Four characteristics Bill Walsh looked for when hiring personnel (From his book “The Score Takes Care Of Itself”):

  1. Talent
  2. Character
  3. Functional Intelligence
  4. Eagerness to adopt his philosophy

He defines functional intelligence as the ability to think on your feet and make decisions quickly and spontaneously. This struck me as a great way to look at intelligence in a more specific fashion, the ability to make decisions on the move in a constantly changing environment. We all know people who are very smart, “book smart,” who can’t really function or use their intelligence the right way in certain environments. The intensity of an athletic environment combined with the fast-moving pace certainly makes it unique.

I’ve always felt if you want to have success one of the most important things you can do is simple – hire, and surround yourself with, intelligent people. In the last 20 years, it seems like professional teams have taken this path. Look at the hiring of NBA coaches. Guys like Nick Nurse, Mike Budenholzer, Steve Clifford, Frank Vogel, Doc Rivers, Brad Stephens, Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, David Fizdale – you get to know them as coaches and people, these are all highly intelligent people. And Doc Rivers is the only one on that list with elite playing experience. It just seems like there has been a movement towards intelligent people who have studied the game, who have a fact-based approach to what they do and why they do it. I love it.

If you look at baseball front-offices, they have moved that way for years as well. So many of them are hiring Ivy League guys who are highly intelligent and take an analytical approach to the game, regardless of their level of baseball experience. Clearly with technology and the growth of analytics, professional teams have looked at their hiring models differently. They are hiring smart people.

So I love that approach, I always have, but Walsh’s definition of functional intelligence really makes sense. It’s more than just being smart. It’s being smart and being able to function in the environment that you work in. Very few leaders have 300 pound lineman running off the field yelling something at them or 6-10 power forwards upset because they just got called for a bad foul. The intensity of the environment in athletics is different.

We often talk about coaches who can “relate” to players, and I do think that is important. But I also think that’s where functional intelligence plays a key role. I never played at a high level, but I know how to relate to players because I understand I have to get to know them as people and earn their respect. They want to know that you can make them better. Every player I know will lose respect quickly, regardless of where you played, if they figure out that you can’t help them.

Hire smart people. Surround yourself with smart people. But think about functional intelligence. How they are able to translate their level of intelligence into the environment that they work in is also key. It goes deeper than just being smart. Bill Walsh had an approach that was well ahead of his time.

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