Who is the most important person on your team? As much as we’re “all created equal,” we join and work with teams comprised of higher performers and lower performers. Some salespeople exceed quota; others struggle to keep up. In sports, most players, at any given time, watch from the bench. How do we reconcile “managing our stars” with “managing the team”?
Years ago, Ian “House” Somerville and I co-captained the MIT baseball team, an experience I wrote about in Beaverball: A (Winning) Season with the MIT Baseball Team. As captains, we met regularly with Head Coach Fran O’Brien to discuss upcoming opponents and issues relevant to maintaining team chemistry. Before our spring trip to Florida, House and I recapped one particular lesson that Coach O’Brien emphasized to both of us. He said, “The most important person on the team – and to me – is the last man on the roster, the person sitting at the end of the bench. Why? Because if that man really believes that he will have every opportunity to earn playing time, then he will push everybody else on the roster above him, improving the team’s attitude and performance.”
Coach explained how even the best player on the team would feel competition at practice, keeping him sharp and on top of his game. Each person, at some point in the season, needed reminding that playing time and leadership were not rights or entitlements; they were privileges that one earned. The minute a job or leadership role becomes an entitlement, we have a morale problem, a performance problem, or both.
Did Coach believe that team success relied on lavishing attention on our newest, part-time intern? No. He simply highlighted the importance of reinforcing expectations. A manager holds everyone on the team to the same standards for key values such as hustle, integrity, and cheering your team. If the star third baseman dogs it on and off the field, the manager must hold him accountable. As a player, and as a teammate, it’s incredibly motivating to see leadership in action, to see deed follow word.
Coach reinforced expectations with everyone on the team. He said, “running around is fine for getting into shape, but during practice and games we want focus.” He explained how each person contributed to the team’s success. For example, during practice drills, he would tell Eddie, our back-up catcher, “Gun those guys down! Make them work for that extra base, Eddie. Help us get better!”
The message isn’t complicated. But it requires a commitment to communicate consistently. As managers, it is our job to “hold the line” on the most important values and expectations, and to take the time required to clarify how each person adds value. In recognizing this lesson, not only do we serve the team, we help ourselves.