There’s a long background to this one, so buckle in.
All my life, I’ve done a little of this and a little of that and maybe more of something else. When I was 8, my father decided I had to play baseball. My father loved baseball. He talked about, he volunteered to coach, he even umpired for several years.
I was always referred to as the “tall, skinny kid,” but, fortunately, I wasn’t too clumsy so I did make a team when I tried out. I guess in the beginning stages (it wasn’t even “Little League”; it was called “Minor League” baseball) everyone makes a team, but, regardless, I was very excited. I received a dark blue tee-shirt with “MAJOR ELECTRIC” on it. I didn’t have any idea who Major Electric was, but I was very grateful for the shirt. I had a uniform, and I was so excited.
We practiced for nearly a month before the eight-game season started. It became immediately apparent that a couple of kids had been “molded” by their parents to play certain positions. For example, we had one stout kid who was a pitcher. The first day, he told the coach, “I pitch. That’s what I do.” As I recall, the coach immediately agreed, just happy to have someone volunteer for that critical position.
Another kid actually showed up in catcher’s gear. He didn’t even bring a fielder’s glove; he had a catcher’s mitt. So, he was the catcher, and again the coach expressed glee that someone wanted to catch. (Not many kids did, you know. It was an active and dangerous position, and you had to wear all that gear. Sheesh.) Still another boy had a first baseman’s glove. (Guess where he played? You got it.)
After a couple of practices hitting the ball, throwing and generally running around, we were asked to “take the field at the position you want to play.” I was a huge NY Yankees fan then, so I immediately ran to second base (like Bobby Richardson, who played second base for the Yankees). Well, so did about four other boys.
We had 18 players (enough for 2 full teams, you know), and several went to third base and shortstop. Three took the pitcher’s mound (but that was OK, we had to have at least three pitchers). But nobody went to right field. So, you guessed it, the coach asked me to hustle out there into right field.
Put your heart into it — even if it’s right field
When you are a kid, right field is Siberia. It is the wilderness. You are out there on your own when you’re placed in right field. Because, well, few players were left-handed and typically NO ONE hit anything to that side of the diamond. The prevailing theory (at least in the Minor Leagues) was you put your weakest player in right field because while everyone gets a chance to play, you don’t want to lose the game by putting the weakest player in an important position.
I was angry and felt completely dejected. I even thought about quitting!
But, to wrap up this introduction, right field was NOT my position to play for the team. In fact, during the regular season, the coach put me EVERYWHERE. I even pitched in a game (relief pitching — OK, we were ahead by 22 runs). I caught a couple of games (when the catcher caught the mumps and couldn’t play). Regardless, during the season, I played every single position on the field — and played every single game.
That talent of being a “utility player” followed me throughout Minor League and Little League and high school ball. The coach always smiled at me and told people, “He’s my utility player. I know I can put him anywhere and he will do well.”
That talent acquisition of learning anything and everything has followed me through life and work. I’ve always been that utility player — doing a little of this, a little of that, and a lot of something else. I’m a utility player, even with manual labor! I’ve done a little carpentry, a little drywall finishing, a little plumbing (very little — I’m not good at that one), a little landscaping, a little automotive work, a little HVAC work — on and on.
My father had a running philosophical outlook of “Watch me do this, son. If you learn it, you might save a buck someday.” He was correct. I’ve saved quite a bit of cash over the years, not to mention saving my neighbors money too. Plus, it’s not always easy to get a contractor to do a small job (or you have to wait several days). I can’t tell you how many holes in the wall I’ve patched, how many stuck windows I’ve fixed and how many jammed garbage disposals I’ve fixed. (Quick tip: Don’t put potato peels and/or banana peels down your garbage disposal!)
Make it your job to be a utility player — because it is!
I know this is a long-winded introduction into YOUR job — managing a business incubator. It’s definitely a utility player job — a little finance, a little mentoring and counseling, a little coaching, a little bit of being a landlord, a little custodial work. Whatever it takes with a building, a client and a program — you’re involved.
It all adds up to a BIG job, but it’s not a job for someone with a narrow focus. It’s a true utility player effort of building networks, encouraging and motivating founders, finding clients, retaining clients and growing clients. It involves knowing a little about recruitment, a bit of investment banking, and a LOT of networking. (Someone once asked me the secret to successful entrepreneurship. It’s networking. Trust me.)
You truly have to develop that “Jack/Jill of all trades, master of some” attitude to succeed at managing a business incubator.
I am retiring in a couple of months. When I decided to retire, I gave my boss six months’ notice. Was I just being a “nice guy”? Well, yes, but also I knew the type of person it takes to run a large, established, award-winning program — and there are not many with a lot of “utility player” experience.
Some very good, highly experienced people applied, but many of them were focused in one field or another — finance, accounting, investing, etc. — and they would have struggled, frankly, with the other positions/duties. Not to overuse the sports analogy, but a great shortstop seldom pitches, and a great outfielder doesn’t play the infield.
But a utility player plays everywhere. He or she may not be the superstar that a specialist position player is, but is a solid contributor, nonetheless. Entrepreneurs will come to you for advice if they know you have connections in the venture community, connections with mentors/advisors, and if you understand facilities management. It all plays into “knowing a little about a lot” so you can contribute to their success.
And that’s pretty much what you need in a leadership role — a solid contributor. Companies are always looking for someone who can contribute to their growth and success. If they need accounting, they will hire an accountant; if they need financial acumen, they can acquire a CFO. When they need someone to do a “little bit of this and a little bit of that and a lot of _____,” they call on the utility player.
Don’t be too good for “right field,” whatever that lonely, stigmatized role in your organization is. Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. Keep developing your skills, learn everything you can, and be ready — for anything.
Mark S Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues. UF Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the lab to the market, making the world a better place.
Originally published at http://incubatorblogger.wordpress.com on May 11, 2021.