Give your bench a chance (Guest commentary)

Lessons learned from basketball star Jeremy Lin
By Jack Welch and Suzy Welch
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/17/2012

Can you stand to read one more thing about the lin-credible, lin-tense, lin-probable Jeremy Lin without going totally lin-sane?

Yes, we’re going there. Not just because we’re crazy about Lin’s on-court heroics for the New York Knicks (although we are) or his off-court humility (which we also love) but because when you manage to put aside all the hootin’-and-hollerin’ about Lin, his gripping story offers an important lesson for business leaders — give your bench a chance.

That’s right, your bench. Those employees in their 20s and early 30s you think need a little more exposure outside their functional area, a few more years of people management or maybe just plain life experience before they move up a small rung to the next, wholly predictable level.

The ones you’ve got in a holding pattern because the company establishment — which might very well include you, if you can bring yourself to admit it — has deemed they’re “not ready yet.”

Lin is a reminder that one, two or even more of these employees might be ready for their own hoop dreams, if you’d only have the guts to take them off the bench. Think about it. Some of the most successful companies today were started by guys barely into their shaving years — Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook being the most obvious examples.

But even putting aside those massive success stories, hundreds, if not thousands, of thriving companies of every ilk have sprung from the minds of youthful founders with passion, a great idea, some venture capital funding and, perhaps most important of all, no fatheaded old bureaucrat telling them, “Wait your turn.”

Clearly, there are times when a young employee truly does need to mature, learn additional skills or have the proverbial rough edges smoothed off before she is handed a big hunk of responsibility. Indeed, all of us have seen the havoc that can be caused by people promoted too soon — before they know how to get a bundle of ideas actually executed, talk to a prickly subordinate about underperformance or navigate a team through an unexpected, competitive onslaught.

But such experiences too easily can become the standard excuse for letting “promising high-potentials” — as they’re so often called — wait until resentment festers. And the worst part is such career squashing even happens to individuals who’ve demonstrated they have something really special going on — who are particularly smart and energized, for instance, and have a knack for getting people to rally around them. Even they get the Jeremy Lin waiver treatment too often.

But there’s really only an upside in giving such people the break they crave.

First of all, they may really do something amazing. That does tend to happen when people feel as if everything’s on the line. They grow, they stretch, they reach… and, well, they score. Then there’s the organizational impact. Sure, some people might get cranky — “I was here seven years before I got to present to the board” and the like — but for every bureaucracy-hugger at your firm, there will be many more motivated by the fact passion and promise are being noticed — and count for something upstairs.

And, finally, there’s the recruiting lift an employer gets when it can legitimately tell great young candidates, “If you’ve got the right stuff and want to let it rip, your age will never hold you back around here. We’re all about giving people chances.”

Even if it means some chances will fail. And some will, of course. That’s the way life is; it’s the nature of risk. Some promising young people do need more time and some, even with opportunity handed to them, don’t have what it takes. Maybe even Lin.

We sure hope not. His story, on and off the court, is amazing, inspiring and puts some pizzazz in this NBA season. It would be wonderful if he became a hero for the ages. Regardless, we hope while he’s still got everyone’s attention, people can come to see the perhaps lin-visible (sorry) business message his story sends.

Every company is filled with young talent just waiting to explode. Don’t let bureaucracy keep them on the bench.

Jack Welch was CEO of General Electric for 21 years and is founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University in Virginia. Suzy Welch is an author, speaker and former editor of the Harvard Business Review.

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