Tag Archives: management

The “Too Valuable” Fallacy

“To every thing there is a season” or so said Pete Seeger and the Byrds, or the Book of Ecclesiastics in the King James Version of the Bible, depending on one’s preference.  And in keeping with the ends of the personal preference paradigm, Fox News has shared a classic business lesson.  No, not “those” kinds of lessons.  This is one of those timeless lessons of business, of life, of organizations and leadership.  Ford did it with Lee Iacocca.  The 49ers traded Montana and the Colts let Peyton go to Denver.  The Today Show let Katie go, ESPN has lost almost everyone, and even MJ and the Bulls came to an end.  And every company in history has parted ways with their top sales person.  Eventually, there comes a time when those “too valuable” are simply not that valuable.

Fox News as an organization has demonstrated that maxim that “no one person is more valuable than the overall organization”.  Everything else about Fox News aside, there is no denying, they have put the good of the organization above some of the most “valuable” personalities in the infotainment industry.  For various reasons, which we will not discuss or debate, Fox News has parted ways with two hugely successful personalities in Bill O’Reilly and Megan Kelly.  Vastly different scenarios, but the fundamental truth remains:  the organization was placed ahead of the individuals.

It is quite easy to fall into the leadership trap that the team, the organization, the business, the company, cannot survive without the “top performer”.  While it is true that great talents, performers, sales people, operations leaders, analysts, skilled craftsman, or the uncounted millions of committed team members are all special, there are some that just seem to have more of an impact.  They apparently are the one generating the lion’s share of the revenue, that are the driving force in innovation and change, that are the glue that holds the team together, that are simply “too valuable”.  Yet eventually, there comes a time.

It was a key component of military life, no one is indispensable; the mission and the team come before the individual…no matter whom it might be.  The same holds in sports, entertainment, and business.  Sure, those special “stars” can have an enormous impact, but the Bulls remained relevant without MJ, the Broncos have won after Elway (thanks Peyton), the Today Show is back on top, ESPN marches on, and Ford has continued to build cars.  And the country carries on regardless of who is in which office.  In fact, quite often organizations and individuals flourish after the split.  “A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” as the lyric or verse reminds us.

It is challenging for leaders to take the long view when the decision is at hand, but while the temptation is there to make “just one exception” for that great talent; to retain and profit from that special person a little longer, let Fox News and Bill O’Reilly pass through your mind.  He was a ratings and revenue goldmine for the network, and while his particular scenario made for a relatively easy decision, most are more of the Megan Kelly variety – tough calls, but in the end no one is indispensable.  Ever.

 

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Being Really, Really Good…

…over the long haul.  It is brutally hard to do, and especially so in our world of immediate reward.  However there are some organizations that have proven to be at the very top of their industry.  Being good every now and again is one thing, but to do it more often than not for over 100 years, well that is the St. Louis Cardinals.

11 World Series Championships, 18 National League Pennants, 20 League MVP’s, 4 Triple Crown Winners, 3 Cy Young winners, 6 Rookie of the Year winners, countless Hall of Famers, and tops in league attendance for decades…all in a small market.  The only franchise with a more extensive history and record…the Yankees.

 A few years ago we looked at the Steelers, and with the NLCS starting tonight, it only seemed logical to spend a few minutes looking at the Cardinals.

Vision.  The organization has a history of excellence and remains committed to the pursuit of excellence…over the long haul.  To that end, the Cardinals under Branch Rickey pioneered the farm system,   were leaders in leveraging radio to expand their brand in the 1930’s, embracing integration in the 50’s and 60’s, playing “Whiteyball” in the AstroTurf era of the 80’s, to building power hitting teams in the 90’s “longball” era.  They see the trends, get ahead of the competition, adapt to the market, and lead change.  They evolve but do not lose sight of the core principles of excellence throughout the organization.

Winning Attitude.  Not necessarily just about winning, but certainly about always being committed to being the best possible team.   Winning is an attitude, just as the pursuit of excellence is an attitude.

Organization.  Though it is the team on the field, the reality is that there is a massive organization that enables the team to perform.  The talent scouts, the minor league system, the ball park, the trainers, the managers, coaches, front office and players, they are all part of the organization and they all matter.  It is about the sum of the parts, not the individual parts.

Leadership.  From the very top of the organization, to the field and into the locker room…leadership matters.  The Cardinals have maintained very steady ownership and leadership throughout their history.  As with any organization, things change, but a quick look at the organizational history reveals consistent leadership and ownership.

Culture and Consistency.  It is not about flash.  It is not about the individual.  It is all about the team.  The name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back (the Cardinals logo has barely changed in the last 100 years).  It is about the profession and the game.  The individual is subordinated to the team, to the sport and even the community.  The Cardinals have a long history of never allowing one person to become greater than the team.  Sometimes it was rough (Curt Flood), unpopular (trading Albert), but always it was done for the best of the team.

Clearly no organization is perfect, and both the Cardinals and Steelers have had their issues, but there is no denying they are both at the top of their industry.  Like any business, they have periods of great success as well as periods of struggle, but their overall trajectory has always been up.  Their achievements are undeniable, and a great part of their success rests with consistency.  They have a system, a culture, an organization and a leadership team that is consistent in message and vision.

They know who they are, they know what works for them, and they hold to their core values.  They do not chase the latest fad, the hot candidate, the latest leadership trend or pop culture phenomena.  Though they stand at the top of their respective industries, neither organization is known as spendthrifts.   In the end, both the Steelers and Cardinals reflect their towns, their fans, and their values.  Interesting really…Pittsburgh and St. Louis are sort of “old school, basic” cities…seems those ideas are fundamental to long-term success.

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Linsanity, the Marshmallow Test and Hiring

From the Wall Street Journal today came a column by Arthur C. Brooks entitled “Obama’s Budget Flunks the Marshmallow Test“. Not to worry, we are not going to take a turn down the path of political commentary. However, what we will borrow is the Marshmallow Test:

In one famous study from 1972, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel concocted an ingenious experiment involving young children and a bag of marshmallows. He put a marshmallow on the table and told each child that if he (or she) could wait 15 minutes to eat it, he would get a second one as a reward.

About two-thirds of the kids failed the experiment. Some gave in immediately and gobbled up the marshmallow; videotape shows others in agony, trying to discipline themselves—some even banging their little heads on the table.

But the most interesting results from that study came years later. Researchers followed up on the children to see how their lives were turning out. The kids who didn’t take the marshmallow had average SAT scores 210 points higher than the kids who ate it immediately. They were less likely to drop out of college, made far more money, were less likely to go to jail, and suffered from fewer drug and alcohol problems.

So what does all of this have to do with identifying, hiring and retaining talent?  Actually everything.  Think about Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks.  As an organization the Knicks had a choice – bring Lin up from the Developmental League and give him a chance, or shop around and trade for some point guard from another team.  They chose to go with Lin and two weeks later it is Linsanity.

Clearly, it is not always going to turnout that well when it comes to hiring, but there is a lesson to be learned.  It is safe to say that as a child if Lin was given the Marshmallow Test, he would have sat and waited for the reward.  His history indicates he is not an instant gratification person.  He “gets” sacrifice, hard work and patience.  Those are the traits, along with a ton of natural athletic gifts, that have made him successful.

The other side to this scenario is that there were options for the Knicks – there are other guards out there with the physical skills and size.  In this one case the Knicks avoided that classic pitfall of hiring…going with the “qualified” or “experienced” candidate; the safe hire.  The recycling of candidates, the shuffling of people from job to job, company to company, is the single greatest mistake made in hiring.  The philosophy that if someone is in the role currently,  they can naturally fill that role at our company.  Yes, they probably will do okay, but they will probably never be great.

Going with recycled talent in hiring is the path to immediate gratification – it is the “easy and safe hire”.  And based on the Marshmallow Test, immediate gratification is not an indicator of long-term success.  Apply the test to the candidates and yourself next time you have to add someone to the team – you just might find that great hire.

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And a Few More – Olympic Lessons

In the spirit of the closing ceremonies – here are a few additional lessons learned, or at least reinforced thanks to the Olympics.

If there is one thing Vancouver 2010 taught us yet again, there is a huge value in just being nice.  Seriously, who in the world does not like Canada?  The Canadians are able to earn the respect of the world by just being nice.  Not everything went exactly to plan, and yes there was even tragedy, but in the end being nice and trying tends to win over even the greatest skeptics.

To all who toil in relative obscurity, there is the U.S. Men’s Nordic Combined  Team.  After 86 years of being shut out, along comes an amazing series of medals in both the team and individual events.  And a special nod to Billy Demong for his “hat trick” of a gold medal, an accepted marriage proposal and being chosen by his team to be the flag bearer for the closing ceremonies.  All that work that no one sees does eventually pay-off.  Sometimes, in a really big way, on a really big stage.

To Steve Holcomb and the U.S. 4 man bobsled team – another drought broken – only 62 years on this one.  But in Steve Holcomb, a reminder to all that sometimes champions do come in the all too usual shapes and sizes.  It is rare to see, but sometimes the best can really look like the guy down the street, belly and all.  Never make a judgement on the competition, or anyone else, just based on looks.

The ability to compartmentalize and focus on the task at hand is just a part of life.  In good times and bad, in adversity or elation, joy or anguish, there is a very real need to be able to push all other issues to the side and focus on what has to be done.  Joanne Rochette showed amazing focus in the face of unimaginable loss.  It was a powerful and harsh reminder that there are times when we must compartmentalize and push forward – for us and for those who are counting on us.

And lastly, to the Canadian Women’s Hockey Team – finally somebody just flat-out has fun after winning gold.  Of course it is hockey, and it is Canada, but a post match celebration complete with Molson and cigars on the ice – well done.  And to Steve Keough, the Canadian Olympic Committee spokesman and his comments about the teams post game fun: “In terms of the actual celebration,” he said, “it’s not exactly something uncommon in Canada.”  Awesome!  In our all too sterile and politically correct, hide our emotions and only have “fun” within the bounds of “proper decorum” world,  it is so nice to see a team just enjoy the moment on their terms.  And to see “management” back their people – incredibly refreshing.  Well done on all fronts.

Yes the Olympics are a grandiose ideal.  A utopian vision of peace and harmony, of athletic competition in the name of excellence for the sole purpose of bringing people together.  Reality says it is a money-making machine.  Packaged and feed to us in a sterilized and commercialized manner.  The cynic says it is all corporations and sponsors, or just state sponsored propaganda wrapped up in an outlandish ideal of fringe sport silliness.  Whatever.  Sometimes it is worth it every few years to take a few moments and take in the spectacle that is Olympic sport.  Maybe we might learn a lesson or two along the way.

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