I am and always have been a huge sports fan. From my early days when my Dad was a soccer and basketball coach, I have loved playing, competing, watching and just being around sports. I actually got so far as to play a few sports at the collegiate level and today I do my best to keep my tennis game sharp and play regularly with friends and in a few leagues. My love of sport had a great deal to do with how I chose my profession. You see-- I don't just love playing and competing-- I equally enjoy watching and observing how others compete and how they play in certain situations against other players and teams and perform in different settings. When I fell in love with the profession of Human Resources around age 30, I realized that the main reason I loved HR was because it had all the components that I loved about sports--helping teams win, finding who plays best in what environment, and seeking to unlock the best outcomes from individuals and teams. Being a Talent Leader has, to me, always felt like I imagine a Sports General Manager must feel or perhaps a college Athletic Director feels as they strive to build the best possible organization and team to win.
I don't think I am unique among athletes in saying that sport, working out and competing, is like breathing air--it is an absolute necessity, not an optional or, "nice to have," element. And when I think about some of my most fulfilling moments as an athlete, it's been when I have been on great teams and when I have, on those rare occasions, been "in the zone" either individually or as a team. It's those times when every shot you take goes in and every move you make is the right one. Have any of you ever felt that? Have you ever felt that everything falls into place so easily and you are meeting and exceeding your goals almost effortlessly? And, best of all, when you are in the zone, winning seems a preordained outcome...you know you will win.
In reflecting on "being in the zone" and the almost zen-like state you experience, I've often wondered if that feeling could ever be realized professionally. "Is it possible", I have asked myself, "to be in the zone at work or to have it feel effortless while in the moment?" HR for me, most of the time, has been like many professions, quite different from sport in that the work and the team you need to work with are typically larger and more complex than in sport, and the competition sometimes is not always as clear as the team you are competing against, in basketball, for example. But, even so, can you find that state?
While I can honestly say that I have rarely experienced the same rush of being in the zone or in any of my jobs, I have definitely noticed that some places and situations bring out the best in me. As you would suspect, it was much of the stuff you see written about all the time: boss who cares, good compensation, good work-life balance--but I found over time that there were a few more key things that I needed to be in the zone to really fly--I need to be trusted and left alone to do my thing. I find that I thrive when my work was not being constantly inspected as if I was going through airport security. I like being the guy who gives assists vs. the guy scoring. I love helping others score and high people interaction. I like a high diversity of work, an environment where you can laugh and be playful at times, and I don't like working on teams where decisions are democratic and take forever. Most of all, I need to work in places where the trust is high and fear is low. Knowing these things and more about myself, I have been able to find myself in the zone a few times professionally over the years.
Beyond individual experiences in the zone, I have also found myself being on a team that is in the zone a few times--which is also possible, though rare. When I was on the Acquisition Integration team at Cisco from 1998 to 2002, our company and team purchased and integrated over fifty companies around the globe, and we became very cohesive as a group in this process. While at our peak, (there were about 25 of us on the team)--we built a special bond--more special than any bond I've had on any professional team I've been a part of. All of us were focused on a common goal and we all shared the same game plan. The work was extremely intense and forced us to really come together to integrate a company. This was intense work and you did not have a lot of time to make it a success. The bond we built over the years by going through these intense situations served to, among other things, build a short-hand communication style that allowed us to anticipate each other's actions so we knew what each other was going to do before it even happened. This allowed us to work extremely well together- as more time was spent doing and succeeding than debating or disagreeing.
In summary--whether or not you have experienced being in the zone playing sport, it's still possible for you to experience being in the zone--that space where it feels like magic is happening and it's natural and not forced. We should all invest time thinking about what contributes to us being in the zone because this is the space where most of us will do our best work.