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Managing Beyond the Bench

Posted: February 13, 2018

William "Liam" Dillon, Strake Jesuit Basketball Player (Left), and Henry Caldwell, Manager, Strake Jesuit Varsity Basketball Team (Right)

The two smiling faces in the accompanying photo are those of our No. 2 child, William “Liam” Dillon, and his fellow Strake Jesuit student, Henry Caldwell. Henry’s father is a friend and respected senior executive at Texas Children’s Hospital, our neighbors here in the Texas Medical Center. But that’s not why I included this picture. Liam is – as anyone who has had the misfortune of spending more than a three-floor UTHealth elevator ride with me already knows – a junior Strake Jesuit varsity basketball player. Henry is a Strake Jesuit senior, a fine student who is considering several exceptional colleges for next fall. He’s also a manager for Strake Jesuit’s varsity basketball team.

It’s Henry’s manager job that I find interesting and relevant to our ongoing discussion about work. When I played basketball – in a prior millennium, though post-peach basket era – at Houston’s Westchester High School, I think we had a team manager, or two. These were guys who weren’t on the team, but provided considerable behind-the-scenes (and behind-the-bench) service to coaches and team members. Like fresh towels, clean uniforms, floor dusting, sweat wiping, Gatorade lugging, those sorts of things. We basketball players played. These guys worked. But I just don’t remember them in the team photos. I don’t remember seeing them in the halls wearing letter jackets. In fact, I’d wager that most of my prior teammates, if asked, wouldn’t remember our managers at all. They were, in short, seriously underappreciated.

Strake Jesuit’s Dominic Amorosa and other like-minded coaches have changed all that. Henry is an “equal partner,” a teammate, a highly valued and respected member of Strake Jesuit’s basketball program, every bit as much as scoring machines named Drexler, Malveaux or Johnson. Henry plans to continue his sports manager role next year at his chosen university. Colleges, as well, have raised the profile and their level of appreciation of the vital work that managers do (which Coach Amorosa says is “a little bit of everything”). Many universities now offer scholarships and other forms of assistance to these indispensable young men and women. A player from last year’s Strake Jesuit team, Ryan Lundvall, now works as a manager with perennial NCAA basketball power Gonzaga in Spokane, WA, which, my tall one assures me, is “very cool.”

Liam has been afforded a close-up to the work of Henry and the other managers. Having shared a room with them on tournament road trips from Dallas to California, Liam can attest to the dazzling lifestyle of managing behind the bench. Henry’s work continues well after the games, after team meals, after lights out – washing uniforms, folding towels, preparing for the next day’s early tip-off, etc. (And some of us suspect that Henry and the managers may be “short”-changed in the sleep department as well: How else would 6’ 7’’ Liam magically receive a longer bed – perhaps two beds, end-to-end – while Henry curls up on a cot or pull-out sofa?)

Recently, as a part of Strake Jesuit’s annual “Senior Night,” one of those great moments in every sports movie occurred. The one where the audience chokes back a tear and lets out a cheer happened for our Henry. As a reward for his years of service to Strake Jesuit’s basketball program, Coach Amorosa inserted Henry (surreptitiously uniformed as #25) late into a critical district game against rival Katy. With the Crusaders comfortably ahead, the sight that melted the heart of even this old CPA – and every Green-wearing fan in attendance – was that of Henry’s teammates on Strake Jesuit’s bench, standing and cheering wildly every time Henry touched the ball, imploring him to take a shot (and shoot he did, hitting a free throw). This was the language of appreciation from his coaches and teammates for all the invisible, unsung and unbidden things that Henry has done for them through the years. And now he’s in the official scorebook, forever.

Beyond the respect I have for these selfless young people, I note also the “work wisdom” of Coach Amorosa and others who have pulled off a very important – and very relevant – role re-definition here. As we all face this current period of financial lability, wise are those department heads and unit leaders who seek out other ways beyond pay raises to honor and recognize their people.
This reminds me also of the dynamism of the labor force, how jobs once viewed as mundane and unexceptional can quickly vault to high levels of importance. Our revenue cycle positions are one such example. Years ago, these were sleepy, unexciting jobs with only modest room for advancement. Now I seldom attend a meeting where an impromptu discussion about “collections” doesn’t spontaneously break out (only parking is a more likely, “unscheduled” topic for discussion). President Colasurdo thinks nothing of calling up any number of different revenue cycle people, from almost any level of our organization, to get a firsthand account of “how it’s really going.”

For those of us in leadership positions, we have enormous latitude and degrees of freedom to help our people re-imagine their roles, to more fully understand the critical importance of their work. Why not include someone in a higher-level meeting than their role might, strictly speaking, normally entail? Imagine what they could bring to the table (or how it might influence their own experience). Try to get our valued folks some visibility from some of the higher-ups many of us are privileged to routinely work with. Let’s ask ourselves who around us – below us, above us – makes our work possible. Who really makes this place go?

So, all of this is just to say: Don’t underestimate your influence with your staff, with your people. Remember the sports team managers. Once they were invisible, now they’re equal partners. They’re the very essence of servant-leaders.

Washing uniforms at midnight, and now getting their shot.