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Dave Winfield salutes the crowd as the Blue Jays World Series team from 1992 and 1993 were celebrated in Toronto Aug. 7, 2009. (Jim Ross/The Canadian Press)
Dave Winfield salutes the crowd as the Blue Jays World Series team from 1992 and 1993 were celebrated in Toronto Aug. 7, 2009. (Jim Ross/The Canadian Press)

On the job

Thank-you speeches and what they show Add to ...

Wow. Where do I start? First, I'd like to thank my dad for telling me to get a job, and the knuckle-popper in the next cubicle for making me desperate to escape to a corner office, and Gordon Gekko for inspiring me to always want more.

The Oscars will dominate the airwaves Sunday night, but it isn't only in Tinseltown where super-achievers get to thank those who helped propel them to the top.

A new study of the thank-yous given by elite performers finds that they are less likely to cite coaching and encouragement from management for their success, as they are to recall the inspiration of family and colleagues -and even the performance of people they never met - for their achievements.

"Career success is generally measured three ways, through promotion, salary or career satisfaction. But this doesn't really reflect long-term career success." said study author Richard Cotton, assistant professor of the Walker College of Business at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

"I became fascinated by induction speeches of people who have achieved the highest career success. I realized a lot of what they credited for their consistent performance had less to do with what talents they were born with or their training or performance, but with their relationships with people over time and what they gained from those relationships," Prof. Cotton explained.

His study, which appears in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal, focused on what might seem an unusual source of data: the acceptance speeches of baseball stars who have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"These players represent the top 2 per cent of all players in the game," Prof. Cotton noted. "I wanted to find what factors, aside from innate skills, they say helped shape them into elite players."

His research used a computer program that picked out specific kinds of support people mentioned and identified what roles they played in the person's life.

The analysis shows a lot of the inductees touched on the encouragement they got early on from their parents and lessons they got about values and the principles of teamwork and personal values such as working hard and practising to keep improving.

The analysis found that friendship and personal social support accounted for 62 per cent of the people players acknowledged. By contrast only 37 per cent could be described as career support, such things as coaching, skill-building and mentoring.

"Although we thought that psychosocial support would be an important part of these success stories, we wouldn't have guessed it to be as predominant as it turned out to be. Interestingly, too, most of it comes from outside the organization - from family members or friends or individuals who had a powerful influence from afar as role models or sources of inspiration."

However, all the sources played what Prof. Cotton called "developer" roles. The key kinds of career support that colleagues and relationships in their professional network provided were sponsorship, coaching, protection, challenging assignments and exposure. The key benefits they gained from their family and social ties were acceptance, confirmation, counselling and feedback, friendship and role modelling, the study concluded.

"In some cases, we find it can be a vicarious role model who they never even met, but who they aspired to be just by watching them or following their career success," he said. For example, former Toronto Blue Jay Dave Winfield cited Hank Greenberg, whose career ended before Mr. Winfield was born. "I used his model of excellence … to spur me to continue to go on [when facing a career challenge]" Mr. Winfield said.

There are obvious limitations of the study because it is based on one gender in one line of work, but Prof. Cotton is starting additional research using speeches of business and industry hall of fame winners.

"The big message for managers, is that they should be regularly asking employees whether they feel they are getting the support they need, both inside and outside of the organization," Prof. Cotton said.

Among the 62 speeches studied were Paul Molitar, another former Blue Jay; Reggie Jackson, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Greenberg, Ernie Banks, Wade Boggs, George Kell and Robin Yount,

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