Coaching / Development | Jul 5, 2015

Mike Forde, San Antonio Spurs

Managing Talent with Big Egos

The legendary Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger once said to me in a meeting “if you want an easy week (in training with the players) then expect a hard weekend (at the game) …. If you want an easy weekend then prepare for a hard week (in training with the players)”.

What Arsene is basically saying is that managing and coaching tough, difficult talent is very stressful and difficult. BUT if you can handle them, then when they are released on the competition they will be impossible to beat. The converse is when you have a calm, comfortable preparation with a group then the reality is that when the big moment comes this set of individuals will not deliver.

Management of talent – particularly exceptional talent – is not a new phenomenon in any top-level business, including sport. Harvard University studies have found that exceptional talent can have as much as a nine times positive, weighted contribution to success than average talent in the same role. This is a major impact on the success of any team, company or organization. If this is the case then why do we constantly fear the negative impact of recruiting ‘big ego’ talent?

I personally deliver speeches in over 20 different countries per year to between 10 – 15 different sectors and industries. Irrespective of location, industry or level of management the very first or second question I will be asked around the subject of talent is “how do you manage people with big egos?”. Society has conditioned us all to believe that ego is a negative, damaging and detrimental quality to bring to ANY situation. The media constantly pull out examples of high level athletes and movie stars whose egos have got out of control with serious ramifications. …… But is there an ego that is positive?

Through nearly two decades having the privilege of working with some of the greatest athletes and coaches from European Champions League and World Cup winners through to NBA World Champions the question is not about whether someone has a big ego or not but more whether they are still coachable (in the context of their development) and a piece that virtually everyone misses … Do you have a learning culture that can bring the best out of talent?

The four-NBA title winning coach for the San Antonio Spurs – Greg Popovich – once said that he looks for big ego talent who have “got over themselves”. He goes on to stress that if talent reaches a stage where they understand what they can and cannot do – and more importantly are content with this – then their capacity to control, manage and maximize their ego for huge performance gains can be realized. What he is not saying here, and this is critical, is ‘do away with your big ego talent’. Talent wins games. What allows that talent to sustain their impact over time is how well they can manage their ego in the context of a group setting.

Here is a formula I use with high performing teams and individuals to understand and maximize their talent:

( Ego + Coachability )  x  Learning Culture

Broken down the formula stresses that Ego is the foundation of greatness. However, what allows it to be positive and manageable is whether that ego (or talented individual) is still open to be coached, mentored, constructively criticized in order to continue to grow and develop. This insight is gained in the pre-recruitment, assessment phases as well as the on-boarding and early stage development cycle of a new person inside an organization.

It isn’t exclusive to this population also. The great soccer coach Carlo Ancelotti once told me that “motivation is only the first part of performance. Sustainability of that motivation is what separates good from great players.” So if we have a big ego talent who is coachable and open to continual development then we have a chance for greatness to appear. However – and this is the fatal mistake I see most often inside high performance teams – is the lack of a ‘learning culture’ to support this talented individual to deliver on their potential. Ask yourself two critical questions as a leader:

  1. Do I have big ego talent and are they coachable?
  2. If they are coachable do we really have a learning culture that will get the most out of them when they are under our guidance?

Finally, be bold, be brave and embrace your leading talent. But most importantly be intuitive to their needs and when they are ready to learn and accelerate. Get this right and as Arsene Wenger said “you will have more easy weekends to look forward to”.

Mike is the former Director of Football Operations & Executive Club Director for Chelsea FC, and currently acts as a strategy advisor to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA.

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