2. BUILDING TRUST
I called Chris back in about 2 hours, not wanting to sound desperate, but wanting to turn the tables a bit, hopefully catch him off guard. I had to put him through MY interview process. My wife was throwing me a big football retirement party THAT NIGHT. She was having it at my oldest brother’s restaurant/ bar on the west side of the city. There would be over 150 of my closest friends, family, coaches and former teammates. My people. My environment.
You see, everything I had accomplished in my career up until this point had all been on the strength of trust. That’s all football is. Especially at the highest level. Once you balance out talent, all you have left is the strength and level of trust teammates have with each other. Especially on the offensive side of the ball, the only area of football I can truly speak of with any real expertise. Think about it. Once we leave the huddle, everything from that point on is based on trust. Trust that everyone heard and understands exactly what play we are running. Then there is the absolute trust that each one of my teammates knows exactly what their role and assignment is for said given play. As we get closer to snapping the ball, the defense usually moves around to challenge our ability to be certain what front they are going to attack us with. There needs to be total trust that everyone is seeing the same movement, hearing my adjustments and understanding the changes that are now needed in order to allow this play to have a chance. This is all happening in seconds and as discussed earlier continues even after the ball is snapped and the play is underway. The running back needs to trust that I will get to that linebacker or there is no way he will press into that one-foot wide crease. It’s trust. The quarterback needs to trust that his receiver will know to break off his route short because during the play the receiver has read the same defensive adjustment that the quarterback is seeing. The ball is almost always thrown long before the receiver makes a break or turns around. It’s all based on trust.
Football is all about trust - your eyes focused on your job because of the trust in your teammates to do their job
Talent is great. But if you can’t trust talent to do what it’s supposed to do and do it every single time, you not only can’t win, you can’t even do your own job. The success of every single player on the offensive side of the ball is completely dependent on their ability to trust all their teammates to do their job, each and every time.
Trust is all I’ve known. How to build it, maintain it, and sometimes repair it. I see trust boiling down to three fundamental intertwined components
1) Total honesty
2) Great communication
3) A solid track record of doing what you said you would do, as well as you possibly could.
And that’s all great, but that track record takes time to build. You need to remember, the player turnover rate in professional football is extremely high. Sometimes I would have a new lineman playing beside me every single week! It was great when we had one, two and sometimes when we were really lucky, even three seasons of the same people playing together. That’s some serious trust built over time (no surprise those were the best teams I ever played on) But when you only have a week, sometimes two days, to build that trust it can be challenging. So, years ago, out of necessity, I found a shortcut. Get that new person in the most uncomfortable, challenging situation possible, without their ability to prepare. See how they react. That’s who you’re dealing with. For example, their very first practice, put them right into a no huddle, hurry up offense drill versus a blitzing defense period. That is stressful enough for seasoned teammates, for a first-day player, it can be madness. The point isn’t to see how well they perform but to see how they react. Do they whine, complain, make excuses? Or do they hunker down and do the very best they can? That tells you a ton about who they are as a person. Once I really know who someone is, and how they handle unplanned adversity – I can usually make a pretty good call if that’s someone I want to go to war with. If that’s someone I can trust, or at least trust enough to find out.
I’m not sure if I really expected Chris to come to the party or not, but I wanted to throw the bait out there to see how he would react. “Wow! Thanks Angus. That’s very kind of you to invite me. Unfortunately, I have a very important dinner I need to be at tonight. I’m sorry but I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. Thank you again for the offer. Sounds like it will be a ton of fun.” Fair enough, I mean I only gave him about 5 hours of lead time. Again, I should have known…
My wife threw a celebration party that will vividly live on in my memory forever. She went over the top. The entire place was filled with almost every piece of football memorability I have ever owned. Jersey’s, helmets, awards, footballs, photos – you name it, it was there. An embarrassing shrine to my entire life in the sport. She even had a long video and photo stream of my whole career running on a continuous loop throughout all of the TVs in the place. It was perfect and I was surrounded by so many people that have meant so much to me over the years. It would have been quite the sight for an outsider to have randomly walked in on. That’s just what Chris Ball did.
He came late enough that I’m sure he still made his dinner, but early enough that I know he didn’t stay longer at it then he had too. He showed up alone, knowing absolutely nobody there except me. He came bearing a retirement gift of scotch (seriously?) and a simple card that read – “congratulations on a great career. Here’s to the next step” Simple, but well thought out I’m sure.
Chris went right to work, getting to know everybody with his usual understated, curious, question-based approach. He wasn’t caught off guard or awkward one bit. He looked right at home amongst the madness that is my family and football life, which is not an easy thing to do. Walking through that place was a gauntlet of either headlock greetings from 300lb man-children, who may or may not have had a few drinks, to over personalized intrusive questions from my mother, who is extremely comfortable making you feel uncomfortable. Chris danced through all this with a natural smile like he was actually having a good time. All this while having his toughest opponent, my wife, keep a laser lock on him to see if he is the right coach for me to go play for next.
It almost irritated me – how could he fit in so well?? I wanted to see the cracks, to see him sweat. Didn’t happen. He stayed the entire night and spent time with nearly every single person there. Who does that?? Chris ended up being one of the very last people to leave. Now I know that almost sounds creepy, but honestly, he probably spoke to me the very least. I hardly saw him. He got to know my friends, former teammates and family. Questions, always asking questions. So much so, that people kept coming up to me and asking who he was, he never talked about Reliance or anything, he was just genuinely interested in everyone. It was strange, in a very pleasing kind of way. I liked him, maybe because he showed how much he cared, without having to tell me once. His actions were everything. He passed my crash trust test, but even more importantly, Chris passed my wife and family’s BS meter test. As we cleaned up the night and got ready to head home, I thanked my lovely wife for one of the most memorable evenings of my life. She smiled, leaned in to give me a kiss and affectionately yet firmly announced, “You’re choosing Reliance.” Gaining trust is vital. Gaining trust from my wife is supreme power. You win championships with trust, you also win people.
As far as ticking the three Trust boxes went
1) Total honesty – no idea? He could have been snowballing all of us.
2) Great Communication – A huge YES tick
3) Track record of doing what he said he would – For a 3-hour sample period I would say yes. Chris undersold and over-delivered in terms of even just showing up. He did much more than he committed to – A great start.
As Meatloaf so brilliantly once sang “two out of three ain't bad”
3. A STRONG CLOSE
That party was the perfect end to an exhilarating twenty-year chapter of my life. Football was everything and I loved every single second of it. Now it was officially over. The photos, awards, jersey’s and other mementos were all packed up and stored for safe keeping. It was time to move forward.
The gauntlet of interviews was an eye-opening experience and one that taught me a great deal. But now I had to make a decision. I had narrowed my choice of potential employer down to three. These three seemed to be the best blend of (in this order)
1) Best comfort level on a personal feel
2) True interest in me
3) Financial opportunity
Now it was time to get serious. The final meetings to go over formal proposals. Cut through the emotions and see the cold hard facts. Which was the best offer? I thought I could keep things that clear-cut, be pragmatic, look at things objectively.
The first two offers were more than impressive. It was clear they wanted me and believed I was capable of achieving lofty standards. Each thoroughly went through their proposal, expanded on expectations and blue-skied the unlimited upside financial potential for me. I was more than flattered and extremely grateful for their belief in me. I had dealt with contracts my entire professional playing career, so I was comfortable going through them and understanding how they read. That being said, after each meeting I still called on my old sports agent to add any advice in terms of wordings and other specifics that I may not have considered. Overall though, I was delighted. One proposal was so good and so aggressive that even though Chris Ball had made such a strong personal connection with me, I really didn’t have much hope that Reliance would be able to top this. I was about to find out.
Reliance Insurance was my final sit down. Because I had been so impressed with my contact with Chris up to this point I did give Reliance the benefit of having the final pitch. I was prepared to sit down with Chris and his proposal, review the numbers, hear his expectations and be told once again of the unlimited potential for me there. It went a little different than that.
Chris started off with some small talk on my party. How kind it was to invite him, how much he enjoyed meeting everyone and such. Then got right back to questions. “How has this whole experience been for you Angus?”. “In terms of what?” I responded. He knew They weren’t the only firm I had been talking to, I had been open about that with each company I had met with. “Have all these interviews and information gathering made you more comfortable or less comfortable about wanting to join our industry?” He didn’t say Reliance, just the industry overall. That was very comforting, he wasn’t putting me on the spot, but letting me answer honestly without having to commit to anything. Very smart. “It’s been fun. Challenging wrapping my head around something so different than what I’ve ever known. But people have been so good to me throughout all of it. Seems like a great industry, a real people, relationship-driven industry. I like that”. It’s almost as if that was the exact line he was banking on me saying. I unknowingly set up his big close. Questions were done, Chris was now going to sell Reliance to me.
“That’s great to hear Angus” Chris had a bit of a smile now. “You’re bang on too. It is completely a relationship business. From all sides. We need to build and maintain strong relationships with our clients, just the same as we need to with our underwriters. It’s the strength of those relationships that makes anything we do here possible. Without those relationships, we don’t even HAVE a business, let alone a successful one.” He paused after that, giving me a second to really let that reality sink in. Relationship building is what this industry really is. Bring value, honesty and dependability to people and you will make and maintain strong relationships. Economic success will follow.
After that pause, the Reliance sell job really began. “As important as building those relationships are to our success. There are ones we value even more.” I didn’t say anything. He seemed to want the floor and looked to have all he wanted to say well prepared. “Our relationships with each other, here, in our locker room (did he just say locker room?) is everything. The strength of our team internally is number one. Our ability to have players that share common values and buy into their role needed to help our team go out and win is vital. Our team culture is what sets the tone for everything else. You’re exactly right when you say this industry is about people. Here at Reliance we see our number one objective is filling our locker room with the very best people possible. People you trust to go to battle with. People you know will have your back always. People you want, and can win with. Here we recognize every single win as a team win, and we celebrate accordingly. This is not the place for selfish individuals. Our culture is about team. Working together as a team, winning as a team and celebrating as a team. It’s competitive, it’s challenging but it’s a ton of fun.” It sounded almost like a pregame pep talk. I’m sure he scripted it that way. After a short pause and a quick smile, he laid it out straight “Angus, we want you on our team.” I promised myself I would be pragmatic, objective and do my best to remove emotions from my decision. Tough to do when all I wanted to say was “Coach, I’m in!”. I didn’t. I held strong. Stayed calm and as nonchalantly as possible said: “That sounds great Chris, let’s talk contract.” I figured I could bring things right back to cold hard objective facts. Wrong again.
I see now that inviting Chris to my retirement party wasn’t an advantage to me, it was an advantage for him. That party gave him full access to everyone that mattered in my life. People that knew me better than anyone else in the world. Chris used his time there wisely. Talking to everyone there was the perfect opportunity to achieve 2 strong objectives
1) Find out who I really am outside of an interview setting. This could either confirm his belief in who I am or maybe raise questions or doubts to reconsider me.
2) Learn from everyone closes in my life what really mattered to me. This would be vital in tailoring his close to play heavy on what he learned meant the most to me:
• Being part of a TEAM
• The PEOPLE that make up that team
• WINNING as a team
My proposal had been sitting on top of a stack of documents beside Chris the whole time. Because we jumped right into the conversation I hadn’t even noticed it. As he slid it across the table, my eyes caught sight of maybe the slickest emotional contract sell I have ever seen. A freshly made punch hole ringed plastic cover document that read in bold type.
You’ve got to be kidding me? Every other offer was a standard contract proposal. What you expect right? Again, here was a person who clearly knew how he was dealing with and took the time and care to show me he knew and cared. Plus, the sheer novelty of it all had me giddy to see what on earth an insurance contract proposal PLAYBOOK looks like?
As I turned the pages I saw a strategically well thought out plan BOTH in presentation and actual mapping to help me achieve success. My first season started as football seasons do.
Football training camp is when you lay the foundation for everything you are going to do that season. It’s all learning and practice. Over and over again, so you have what is needed to perform when the season hits. For me, training camp now meant learning of a new kind. Training camp was outlined as my time to get educated and licensed in the fundamental necessities of this industry.
Football preseason is a time to begin transferring your learned camp skills to the real world in a dress rehearsal setting. Yes, you had to compete against other teams and yes for many their jobs were at stake. But ultimately winning or losing during preseason did not impact your regular season much at all. Preseason now was laid out for me as job shadowing with some senior producers. Low-risk practice inside our locker room. Really, the same thing as I’ve known it to be. To start transferring my newly learned skills to reality in a semi-controlled state. Allowing me to build confidence through repetition before the bullets start flying for real. Very smart.
It then led into my first regular season, playoffs etc. The next segment always building on the last in terms of added expectations and pressure. Just as I’ve always known. Broken down in pretty much the exact same format and rhythm I’d been used to my whole life.
Each of the three seasons rolled the same way. Always starting with training camp. More education and learning was needed to start each year. Preseason would once again help ease into adding that new knowledge to my growing toolbox and the season would flow as before with each segment building again. This was exactly the rhythm I lived with for nearly twenty years. And just the same as in football, the longer I played the bigger the demands and expectations became. Each season built on the last. It was very systematic. Expectations were raised with growth. It’s the only logical way to go.
Built into this plan was an official contract proposal. It was structured as such that it was part of the overall picture, but clearly enough outlined that comparing it to what I had already been proposed was easy. It was a solid offer. Extremely generous considering my limited (none) work experience in this industry. The thing was, it wasn’t the highest offer. I could see that at first glance. Here is where everything that had happened up until this point all mattered so much.
Given the lack of any other insight or information. We as humans tend to resort to making decisions based on what we DO KNOW and UNDERSTAND. Without Chris taking the time during our first sit down to use familiar language to build common ground, this industry would still have seemed like a foreign language to me. I wouldn’t have been able to separate anybody’s selling points because it all sounded the same, and none of it was familiar. All I would have none was – price. A horrible decision tool, but without any other separating factors. That’s all your left to work with that you truly understand.
Then Chris went the extra mile to really find out what truly mattered to me. Yes, you always want to be compensated well for work done well but I hadn’t even done ANY work yet. Chris knew my life had been in football. A sport that doesn’t have guaranteed contracts. I worked week to week for 13 years. Not relying on making a sale, but relying on the ability of my body to not only perform but to not fall apart. Week to week. The only guarantee you had was if you made it to game time that week, you would get paid for that week. That was it. If you performed well enough, you might get the opportunity to compete and perform again next week. That’s the only truth I knew. Contracts are not a reward, they are an opportunity. An opportunity to go out and earn with your performance. Your ability to perform will dictate your ability to earn. Not the other way around. He knew I understood that. What matters more than anything to a team sport athlete is the environment and support around them to enable them to perform at their best. The rest is up to them.
Chris’s final pitch was just that. Selling the environment, the support, the culture that I could be a part of and that could help me maximize my ability to perform. That’s what athletes really want, an opportunity to show what they can do and ideally have an environment that is optimal to support their goals.
I didn’t need any more time to debated and think things over. Reliance was the right fit for me, any more stalling would just be procrastination. I agreed right there. I’m sure many will advise to never make a decision based on an emotional response, but honestly, it wasn’t a knee-jerk emotional response. It was a culmination of repeated positive emotional responses to how Chris had interacted with from the get-go (Trust – building that track record). This wasn’t impulsive, sure the playbook pushed them over the top, but really, I was cheering for Reliance ever since my first meeting, and each act just reinforced my initial gut feeling. Chris did everything a smart recruiter could do to learn who I was, what makes me tick, then message everything from conversations to my proposal in a way that aligned with what he learned about me. I was not accepting a job offer, I was joining my new team. I wasn’t deciding where I was going to work next, I was choosing which team I wanted to go compete and win with. That’s what my mindset was, how could it have been any different? It’s all I had ever known.
Sports is about competing. Business is about competing. Both with the same objective to win as often as possible. When it’s stated that simply it’s easy to see why businesses would look to former high-level athletes to join their roster. It takes a certain type of person that is not only comfortable competing daily, but truly thrives on it. That is a transferable trait that stays with people long after they stop scoring touchdowns or hitting home runs. Winning also tends to stay with people. The same reason teams with sign an aging veteran that has won a championship or two is the same reason a business would want that person. Knowing how to win and what it really takes to win is another trait that travels well. It’s a mindset and understanding of the sacrifices required that separates champions from also competed, much more so than some natural physical gift you may have been born with.
Those are probably the two greatest skills sports can cultivate in an athlete. It’s what will matter most when the physical talent fades away. It’s what will enable them to move to their next career and carry on learning, competing and hopefully winning at whatever new outlet gets chosen. This is what companies want and want more of. Businesses are right to look at athletes. When you find one you really want, heed the lesson above. Recruit like a college football coach, or I guess, like Chris Ball.
SOME THINGS FOR COMPANIES LOOKING TO HIRE FORMER PRO ATHLETES TO CONSIDER
- WHY DO YOU WANT THEM? IS IT FOR BRAND AWARENESS? PROMOTIONAL USE? OR ARE YOU ACTUALLY LOOKING FOR THEM TO PRODUCE WORK?
- WERE THEY A TEAM SPORT OR AN INDIVIDUAL SPORT ATHLETE? (ARE THEY USED TO A TEAM HELPING THEM? OR THEM HELPING A TEAM?)
- HAVE THEY BEEN A STAR THEIR ENTIRE LIFE? OR HAVE THEY HAD TO FIGHT EVERY STEP OF THE WAY TO MAKE IT? (WHERE THE DOORS ALWAYS OPENED FOR THEM OR HAVE THEY HAD TO KNOCK THEM DOWN?)
- HAVE THEY EVER BEEN CUT BEFORE? HOW DID THEY REACT?
- WERE THEY LIKED OR RESPECTED BY THEIR TEAMMATES? BOTH? NEITHER? WHY? OR WHY NOT?
- DID THEY JUMP AROUND THEIR ENTIRE CAREER CHASING A MORE LUCRATIVE CONTRACT OR DID THEY STICK WITH A TEAM FOR A LONG STRETCH?
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Just a few things to consider. There is no right or wrong or good or bad answer either. Just more information that may help you clarify what you’re actually trying to accomplish by recruiting this athlete and give you better insight on how to strategize your approach.