So look, I might be a bit biased given my early career (I was an NCAA Div 1 ice hockey coach, Go Bobcats!). But startup leaders can learn a lot about leadership and achieving greatness from one of the greatest of all time to put on skates, Wayne Gretzky. Too often we associate leadership and success with being the star player on the team. Many of you, even those that aren’t hockey fans, probably of heard the name Wayne Gretzky because not only was he a 4 time Stanley Cup champion, but he holds the record for the most goals scored in an NHL career at 894. Cool right, Stanley Cup champion, big-time goal scorer, sounds like the leader and hero that his teams needed. But, what a lot of people (outside of big-time hockey fans) don’t know is that Wayne Gretzky also holds the NHL career record for assists at a whopping 1,963, over twice as many goals as he scored and over 700 more than the second-place record holder.
Here are Wayne’s career stats for reference:
So what does one of the GOATs (🐐) of the sport of hockey have to do with being a leader? Well despite the fact that he was a prolific goal scorer and won 4 Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and if you look at his stats it says it clearly, he passed the puck and set his teammates up for greatness a whole hell of a lot more than he set himself up for it. This is 100% the most important thing a leader, especially a startup leader can learn from Wayne Gretzky. The formula isn’t too complicated, for each time you score (have a big win, close a customer, raise capital, have a media story written about you) as the founder/leader of your company, you should be helping two of your team members have an equally as important moment.
Why is this so important? Well, assists have a compounding effect in both a hockey team setting as well as a startup. I have seen firsthand some pretty amazing assists, passes from one player to the other that ended up as big goals for our team that won big games, and guess who the player who scores always looks for first after the puck would go into the net? Their teammate who passed them the puck. Assists are an amazing thing that not only result in big goals and wins for the entire team, but they also bring a team together, one person looking to another, thanking them for helping left them up so the entire team can succeed. I can’t think of a place where this has a more outsized impact than a startup, especially when it’s the founders/leaders who are the ones passing the puck.
I am a founder of a small startup (still only 5 people) and the one thing I always say to my colleagues is their job is to tell me what they need from me to help make sure they are successful. In hockey terms, tell me when you are open so I can pass you the puck and you can score 🚨. I have also watched this play out in countless other startups that I have had the pleasure of getting to know, the more the leaders offer to pass the puck, the more the team rallies behind them and the more the entire team lifts the company up. If I was an early-stage investor, this is the dynamic I would be looking for.
Gretzky’s ability to pass and lift up his teammates was so widely known that the space directly behind the goal, to this day, has become known as “Gretzky’s Office”.
Above is a photo of Gretzky in his office, with the puck, head up, look for one of his teammates to pass to for a scoring opportunity. Sure, could he try and score himself. But he knew all eyes were on him, and in that moment if he would try and come out from behind the net, the other team's defenders would be all over him. Gretzky knew what a great leader needs to know, when the focus is on you, that provides an opportunity for a teammate to be wide open, you just need to set them up to score. And you know what, that is infectious, over time his teammates knew what was about to happen when he went into his office and they knew he was looking to set one of them up for a goal so they would start to skate just that little bit harder so they could come through on the other end.
That is the energy that every startup founder and leader should look to bring to their company. Sure, Wayne scored plenty of goals and when called upon leaders need to be able to put the puck in the back of the net. But the assists you provide to your teammates will have a much larger impact. How much so? In the last 10 NHL seasons, the team with the player who leads the league in assists made the playoffs 10 out of 10 times.