Got Talent? Prove it.

Talent can only look good on paper for so long.

I happen to follow a certain college football team that has been in the process of breaking in a new quarterback while having–at the same time–one of the most exciting backs in the game. The new quarterback looks good on paper: Big guy, good athlete, strong arm.

Half a season ago, the new quarterback (and, no, there’s no reason to get into names because that would be personal and there’s too much press on these guys as it is) was coming along very slowly.  He wasn’t showing much, but made a few plays.  The coaches would say he was “doing what was needed” while the superstar back did his job and basically carried the team.

Only, the back couldn’t do it all.

And, the quarterback–when asked to do more–hasn’t been able to deliver.  The so-called smart money is starting to move from the incumbent new guy to “player to be named later.”

The quarterback, able to ride along with great talent, didn’t have to make many plays.  But, when it came time for him to actually carry the team, he hasn’t been able to do so.  It’s a truism in sports just as much as it is in business:  When bringing new players online, it’s good to develop them slowly. This is especially true if you can surround your new players with great talent.

But, eventually, the new players have to answer the bell…on their own.

This post is about answering the bell.

The “point” of this post for management and boards

Developing players is a critical part of any manager’s role in an organization. And, knowing whether you’ve chosen the right players is a substantial part of any executive’s or board member’s role.

So, what does my little football vignette tell you?

1. Developing players slowly is fine, but you have to have a glimpse.

Just like the quarterback in my story above, it’s fine to place a new executive in a role and let them get used to the organization and culture before making decisions. It’s fine to move people into roles slowly.  But you have to see something of substance during the transition.

You have to see them want to make a decision or two.

Ask yourself:  Have I seen a glimpse of the production I need from this new player?

2. Surrounding new players with supportive talent is great, but the new player has to bring something to the table.

I’m a big fan of “scaffolding” new hires and new executive teams with supportive structures that get them up to speed. In the story above, our new quarterback has an all-America back in the backfield with him.  That makes things easier.  Surrounding new executives with talented people who provide data, insight, direction, and suggestions goes a long way toward “apprenticing” great new talent.  But, how the new player responds to the scaffolding can be instructive.  You’ve placed a new executive at the head of a team of high talent sales people. Do they start to bring anything to the table, or do they just “hold office?”

If they just hide (or just warm their seat), especially behind other talent, then you need to know that.

Ask yourself: Does the new player produce without leaning inordinately on the talent around them?

3. Eventually, everybody is exposed.

This may be the most important point. In fact, it’s the point that prompted the post.  Eventually, your player’s talent will be tested.  You will have to have your player stand up in front of your board or a key customer and perform.  They will eventually have to answer the call.  Their scaffolding will be stripped away, they will have had enough time to absorb and reflect. They will be laid bare.  What happens then? If you are counting on an incompetent hire–whether it’s your account manager in sales, your VP of HR, or your CEO–to hide forever (or even just until you retire), then you are playing with fire.

Eventually, everybody is exposed. Some are exposed faster than others.

Ask yourself: Will my new player survive exposure as the individual talent they are supposed to be?

4. Other people are watching.

Your new player may take longer than you planned to develop. That can be ok. Unless they are exposed early, timing can be flexible. You hire a new guy to do a bunch of M&A work, and it takes years to get off the ground. That can be fine.  But…and it’s a big but…you have to watch out for collateral damage.  A CEO who comes into a new company with board mandate but without much vision or knowledge can only survive for so long before the executive team and the organization realize the new emperor has no clothes. Same can be said of any new hire or new player.  I’ve witnessed senior leaders who make no decisions of any substance due to their own lack of conviction and knowledge.  They wander hither and yon without any real point of view–letting the rest of the team do the real work.

One senior executive I spent some time around spent more time contemplating the design and furnishing of facility renovations and figuring out ways to manage around board meetings than he ever spent on business strategy, customer value propositions, financial plans, or anything else that might have been “strategic” to an executive of his standing.  Whether through lack of insight, energy, or ability, his “happy place” just wasn’t in actually doing the job of a a senior executive. His people knew it, and it hurt.

If you are the person who hire the “hither and yon” executive, you have to know that such hires reflect on your own competence.

Ask yourself: Is my new hire hurting my organization and my own reputations via his own incompetence?

So what?

All of this is to say one thing:  In the world of strategic management, player selections can only look good on paper for so long.

The players eventually have to show glimpses.

They eventually have to carry the load on their own.

They have to survive exposure.

Your performance depends on it, not to mention your reputation.

What do you think?

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