I spent the weekend at the Western Elite Volleyball Championships, my nephew made the Alberta 17U team, and I had to go cheer him on. Now I don’t know a lot about volleyball: I know my nephew was asked to switch from soccer and basketball because the coaches though he could be an extraordinary volleyball player, instead of a really good basketball player. I know he’s only been playing for 2 years and was selected to go the the Elite tournament. I know his usual position is middle. With all that being said, he really wanted to try playing outside, apparently you get to hit the ball more. On the first day of the tournament, the coach let him try, and on Saturday he didn’t play. This is a three day tournament, and every single player there is an all-star, and not used to sitting on the bench. The poor guy sat on the bench the whole day.
Then it hit me – if I was a scout watching these kids play, I would care almost as much about their behavior on the bench as off, because when they go to college, they will almost without exception be playing in Division 1 teams, made up of the same mix of talent. With a team, if you have a hot rotation on a winning streak, you don’t want to break it up. Additionally, sometimes good players have great days, and sometimes great players have bad days. How you take your time on the bench is a great reflection of how you handle yourself in life.
As I watched him on the bench he kept on cheering on his team, high-fiving teammates who made good plays. As the day went on you could see his 6’ 8” frame getting more and more slouched. He was dejected. The next day, the coach told him he wasn’t going to play again. His beach partner from Calgary was on the opposing team on Sunday, and he also was spending quality time warming the wood. As we stood up the the stands, their parents were keeping their spirits up, and to keep in in perspective, getting invited to this tournament is a huge mark of your skill and talent. But they are still 17 year old boys, who are at the top of their sport, and the bench is not a place they like to be. We also wondered about the logic of the coach – playing 6 guys for 7 games straight wears them out – and the guys who haven’t played at all just get colder and colder. So how does a coach balance a hot streak and a strong bench? It’s a coaching dilemma, keeping a strong bench engaged and committed because when you have a team full of starters, someone ends up on the bench.
In my job we have elite players everywhere. I was on a team at one point that was made up of 6 people, including one Harvard MBA, two Wharton MBAs, one MIT MIS, one BSc in Computer Science + 10 years field experience, and me. It was at a time when Windows Product Management was the ultimate place to be in marketing. I was on the elite squad. You can take a team like that and look at it from a couple different perspectives: with Microsoft’s competitive calibration I was a little screwed, half the team was on the other “bench” (what MSFT used to call the program for people who have been identified for future leadership roles). I was never going to come out on the front side of our bell curve. Where I really profited was working with that caliber of people everyday on every aspect of my role. I still chuckle when the new product managers on my current team pull out a template my team created, sometimes that I created, and suggest that I use it. I knew my role and position on that team, I had the strongest soft skills, that’s why I was recruited. I could engage engineering teams that had been mad at marketing for years, I could pull in people from my network that enabled the success of the entire team, I could refine messaging from both a customer and global perspective. I was a negotiator extraordinaire. I loved being part of that team, and what an amazing team to be a part of. We had a coach who recognized all our skills, made everyone feel like they added value to the team, and set reasonable expectations.
I have a friend who manages a fairly large team. Two years ago, he hired a rock-star team of top performers. The problem again is that at Microsoft we are competing with our peers for our ranking and promotions. So now he needs to hand out some mandatory mediocre and poor ratings. This has nothing to do with any drop in their performance, they just are now being calibrated against a team of starters. We don’t calibrate across the company, we calibrate across individual teams, so if you are on a strong team, sometimes you have to take a lower rating and slower career velocity. Unfortunately it also works in the reverse, people who stay on weaker teams long term get higher calibration and career velocity.
My nephew handled his benching with grace and dignity beyond his years. Fortunately for him, the hot streak of one of the other middles ended, and he got back in the game, ending the weekend hitting and serving the last 2 points in the fifth game, winning the round.
I will admit it, I have an old school communications degree, pre-social media, digital story-telling, and crossing chasms…
I have studied the theories of Aristotle, and discussed McLuhan with his students. I have conducted rhetorical analysis’ of the best known orators of the past 200 years, and we actually studied the history of human thinking through the measurement of whether civilization was in a state of Being or becoming.
I also forget how what I learned affects so many areas of my job. I’m really good at PowerPoint. Not at building slides that swoop and turn, or using Photoshop to create original graphics that have perfect blends…but really good at using PowerPoint to help tell the story that needs to be told. Is this a natural skill, or is this a combination of the “Visual Communication”, “Semiotics” and Iconography in my senior seminar?
I have to take training class based on a national best-seller to remember Aristotle’s’ Ethos, Pathos and Logos that poor Professor Cragg drilled into us repeatedly?
I only now start to appreciate how important the “History of Communications” is to my daily job.
I think I need to pull out my old papers and see what else i need to remember that I seem to have forgotten….