Making Way For New Talent


A great breakaway forcing a missed tackle and an Old Gold player is on his way to another try.

A great breakaway forcing a missed tackle and an Old Gold player is on his way to another try.

This summer at a rugby match I was watching an formerly good player play a position at which he once excelled, but was now half a step too slow to be consistently effective. His play calling was perfect and he found the defensive holes to exploit, but now instead of getting his passes off cleanly, he was getting tackled and losing scoring opportunities.  He was at a point in his career when he needed to share his expertise from the sidelines as a coach and let someone else step into his role as a team captain.

Meanwhile a very talented cohort of younger players were standing on the sidelines waiting for their chance. Sure they were still learning the game and they would have made mistakes if put into the role and the team still would have still lost the game, but instead of the loss being a frustrating experience for the team and fans it could have been a learning experience for younger players teaching lessons, preparing both them and the team for the future.  The score would probably have been the same in either case, but the team would have been building for the future and not rewarding past performance with loyalty.

On the rugby pitch it’s a fine line – between respecting the experience of a player and becoming overly attached to the familiar face of a friend. Do you go with the more experienced player who has lost a step but knows exactly how to play or do you go with the younger, new in the position player who’ll make mistakes as he/she learn their new role? Making the decision even tougher is your shared history with a player who has performed well for you and your team over the years and the fear of the unknown that an untested player brings.  This has ramifications in other sports beyond rugby, and outside of sports as well.

These choices are displayed for everyone to comment on every summer and fall in the NFL. Brett Favre’s on again/off again/on again/now off again retirement is a classic example. No one disputes Favre’s eventual election to the NFL Hall of fame as one of the best quarterbacks ever, but it is also hard not to notice his slower step, his shorter range and his more fragile body. The Jets last year chose Favre because even though he was slower and less physically able in the role, his experience and savvy made up for most of the lack.  The Vikings decision to bring Favre back this year looks like a smart one so far since the Vikings are 6-1 and last year at this point in the season they were 3-4. Time will tell if Favre’s body can still keep up with the demands of  a 17-week NFL schedule and the, at this point,  probable post-season.

Most organizations prefer not to depend on a new quarterback, but the Patriots of 2008 were forced to accelerate that learning process after Tom Brady was injured in the first game of the season thrusting someone who had never started a collegiate or professional game into the role of starting quarterback for a team that was 18-1 the previous season. And Matt Cassel rose to the occasion securing himself a place among the most highly sought after, and highly compensated, quarterbacks of the NFL. Only time will tell if his performance can be repeated, but Cassel is living proof that experience isn’t everything, if someone is given an opportunity. So far Cassel is finding the importance of a strong supporting infrastructure as his new team, the Kansas City Chiefs, are struggling.

The Rugby scrum is the heart of the Ruby team - 8 players working together to win the ball.

The Rugby scrum brings 8 players together each with their own unique role and a good coach is always helping players try out and learn new roles. Not only to grow the athlete's skills, but to strengthen the whole team. Photo by Thom Mitchell

Rugby isn’t the only place where the phenomenon of being reluctant to trust someone new can be seen. This happens in business too. When you hire the person with the most experience for a position what do you gain and lose? Sure you gain someone who can step in and do the job from day 1, but you can also lose the excitement and the perspective that a fresh set of eyes learning a role for the first time brings. While you gain someone who won’t have to be coached on what to do, your organization loses the chance to codify and modify existing knowledge and practice as part of the training process. As the medical school saying goes “watch a procedure, do a procedure and teach a procedure” is the surest way to develop expertise.

Too many organizations have become so lean that there just isn’t the time, people or infrastructure to provide training internally. What’s expected, and frankly all that is possible, for many new hires is that they’ll be able to do the job perfectly not needing to be taught any “business skills” or “job responsibilities” and only needing to learn the specific organizational logistics to get things done. While the organization may not suffer in the short-term from this approach, over time they’ll suffer as their most talented employees look for new opportunities elsewhere and previously good performers  grow stale and disillusioned from not being to step into new roles and responsibilities internally, because the time can’t be spared to mentor them in a new role.

Too often star performers are locked into a specific role and not allowed to stray because their continued strong performance is needed – this is especially true in sales organizations. Consistent quota over-achievers face a quandry – they, and their families, may be ready to step into a new role with the company  – say moving from a sales executive role into a business development or product management role,  but are too often blocked.

Going for the Ball in a lineout is a high risk and high reward endeavor.

Going for the Ball in a lineout is a high risk and high reward endeavor. Photo by Thom Mitchell

Sometimes overtly – without them the sales org will miss their number – and sometimes because they haven’t done enough themselves to prepare for a new role. And sometimes it’s merely the golden handcuffs – while they want to do something else they aren’t ready, or they simply can’t afford,  to give up their salary and bonus to do something else at lower salary.

It’s really a calculus of intangibles. Risk versus reward and gain versus loss. Ultimately though a decision has to be made – for some organizations it’s an easy one. They can’t afford to make a mistake or risk anything so they take the safest possible approach. Other organizations, especially start-ups, might gladly choose the more experienced choice but they can’t convince them to join, so out of necessity they are forced to be more creative and accepting of risk going with the less experienced and unproven, in this role at least, choice. As a manager and a coach you have to make a decision, hopefully you’ll make the right one most of the time.

Ideally your team or organization has a career path in mind for everyone. Whether it’s from player to position coach to head coach; or from sales team to manager to product development to marketing; or whatever the path that makes sense to the individual. Players and people have to keep learning and growing in order to be effective members of the team – your challenge as a  coach and a manager is to make sure that it is always happening. What stories do you have from the world of sports that you find useful in business? -t

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