Hero Worship

October 4, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, Teamwork 

My son is just starting a new season of soccer (yes, we play through the winter out here). Last year, there was a ringer on another team that clearly outclassed everyone else in the league. When my son’s team played against them last year, our coach’s focus on teamwork prevailed, and we managed to win. This year, as they tend to scramble the teams each season, my son now happens to be on the same team as that ringer.

We went into the season with a little trepidation. While there was clear potential that all the practices with this much more talented player would challenge everyone else on the team to stretch their skills, there was also the concern that reliance on this one person’s talent in a sport that is possibly more team oriented than any other could get us into trouble.

In the first few weeks, the practices have been well balanced, and the coaches worked all the kids hard in the drills to improve their passing skills, stamina, and field awareness. The first few games brought us victories, and while this star shone brightly in a few end-to-end runs, the scoring was more or less balanced across the team.

This weekend was a different story, as this star player was out of town. Despite the fact that the rest of the team has ample talent to hold their own against any other team in the league, my son’s team got their collective butts kicked.

We could easily identify a number of contributions to the result – there were a few team members missing, so there were fewer substitutes available, for example. For me, though, the key difference was in the minds of many of the kids. Several times during the game, whether on the field, on the sidelines or while rehydrating at halftime, my son heard a number of other players lament that they didn’t have a chance without their star player there.

I believe they lost the match before it even started.

The same can happen on technical teams as well. While talented people can be a strong differentiator from the competition, this needs to be balanced against the risk of how the team will deal with the loss of that person. Certainly as a new company starts up, the founders are critical to that initial growth, and the loss of any one of them can scuttle the opportunity. As the team grows, though, one of the first priorities needs to be the reduction of the risk associated with the loss of key resources.

Failure to do so is not usually the fault of the talented resource. In the case of that ringer on my son’s soccer team, he’s one of the hardest working and dedicated kids there, probably attributes that were necessary for him to develop the skills he has at his age. The failure is often a management failure (or coaching failure in soccer), a failure to ensure that the team is balanced and prepared to weather the possibility that their star may not be with them forever.

The experience with my son’s soccer team highlighted a critical point in this. Traditionally, the thinking about risk associated with the loss of a key team member stems from the loss of talent and knowledge that the star has (and sometimes hoards, though this is not the case in my son’s team). The star leaves, that knowledge is gone and needs to be re-learned, or re-purchased for a high price.

As we have experienced this weekend, however, there is a second, more insidious source of risk. Despite the team having ample skills distributed across the rest of the team, it is the expectation that they needed this one player to succeed that brought them down. Even though this is not something that is explicitly drilled into the team by the coaches, it is something that is communicated by behaviours and attitudes. The belief in the dependency on a few people can lower the expectations of the capabilities of the rest of the group.

Worshipping the few can not be allowed to overwhelm the belief in the strength and cohesiveness of the team as a whole. – JB


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