A Reminder from Saturday Morning Pick Up: Set your teammates up to succeed

A Reminder from Saturday Morning Pick Up: Set your teammates up to succeed

Photo Credit: James Boyes, used under Creative Commons licence

Playing pickup this past weekend I sent a perfect, and completely useless, pass to a teammate. He immediately lost the ball, which was my fault not his. It was one more reminder that the best soccer players are always thinking “what next?” rather than just “what now?” The same is true of the best managers.

A complaint about some soccer players is that they “play people into trouble,” that is they pass the ball to someone who is closely guarded, or to a teammate with no real options for doing something productive with the ball. In his terrific new book, Masters of Modern Soccer, Grant Wahl writes about the importance of “the next play.” Christian Pulisic, a rising young American star, told Wahl he spends a lot of time thinking about what the person he can pass the ball to can do next. For Pulisic, and other top players, the best next option is the one that leads to another good option. Can the person receiving the ball immediately shoot on goal? If not, can they pass it to someone moving in to a position to shoot or otherwise build the play? Or are they isolated from their teammates or being closely guarded by the opposition?

My Saturday morning mistake was a common one. A lot of people with whom I play look for the first option, and as a result may complete a pass but then the play stops or immediately comes back at them. Similarly, players will get open to receive a pass but do so by moving to a space that leaves them with few if any options should they get the ball. The first pass looks great – especially if it’s a long pass that lands at the feet of a teammate deep in the opponents end. But in a lot of cases after the person receives the pass, she has nothing to do with the ball. She’s usually not in good position to score, and rarely has anyone from either team around her. Instead of the long dramatic pass the better option is usually the simple pass to someone who can quickly and simply pass it again. The best passes are to teammates with space in front of them into which they can move, or who have other teammates to whom they can quickly pass the ball again.

The same is true in organizations.  The best managers and staff think beyond the immediate opportunity to the one that follows it. They ask “how does this successful step set up future success?” Does this sales lead take advantage of organizational capacity by generating work for units with room to grow? Or does it add one more burden on an already over-burdened unit? Does the star performer already have too much to do? Are there others in the organization who may not be as skilled but who have more time to get done what needs to get done? The best managers think beyond where to direct the next task to what the person to whom that task is directed can do next.

For example, imagine you are a manager at a small marketing and communications firm. You have just landed a good client looking to promote a new product. Looking around your office you see a few options – you have a proven performer who can seemingly get press coverage for anything, and who has some capacity to take on extra work. The downside is that everyone on whom she typically relies (writers, list-builders, social media people to push out stories, and so forth) are swamped. She could do a great job, but she would have to do it alone. Another option is a pretty good writer who can do a reasonable job of drafting a press release, pitch memo, and maybe an oped or online content. The online team is busy finishing a project, but in a week or so will have some capacity. By the time the writing and digital teams are done your star may have more on her plate, but she should still have room to do her thing. The first option has a lot of appeal – you have a star with time and you get to tell your client “I gave your project to our best person.” But once given the project, she will have to either scramble on her own to do things at which she isn’t expert or wait for everyone else to have time to help her. Your second option is less exciting and it may take time to show results you can brag about to your client. If you think about “what now?” you might be tempted to go with the first option: immediately get the new project in the hands of your best performer. But if you think about “what next?” you might make the better decision to build the project slowly by taking advantage of pretty good opportunities now that will open up better opportunities in the future. By going to your star immediately you are setting her and your client up for failure. By working your way to your star through others in your organization you are setting everyone up for success.

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