When you hear “substitute,” what comes to mind?
I think about substitute teachers. When I was a kid, a substitute teacher was not really asked to teach—he or she was more of a caretaker, someone called in to babysit a class during the regular teacher’s absence. That is not to say the subs weren’t competent, they just never got the chance to shine—the system didn’t expect much of them.
In sports we have contracted the concept of substitutes down to “subs.” But to many, their functions in a contest are well understood–give the “starters” a chance to rest, and try not to make a costly mistake. Subs are advised, “Don’t try to score–you’ll just muck things up. Get the picture?” Even a sub’s “place” has a sense of the subservient, the less-good. He or she goes into the game “coming off the bench.” That placement term paints a mental picture of someone released from a stay in purgatory—side-lined, benched. Now finally, if the coach wills it, such a sub-par player is offered a dispensation from inhabiting a place to which the lesser players are relegated or in which they’re stored.
The NCAA Basketball Tournament has just ended. AKA “March Madness,” it typically concludes in April, an April Fool’s joke on anyone in a one-TV family who’s not delightedly wrapped up in the Madness. This year, both the men’s and women’s tournaments were terrific to watch. Unlike most sporting events, the long season before and the structure of the tournament always seem to produce a cadre of teams that have peaked at tournament time. Like most sporting events, each separate game in the tournament writes its own intriguing story line that the press discerns and publicizes, and the country embraces, each armchair player seeing his or her own life story reflected in it to some extent.
In the men’s tournament one of the most powerful stories was the broken leg suffered by Louisville guard Kevin Ware. In the face of this horrific, unusual injury, Ware showed himself to have a remarkably resilient spirit—his was a model of courage. But to me the most remarkable story implicit in the Louisville-Michigan match-up was the role the subs on the Louisville and Michigan teams played in forging their respective successes. Louisville made it to the final game in part on the play of Tim Henderson who hit back-to-back three pointers against Wichita State. Consider this–the last time Tim had been called off the bench and inserted into a game, he took just one shot that did not even hit the rim, yet his teammates trusted him enough in the game against Wichita to throw him the ball! And look at what he did with it!
In the championship game the roles subs played were even more dramatic. When Michigan’s guard Trey Burke, the consensus National Player of the Year, had his second foul called early in the first half, he was replaced by Spike Albrecht. Spike then hit four shots in a row, scoring 15 points in 15 minutes. The announcers could not recall a more impressive performance under tournament conditions. Louisville, then down twelve points, was reeling until substitute Luke Hancock entered the game. Luke scored the game’s next twelve points and Michigan never fully recovered.
Organizational, corporate, and familial teams do not have subs. Rather, the cultural objective of any company is that every employee is fully committed in every quarter and half as an integral part of the team. In great companies no part-time employees receive full pay! Yet, the structure of most all organizations is such that reporting relationships must exist—subordinates all report to managers, and on up the line. We often have “team leaders” and others in support.
However, unless employees lower down in the organization are afforded good and real opportunities to take on challenges that often fall to more senior players, they will never be practiced and ready to take on additional responsibilities later–to compete at a higher level. For example, when subs entered the games I described above, the starters had no discernible reservations about passing them the ball. No reservations in providing the subs an opportunity to score! In one interview, a star player said, “I knew the subs could perform because they showed us that in practice.”
Take that player’s comment to heart: Unless you seek out opportunities to slow down and show subordinates your ability, then offer them significant, outcome-critical chances to perform what you showed them and they practiced, how will you prepare them for key games? You’re paying them, so shouldn’t they be as ready to give you as sterling a performance at key times as your star players?
The other team dynamic to remember is how companies often define starters. In most organizations a cultural keynote of how folks are valued centers around the number of reports or departments an individual oversees. What I have found is that in the right positions, sole contributors can be every bit as valuable to an outcome as the leader of scores of people. A perfect example of this arises in research departments. When a person shows him- or herself to be a gifted researcher, he or she is given responsibility for a team of researchers. That is the expected reward. The problem is that a researcher’s gift–intuitive genius–is often best utilized in the lab, not playing on a team, trying to teach, lead, or in other ways share that gift with others.
Remember that in great organizations no one is viewed as a sub, and the culture there makes certain that individuals throughout the organization are prepared to succeed at critical times and in the best, most practiced way they can. Then the team succeeds as well, not just in March or April, but all around the year.