that a lot of grownups are kind of assholes. One year, I must have been eight or nine, I played Little League Baseball for a team called the Tigers. We had a new coach that year. Coach Tom was a petty officer from the base near our town. I have no idea why he wanted to coach Little League Baseball because he didn't seem to enjoy being around kids. He definitely didn't warm to the task as the season progressed. Man, we were bad. About halfway through the season, we'd lost every single game and in at least two of those games, we got skunked. We were so bad that Coach Tom actually quit in the middle of the season. His parting words to the team were the next level of passive aggression. In a nutshell, Tom blamed a bunch of eight-year-olds for not playing hard. If we weren't gonna play hard, we were wasting his time. So see you later, kids. Coach Tom has better things to do.

Imagine what it does to an eight-year-old to realize that grown-ups only stick around when you're making them look good. Well, after that disastrous season, it's a miracle that any of us wanted to play again. But it was the 80s. Nobody had cable or video games. So it was baseball or nothing. So next season, we all dragged our butts to the first day of practice. But this time around, we had a brand new coach, oddly enough, his name was Charlie Brown. His nose was covered with gin blossoms. Eight-year-old me thought why does Charlie Brown always smell like medicine? Yeah, medicine. 48 year old me realizes coach Charlie was a functional alcoholic. Yes, Charlie had flaws, but as a coach, he had no equal. That year the Tigers went undefeated. We absolutely crushed everyone we went up against and we skunked five or six teams on our way to the Championship. On the field, we played hard, running hard to first base and doing all the other little things that make the difference between victory and defeat. Off the field, we were all about baseball. Kids would bring their gloves to school and practice, even when we weren't "practicing". Somehow coach Charlie got a bunch of unfocused immature spoiled kids to play hard and win. How does that happen?

We played our hearts out for Coach Charlie, why didn't we go the extra mile for Coach Tom? How can the same group of kids be recalcitrant losers one year and enthusiastic winners the next? Well, the answer is pretty simple. If you want people to play hard for you, don't be an asshole. With Coach Tom, we all started the relationship with a deficit. The message was you guys are losers, prove me wrong. With coach Charlie, we started the relationship with a surplus. Charlie's message right from day one was you guys are winners. Prove me right. To paraphrase Joe Torre, competing is not about winning, it's about understanding and nurturing your people: winning is the result. And by the way, if you don't know who Joe Torre is just know this guy had 2000 hits as a major league baseball player and 2000 wins as a manager. If you want to know how to win, study winners. If you want to know how to lose study tech.

Now that probably sounds obnoxious, but look around. Last week, techie Twitter was ablaze with hand wringing over the 40-hour workweek. Seriously? First-world problems are hilarious. In many parts of the world, little kids can't scrape together enough calories to sustain human life. And yet, in the bubble of techie Twitter, it's knives out over the humanity of a 40-hour workweek. I wish you could really eat nothing burgers, because then techie Twitter could actually provide value by say, feeding starving children. But seriously, there is a middle ground between the hustle porn hucksters and the mollycoddlers. Owners and management don't need to be at odds with workers. We can create conditions where people want to play hard. And yes, we can turn resentful keyboards zombies into engaged, creative, and joyful workers. But it will require some introspection. If your people aren't playing hard. Maybe it's because you're being an asshole.

Let's start with hiring. What message does your fizz buzz interview send to candidates? It says, you are an asshole. Talk about starting a relationship with a deficit. How about programming assignments? lots of companies won't even give applicants an in-person interview unless they work on an unpaid programming assignment in their spare time. When you ask people to work for free in their spare time, what kind of precedent do you think you're establishing with new hires? The fact of the matter is the tech hiring funnels asshole tolerant people into your organization and then we complain about assholes in tech. That doesn't make sense.

Okay, so what about compensation? Pop quiz. How many times has the recruiter asked you to reveal your current compensation? Now, how many times has a recruiter divulged what other people in your same position make it the company? Yeah. information asymmetry is how the system works and it's the employer who exploits the power imbalance.

Guys, this shit is so obvious. I don't understand why people are surprised when people don't play hard at work. Seriously. Snap out of it. I could go on and on. But I think you get my drift. Right now tech is run by coach Tom's and we're getting skunked. It's ugly out there. The failure rate of tech companies and projects is appalling. If we're ever going to start winning, we need to stop sabotaging ourselves. Ultimately, we need more coach Charlies.

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