Coach K at #SHRM15


A few days before SHRM11, I wrote a blog post about the selection of Michael J. Fox as one of the keynote speakers. I was unhappy about what I perceived as the irrelevance of an actor speaking about HR at a time when jobs were scare and the profession was fighting to maintain some relevancy in the workforce.

I think I was wrong.

I had never been to a SHRM annual conference previously, and I didn’t understand the impact a powerful speaker could have, especially one whose message was uplifting and motivational, even if it is not specifically about HR. And although I missed hearing Michael J. Fox speak (I missed the whole conference), I heard that his message was truly inspirational.

So I formed no opinion about Duke basketball coach Michael Kryzewski (“Coach K”) before today’s opening keynote.

But now I am sad to say he was the worst keynote speaker I have heard at SHRM Annual.

It’s not that he didn’t have many small suggestions for building a winning team, like “make sure everyone feels important”,  “embrace the plural”, “have each other’s back”, “you’re good – get better”, and “find the opportunities that are presented.” But these nuggets were interspersed in a disjointed narrative about basketball and basketball players. And the subtext of that narrative was that extraordinary athletic talent only achieved what they did because he was there to lead them to greatness.

That kind of thinly disguised arrogance always aggravates me. As Cole Porter once wrote, “he may have hair upon his chest, but sister, so does Lassie”.

Many of his leaderships examples mentioned the great talent of the 1992 “Dream Team” – the very first Olympic team comprised of professional US basketball players – and how he helped create what they achieved. But he never mentioned the fact that this very team is plagued to this day with controversy about how they were chosen to be on the team and how petty grievances among some of the players possibly caused the exclusion of deserving players. And although he did mention that he was an assistant coach on that team, I don’t think he ever mentioned the head coach of that team (Chuck Daly) or gave him any credit for the team achievments.  I would have rather heard Coach K talk about how he helped teach these players how to put aside their egos and become better human beings instead of talking to them about standards that would help them win basketball games, and how he himself was part of a team that achieved that goal.

That’s the kind of lesson that would motivate me.