Thoughts from Ken Kaufman

Vision and Talent

2 minute
Football field

Most of you who regularly read this blog know that I am an inveterate reader. I will read whatever is at hand: newspapers, magazines, blogs, and books. I am always keeping an eye out for commentary and suggestions that are relevant to the leadership and management of America’s most complex organizations and institutions. Over time, I have learned to read carefully since an “article” that is seemingly about one thing might actually be making an entirely different point or an unexpected series of observations.

This happened recently when I came across an article in The Athletic written by David Lombardi. The article was entitled “How a Stanford Professor Helped Lay the Foundation for this 49ers Era” (The Athletic is a daily sports paper and the San Francisco 49ers are a professional football team). Lombardi’s article was about the rise of the 49ers from mediocrity in 2017 to a consistent Super Bowl contender: they appear again in this year’s Super Bowl. At first glance this was sports reporting. But with a more careful read, it turned out this article was actually a business strategy piece masquerading as an article about professional sports.

The article followed the managerial trail of John Lynch—the 49ers’ new general manager in 2017—as he considered how to bring the 49ers back to their former glory as five-time Super Bowl champions.

Lynch’s first recognition was a macro-business observation and not exclusively a sports observation. And that perception was that talent is the characteristic that every organization (sports or otherwise) needs in order to generate consistent year-to-year success. Whether you’re a football team, a bank, a software company, or a hospital provider, you can only succeed in this hyper-competitive economic era through the acquisition and retention of the very best talent.

Lynch wanted to establish a methodical approach at the 49ers for identifying the very best talent, but he quickly concluded that a random and undisciplined leadership approach would inevitably fall short. His first step forward toward a high-performing methodology was to hire a consultant (good move!!). The consultant he hired was Burke Robinson, a lecturer at Stanford University, who taught a class called “The Art and Science of Decision-Making.” Robinson specialized in the development of vision statements for Silicon Valley start-ups.

As Robinson huddled with General Manager Lynch and Coach Kyle Shanahan, they put a priority on the development of a vision statement, but not the usual top-down vision statement that likely exists in your hospital organization. Instead, Lynch, Shanahan, and Robinson focused on developing a vision statement that would explicitly guide the selection and retention of talent that would return the 49ers to winning football. Coach Shanahan emphasized the importance of this process by noting that “culture is the people you surround yourself with.” Over many years in both business and healthcare, I have read and heard many definitions of culture, but I had never before seen Shanahan’s definition. In fact, that definition struck me as right, contemporary, and powerful.

From there the 49ers lead executives began building with Burke Robinson what I would call the talent vision statement. As Lombardi describes it, the process was complicated and involved much difficult discussion and back and forth between the key parties. Eventually the decision was made to organize the vision around two columns—on the left, what was called “49er talent,” and on the right, what was called “49er spirit.” The 2017 draft vision statement is illustrated below.

San Francisco 49ers 2017 Draft Mission Statement

What struck me immediately was how relevant this vision statement was to any complex organization or effort. Here it guides the drafting of football players, but just change the words and it proves to be a powerful vision to acquire and retain the very best talent in your hospital—both executive and clinical. Just as an example, try this “talent vision statement” on for size for your hospital or health system.

Hospital Anywhere Talent Vision Statement

As you can see, I have applied a list of characteristics to “Hospital Talent.” I am sure many readers can and will generate their own list of critical talent characteristics. More interesting is how “49er Spirit” translates to the kind of spirit and intangibles that are required by any complex and competitive organization: day-to-day passion, enthusiasm and optimism, and mental toughness, which is absolutely required in today’s hospital care environment. An effective team can only be built around talent that is dependable, and consistent competitive success demands total accountability in the best sense of that word.

When the 49er vision statement was completed, Lynch had that vision made into a large chart that was displayed prominently at 49er headquarters. The vision was also copied onto laminated cards and widely distributed within the 49er team and organization. Lynch concluded the interview with Lombardi by saying they wanted the team’s vision “to be about who we really are. It’s a beacon that reminds us who we are and what we are trying to be.” As I said at the beginning of this blog, this excellent piece by David Lombardi is a business article masquerading as sports article. Read carefully: important leadership wisdom and guidance can be found in the most unexpected places.

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