This article was originally published to NextView's Medium publication about startup traction. Find and follow that publication here.
I’m a Knicks fan, which is another way of saying, I could really use a hug.
Over the last decade, Knicks fans have been subjected to an all-you-can-choke-on buffet complete with all the necessary items: historic amounts of losing, front-office scandal, a hero-turned-enemy, mind-numbingly dumb trades, and of course, ne’er-do-well owner James Dolan and his freaking band.
But during all of that, the Knicks also hired two of the most influential coaches in league history: Phil Jackson and Mike D’Antoni. The latter was our coach from 2008 to 2012, while the former is currently the team’s president. And both have one thing in common that culture-forward startups should study: They’re “system coaches.”
Both men are influential thanks to their adherence to clearly defined offensive systems. Jackson helped Michael Jordan win six titles and Kobe Bryant win five by running the triangle, while D’Antoni revolutionized the NBA with his fast-paced “seven seconds or less” offense, which opened the door to teams like the Golden State Warriors and lineups where the 6-foot-8 LeBron James is the tallest player on the court during the Finals.
Now, system coaches know one thing: They need to find players that fit their system. If they’re to build a winning team, they have to be absolutely, positively certain that the player they’re vetting isn’t just the best talent but rather the right talent.
Similarly, companies who have a strong culture need employees who fit that culture.
These companies are like system coaches. Culture is defined as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” And that “regarded collectively” part is key — these types of companies, like system coaches, start with the whole, then try to attract or find the best talent who would be happy being a part of that system.
Important distinction: It’s not about finding sameness. It’s not a “cult” anymore than being an NBA team is a cult. An NBA team has complementary players that fit well together, despite their different abilities and personalities. Complementary but together — that’s the goal with teams from sports to business.
In each case, basketball or business, being a “system coach” can’t be judged as inherently bad or good. It’s just one way to try to win.
Where Companies Need to Improve
Most companies with strong cultures recognize that they indeed care about maintaining and improving that culture. They put it into documents and focus on employee happiness and growth. They make “culture videos” and perform other PR tasks to market that culture to find the right talent for the team.
But where we all mostly drop the ball is in arguably THE MOST important place: interviewing candidates.
What if someone owned culture interviews for each and every candidate? Wouldn’t that create a crucial “first filter” for both company and talent to make the best possible decision?
I started my career at Google in 2008. When I was asked to interview candidates for my team later on, I was struck by one of the four various categories that were assigned to us: Culture Fit. One person’s entire role in the interview process was to screen for culture. They’d explain every nuance of how Google operated that they could, pulling from their own perspective and some documentation about principles and corporate culture.
By assigning a culture fit owner, the category was placed on par with screening for job aptitude and skills. Google was self-aware enough to both recognize their culture’s prevelance AND be willing to turn away prospective employees (or have them turn away Google) to ensure a match.
Later in my career, I worked at HubSpot as head of content (i.e. editorial). While there, I largely — how you say — sucked ass. I did NOT live up to my talent, and I was unhappy. I blamed things I couldn’t control, too: internal politics and/or the scale of the company preventing me from reinventing things quickly, certain processes or approaches or beliefs, etc. In other words, I didn’t mesh with the culture. (If you were on my team there, know that I’m still angry with myself for not delivering for you before I decided to leave. I’m sorry about that, truly. I also recognize that I was never really a fit for the beliefs, approach, or culture of HubSpot. Neither side is good or bad. Just different.)
Once I left and joined NextView, I started doing some of the best work of my career and even received a few public awards for what I do. Most importantly, I feel more creative empowerment and personal fulfillment than in any prior job I’ve held. And I realize now the power of proper expectation setting. After all, it’s not like I suddenly became talented once I left HubSpot. I just didn’t fit in there, nor did my career goals align with working at a later-stage company in general.
At the time I interviewed there, HubSpot didn’t have the culture team it now has, so nobody owned culture fit interviews quite like they did at Google. If they had, I actually think one or both sides would have agreed it wasn’t a good fit — not in a negative way, mind you, but rather through a mutual understanding. For instance, their primary objective was monthly lead generation through a repeatable process focused on individual pieces of content, while mine was to take the reins of building a new, large, and meaningful content brand over a longer period of time. Instead, I was told “we’re flat” and “we’re open to that goal,” but neither was true.
After I left, a similar thing happened to another employee, only he took vengeance on the executives he disliked in the form of a scathing book. (Unfortunately, for all the larger issues in tech that it highlights, it couched or even grazed over the meaningful stuff in favor of unfair personal attacks on others. Particularly disheartening was the harsh portrayal of individuals who had no political sway over the author and who I know, based on my own intimate knowledge of their work and personalities, are well-meaning people simply trying to do good work early in their careers.)
Similarly, I’d bet that this person would never have entered the company had there been a better set of expectations up front. “We do this type of content. We have these goals. We are a system coach, and here is our system. If that makes you happy, we’d love to talk more. If not, we wish you the best in your next role.”
Which reminds me…
In 2012, during yet another losing season for the Knicks, that system coach Mike D’Antoni unceremoniously resigned from the team. His multi-year tenure had yielded a 121–167 record, and many people blamed him, not the talent. They said he lacked self-awareness since he tried to run a system with a team clearly not built for it.
Maybe he did lack self-awareness. I don’t know. But I DO know that if he and Knicks management were hellbent on making that system succeed, they needed the right talent, not just the best talent. Maybe then, D’Antoni AND his players would have been more successful.
After these past two years — two years of floundering some more using another system, handed down from Knicks president Phil Jackson — the Knicks decided to bring in a new head coach, Jeff Hornacek.
Hornacek doesn’t run a set system. Instead, he has a certain set of principles that guides his coaching of each individual, as he mostly molds his approach to the players to maximize their abilities.
Being a current Knicks head coach who works under Jackson, he says he’ll use elements of the triangle. Being a former Phoenix Suns head coach — the same place where D’Antoni made his historic mark years ago — Hornacek will undoubtedly use elements of that system too.
He’s a principles coach, not a system coach. Neither is good or bad. But what IS good is that Hornacek seems very self-aware of what he is. He’s saying the right things and setting the right expectations.
Which type of coach do you want to be?
You have two choices as a business: Really, truly go all-in on the culture thing and admit that you’re a system coach and thus should hire like one, OR stop saying you’re “culture-driven” and try instead to shape your management style around a set of principles and each individual.
We’re so good in tech at perpetuating and articulating our cultures around the company internally or via marketing tactics externally. But if we could all just get better at doing so during the interview — to really, clearly, and honestly convey what you expect of an individual and what they can expect of you — I think both company and individual would have far fewer negative experiences.
But it all starts with self-awareness. It all starts with being upfront about whether you’re a system coach or not.
Yes, it’s a lot harder to interview this way. Yes, it’s much easier (if wasteful or even less kind) to just let the system accept or spit out an individual once they get hired.
But setting expectations is also the right thing to do for everyone involved, whether you define “right” as effective use of resources or honesty and integrity.
Neither system coaching nor principles coaching are inherently good or bad. They’re just different ways to try to win. But if you lack the necessary self-awareness to know what you are, you’re only setting yourself up to lose.