As everyone looks for lessons to understand the Jeremy Lin ‘Linsanity’ phenomenon, I viewed it from my lens of having interviewed 250 chief executive officers and as a Knicks fan following Jeremy Lin before he became a sensation. So in seeking truth, I decided to crunch some numbers. The results were compelling and revealed that there are definitive lessons CEOs can learn and apply from Jeremy Lin.
This article has two parts: first my analysis of Lin with CEO lessons, and second, direct CEO perspective where I talk with Michael Chen, recent CEO of GE Media Finance and President of an NBC News Business, about Jeremy Lin.
Identify the superstar on your bench
An unexpected insight came when I compared the 11 games Jeremy Lin played for the Knicks before his breakthrough with the 11 games he played after Feb. 4. I calculated points and assists per minute. The finding: In Lin’s 11 games after his breakthrough playing an average of 34 minutes per game he averaged 23.9 points per game and 9.1 assists per game; in his games prior to breakthrough his averages using 34 minutes per game would have been 20.4 points per game and 9.7 assists per game. Net/net, before his breakthrough, Jeremy Lin was already achieving at the same high level, but was just under the radar.
To coach Mike D’Antoni’s credit, the moment Mr. Lin had just one great game, he immediately made him a starter. The message to CEOs is look under the radar in your organization — analyze P&Ls of overlooked businesses or current smaller untapped markets, seek breakthrough ideas from the depth of your organization, and view carefully potentially overlooked data because there may be a superstar on the bench.
Play team ball
When Jeremy Lin took over the point guard position, the Knicks won nine of 11 games; during the prior games the Knicks lost nine of 11. And during this turnaround, they were mostly playing without their two perennial all-stars. So what happened? The Knicks created a winning corporate culture. Once a culture is defined, the key to a team is everyone has a role.
As it turns out Jeremy Lin’s role as point guard is what I define as a high-leverage position. He orchestrates. Mr. Lin’s passing ability immediately made everyone else better, and low-percentage shots became high-percentage shots. For example, Steve Novak prior to Mr. Lin’s leadership was a background character without a defined role, averaging only three points a game; since Feb. 4 Mr. Novak has averaged 12 points a game off the bench and is a top five NBA leader with 46-per-cent three-point shooting percentage, and is now looked upon as an option to take the final shot of the game.
Playing team ball, the Knicks followed their new leader Jeremy Lin’s lead and started playing team defence as well. The Knicks 11 games prior let teams score an average of 96 points per game. The 11 games with Mr. Lin leading the Knicks became one of the NBA’s elite teams holding teams to just 90 points per game. Knick fans witnessed something they hadn’t really seen since 1973 when Frazier, Bradley, DeBusschere, Reed, Lucas and Monroe played true team basketball team offense and defence. I have fond memories as a kid sitting with my dad watching the beauty of team basketball, and now I can sit with my kids and witness team ball together.
The message to CEOs is that team ball wins, and the first step to team ball is having a defined culture and identifying high-leverage positions whose occupants make everyone else better. Just like a winning coach has 48 minutes of intense team basketball, a winning CEO has each associate successfully playing their roles and integrating them with others every day – playing team ball a full 48 minutes.
To gain further perspective adding to the two insights – identify the super star on your bench and play team ball – following are some questions I asked recent CEO Michael Chen about his take on Jeremy Lin.
Michael, as a recent CEO, what do you think companies can learn from “Linsanity”?
Robert, every corporation probably has 20 to 30 hidden Jeremy Lin’s in its organization. No, I’m not talking about just Harvard grads or Asian-Americans. I am talking about employees who have the potential to become future leaders, but for one reason or another have yet to be discovered. As corporations get bigger, bureaucracy inevitably creeps in.
Sometimes, companies create several layers of management between employees and senior leaders, making it very difficult for these “Jeremy Lin’s” to be discovered. Therefore, companies should create a process that gives potential superstar employees an opportunity to showcase their talents in front of senior leaders. When I was at GE, we created a “Growth Competition” which allowed anyone with an innovative idea to enter the competition. They needed to create a team, develop the concept, and submit a detailed plan to a group of judges, who then decided whether or not it would qualify for a presentation to the vice-chairman and other leaders of GE. It was like the American Idol”of finding future business leaders, except our judges were nicer.
What advice would you give the hidden “Jeremy Lin’s” in organizations?
Personal branding is essential. A few years ago, I developed a personal branding model which I call the “4 I’s”: have integrity, make an impact, be inclusive, and inspire people. 1) Have integrity – As Jeremy Lin has shown to the Knicks, be dependable, trustworthy, accountable, and loyal to the organization. 2) Make an impact – Whenever you have an opportunity to showcase your talents, give it your all. If you succeed, fantastic. If it doesn’t work out, at least you know you went down swinging. 3) Be inclusive – Don’t try to do it alone. Like basketball, business is a team sport. Share the ball with others, involve them in the decision making, and help them succeed, and 4) Inspire people – Teams and corporations are looking for leaders who can energize and bring out the best in others. So like Jeremy Lin, be passionate, give others hope and respect, recognize them for the credit they deserve, and always stay humble. He is living proof that the 4 “I’s” Personal branding model works!
Michael, you are an Asian-American of Chinese heritage, just like Jeremy Lin. How does it feel that he has become an overnight sensation in the NBA?
To be honest, I am overwhelmed with pride and joy. The Asian culture encourages people to be humble, and not self-promote, which may give off the perception that Asian-Americans are not aggressive enough to make it as an athlete nor assertive enough to be leaders in this county. Hopefully, Jeremy Lin will help break that stereotype, and we will see many more Asian-Americans in professional sports and leadership positions. Jeremy Lin has shown all of us that you can be both humble and successful, which makes me proud of my Asian heritage. In addition, his success also makes me proud to be born and live in this country as an American, where people are given the opportunity to fulfill their lifelong dreams.
What do you see as Jeremy Lin’s future?
I truly believe Jeremy Lin will be a star in the NBA, but I feel a little for him. It’s almost like he has the whole world on his shoulders, and that he must continue to excel every single night or he will be disappointing the Knicks, New York, and even our country. I think those are tough expectations to fulfill. He will have his off nights, but I do believe he is the real deal, and the Knicks will be rewarded over the long term for giving Jeremy Lin the opportunity to prove he can be the starting point guard for their team.
Thanks Michael. So in summary, in business, unlike sports, it’s not always easy to know if you win. And yet a CEO is charged with making their business win. Perhaps the greatest lesson comes from not just watching, but listening to Jeremy Lin – a man who had no athletic scholarships out of high school, was undrafted out of college, graduated from Harvard, and is the first American player of Chinese descent to play in the NBA. Jeremy Lin reminds us, “Don’t let people tell you what you can’t do.”
Robert Reiss is host of The CEO Show , nationally syndicated by Business TalkRadio Network.