Friday, September 28, 2012

Play Your Subs (if you want to win)

Most people like to watch professional sports.  Just what that sport might be is highly dependent upon where a person lives.  If you're a sports lover in Latin America you would likely follow baseball or soccer (futbol).  In Ireland you might like either "curling" or "hurling".  Here in the United States, more specifically in Texas, Football is king.

At the professional level on an American football team there are generally 53 players.  Each one of these players is a specialist, playing either offense or defense.  Yes, there is some crossover on special teams (kickoffs, punts) but everyone has a role.  But even more specifically, every person on the team's roster actually plays.  Even the backup quarterback gets on the field as a holder on field goal attempts.  The management of these football teams look at hundreds of players before finalizing their 53 person roster.  They have to because the game is so violent and unpredictable that the chances are high that someone will get injured.  When that happens, other people have to step onto the field and produce at a high level.  If they can't, a loss is almost a certain proposition.

Let's shift from the professional level down to what we call "pee wee" football.  I have a seven year old son, soon to be eight, who is just this year beginning tackle football.  It's really cute to see these little men go out to learn the fundamentals of the game and actually play in real games.  I've coached in the past but now sit on the sidelines and observe everything as it unfolds.  As you might expect if you've read my previous posts, I definitely have my ideas on how the coaches should run things.  I might have even said something to them on how they could improve but I won't openly admit to that because it's against the "Parent's Code of Conduct"...

One of the most striking things to me about watching player rotations in Pee Wee football is that they are very similar to employee rotations that I find in poorly run organizations.  On my son's team they have about 15 players, only 11 of which can be on the field at any given time.  Game after game now I see a trend where the same 11 or 12 players on the field for both offense and defense for the whole game.  From a win/loss perspective I can't argue about the results because the team is undefeated.  But since I don't have to worry about coaching each play, I have been watching what is happening on the sideline with the kids who see very little playing time.  Can you guess what I see with them?  It's almost the same dynamic in every game.  The kids are excited for the game and can't wait to play.  Yet, as the game wears on the kids on the sideline become less and less engaged in what is happening on the field  After several quarters of no action their helmets come off and they hang out by the water cooler doing what 7-8 year old boys do - "horsing" around, squirting water at each other, and basically doing everything but watching the game.

Inevitably one of the 11-12 active players gets too tired or injured to play and has to come off the field.  One of the coaches then tromps over to sideline to get one of the iced kids (getting iced is a term for players who practice but never get on the field).  A lot of screaming and shouting ensues because the kids who have been ignored are not ready to go in and have to be assisted in getting their shoes tied, helmet back on, etc.  And so how do you think they perform on the field?  There are occasional flashes of excellence, but for the most part they don't do very well.  They are not in sync with the game, don't know the score, are confused, and make a lot of mistakes.  Of course, more yelling from the coaches ensues, but where does the fault lie?  Is it with the clueless player on the field or with the coaches for not keeping the whole team engaged in the game from the very start?  You know the answer.

So how does this tie into a lesson we can all take to heart as leaders?  It's simple.  When you have an organization, whether it's a single team, department, or division, you need very capable, engaged employees at all levels and positions.  Time after time in poorly performing organizations I see that they have one or two superstars and then just a bunch of other people who hang out, put in their time, and don't do much.   That's a really great gig for the superstars because they are constantly told how great they are, critical to the company, and "...how we just can't live without you."  There is a fallacy in all of this that most people recognize but do not want to admit.  It comes in the form of the axiom - "Nobody is irreplaceable".  Just like the first string football players, there *will* come a time when the superstar is not available.  Maybe they are on vacation, sick, or decide to move on.  If, as a leader, you have not invested your time in the organization as a whole you will immediately find yourself in trouble.  Yes, you'll likely have bodies to throw at problems but their skill sets and personal buy-in to perform will be so low that your organizational ability to function will be greatly impaired.

How do you stay out of this trap?  First, select people to be on your team that not only can perform but will clamor for "playing time".  Second, do not allow people to rise to the level of superstar in a way that excludes other members of your organization.  Sure, you can stratify your talent into different tiers - A, B, C and so on.  Just make sure that you have a good rotation in play.  Even if you have to allow people to make mistakes, it is wise and it is your job to ensure that anyone you have on staff can move your organization forward.

Just like professional football teams, you have to always work on the assumption that everyone on your team (organization) is going to have to get on the field at some point.  If you want to be a winner in business and leadership, play your subs.  At the very least, you won't have single points of failure.  At best, you'll have a team that can generate value from any position and any level.

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