Is Your Staff Getting Enough Playing Time.
By David Goldsmith
Wednesday, 18th February 2009
Whether the economy is thriving or teetering on the brink of disaster, there are some business basics that every leader and manager needs to review on a regular basis to keep his or her organization running strong today and into the future. 

Looking for weak links, especially when everything seems to be going great, is a perfect place to start.  The reason is, the weak links rarely expose themselves during the good times, but they can really do a number on you when your firm, your industry, or the marketplace at large hits a speed bump.

While watching one of our son, a defensiveman, play out his season on an undefeated lacrosse team, we could see a glaring parallel between this team's success and that of a profitable business.  You've got key players who come in, do their jobs exceptionally well, and earn enough points to give the team a safe score cushion, much like a great sales team that hits the right numbers every month and contributes to safe profit margins.

Continue the pattern day after day and week after week, and you've got a winning recipe both on the field and in the office. But if you're not aware, you can be blind to your own weak links.

Over the course of several weeks of games, we witnessed our son's team pulverizing their competition. At times, it was hard to watch. Within the earliest minutes of every game, the offense would launch a scoring frenzy so strong that the defense could have stepped off the field for hot dogs and burgers, and no one would have missed them.  After such blitzes, the coach would pull his entire starting line up off the field and replace each player with his second string. It makes sense to build depth of talent and skills by giving the extra play time to the second and third string players. After all, the team won most games easily by a 15-point spread.

So far, coach's decisions make sense, right?  But here's the catch, and here's where you have to be careful as a decision maker.

As long as things are going well—the competition isn't much of a threat, the score reflects a healthy lead, key players are healthy—no weaknesses are apparent.  Yet, throw a real challenge into the mix, and you see something entirely different.

One day, the team faced an opposing school notorious for producing state and national champions.  Our team's starting roster, a group of kids who actually had very little live-game playing time for most of the season, had to play the entire game.  Remember that first-string defense that might have touched the ball a dozen times so far that season?  Oops.

In true fashion, our offense went on the attack putting points on the board early. The competitor, with a strong defense and offense, reciprocates. Our defenders do a great job but also allow a few goals to get through, and the teams, tied at 7-7, go into sudden-death overtime.

Each team jockeyed for position, waited for an opportunity to make that critical shot, and into the second nail-biting overtime, our son's team scored a goal from just 10 feet outside the net. The victory celebration began. As parents, we were happy for our son and his team.  As management experts, we saw a lesson to pass on.

How did such a winning team find themselves in a do-or-die situation?  If the defense had been given more playing time throughout the season, might they have been in a better position to win by a safer margin. The game could have gone either way, and in business, eking out victories can be a dangerous way to operate.

If you've got a strong offense—sales team—you may be unaware of your defense's weaknesses.  The defense includes your support personnel in areas such as accounting, purchasing, inventory, shipping, and production.  You want your defense to be able to "pass the ball" to your offense so that the whole organization wins.

While identifying weak links can be a tricky feat, there are some things you can do to illuminate potential trouble makers.  Here's a start.

1. Watch: Spend more time watching your employees and if possible, figure out who are the people who are actually getting the experience time and who's not so when the game is on the line, those with less experience are still prepared.

2. Safeguard: Make sure your team has back-up, but not at the expense of key employees or those who are paid to think.

3. Solicit: Encourage employees to voice their observations and listen to what they say. Our son was the one who pointed out the challenges with the strategy, and the minute he did, we noticed the challenge. Imagine the outcome of the big game if his coach had heard the concern.

4. Assess: Take what you learn from your staff, combine it with what you know from your 50,000 foot view, and make your own judgment. Sometimes there is a lot you can do with what you know, and other times you have wait for the right time to act.

With the recent challenges presented by our economy, you might be wondering if your starting lineup needs your help in honing their skills.  Consider these four points.

First, your team may be unprepared even though they've had experience; without the right practice time, their first instincts are to "hunker down," because they don't know what else to do.  Simply passing on responsibility without the right skill sets might lead employees to hide and take cover when the firm needs them to perform offensively.  When confidence wanes, people fear and resist change, which leads to cash depletion and lack of growth. This is a time when you need smart change, positive cash flow, and growth. 

Second, look to systems and structure using technology to leverage your talent.  You want to drive sales and bring in new business profitably: the best price points, the highest returns, and most efficient expenditures of human labor.

Third, look to partnerships. Partner with others to gain leads, purchase, and utilize talent.  For example, gather a group of non-competing managers to discuss your current position so that their minds can help your business and you can help theirs.

Lastly, realize that even in down economies, many people and organizations thrive. During the depression of the 1930's, some people were earning $100,000 a year. Set your sights on improving what you do so that even if there is less business to get, you're winning it.

In the end, what happens over the next 5 years on a global scale is out of your control.  What happens to your business is all up to how you manage your organization's assets, including your employee pool, so that every "player" has ample amount of time to develop into a strong link.

The Strategic Alchemist™ , David Goldsmith is President and co-founder of MetaMatrix Consulting Group LLC. Over the past 24 years David has founded or co-founded nine businesses ranging from distribution to manufacturing to advertising. In 1999, David sold his 14-year-old Syracuse, NY based Image Promoters, Inc. which he co-founded in 1986 to Proforma Associates, a 400-location franchise.

He has been a consultant to various industries including telemarketing, high tech, logistics, retailing, hospitality, tourism, and manufacturing. Working with business owners, and corporate and mid-level management, David rapidly creates strategies that win in the marketplace.

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