Luke Maye is one of the biggest stories coming out of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Not only because his game-winning jump shot propelled the University of North Carolina into the Final Four, but because this little-known player was suddenly the hero. A reserve player whose performance during the tournament was as good as — or better than — his more heavily recruited teammates.
There’s always a longer journey to chronicle when trying to make sense of an overnight star. Maye’s story is one of talent, dreams, hard work, and likeability. It’s also a story of how networks, local knowledge, and growth opportunities play a critical role in finding hidden talent.
The vast majority of the players recruited to big-time college basketball programs have already risen to national prominence as high schoolers. There’s no question that they have what it takes to play at a high level. Their talent is far from hidden. A large part of a coaching staff’s job is convincing these young men to come play for their team.
Luke Maye was good enough to attract the attention of college recruiters, but he didn’t have the prominence of the typical UNC recruit. How then did he end up on the Carolina coaching staff’s radar?
For one thing, he was in their broader network of relationships. His father had been a starting quarterback at UNC. As a boy, he attended Carolina’s basketball camp. He played high school ball in North Carolina. Good coaches proactively use their networks — former athletes, camp staff, high school coaches — to identify promising recruits not currently on the high-potential list.
And how did the coaches know that Maye was promising? Of course, they went to see him play. They looked at his stats. But they also listened to what people who knew him had to say: incredible work ethic, likeable, a role model.
These strategies for spotting hidden basketball talent are finding their way into efforts to find leadership talent in organizations. Consultants at McKinsey note that the most common way of finding leaders—what they call harvesting — isn’t sufficient for filling all the leadership needs in organizations. Harvesting assumes that the best will rise to prominence and can be “plucked and placed into leadership roles.”
They advocate for additional approaches, including regularly scanning for promising individuals not currently on the high potential list and digging deeper to uncover skills you can’t see by looking top-down. This latter approach “assumes that leadership capabilities are sometimes more apparent to peers and subordinates than to those at the top.”
The Luke Maye story highlights an additional factor for turning hidden stars into obvious talent. Maye was given the same opportunities to develop that his highly recruited teammates received: practicing with the best, coaching and feedback, encouragement from teammates, and minutes in games commensurate with performance. Maye took full advantage of these opportunities, developing more quickly than even his high school coaches had expected. His talents became clear to his teammates, who said they weren’t surprised by his game-winning shot.
In organizations, it seems that too often we give the most developmental attention to those who are already incredibly capable and have proven themselves time and again. Might we get more game-winning performances if we give equal attention to the not-yet-proven but promising talent?