Back in 1998, French football coach, Aimé Jacquet, explained that the worse moment of his career consisted in explaining to Eric Cantona who had just been nominated player of the year in England (I hope you seize the historical meaning here: English people elected a French as its most valuable player of the year!) and who had always loyally supported him, that he would not be part of the team that would play in the World Cup. The reason was that Jacquet feared the dependency that the team would create around their key player. He preferred a stronger team to a superstar.
In a recent discussion a sports coach told me: “I do not focus so much on the team which will be playing: They are sufficiently prepared for and excited about the coming game . I put my attention to those sitting on the bench (ie. those who are not playing and are hopeful to be called to the game”.
As I was wondering if this could bring any value to us, business leaders and coaches, my friend kept on talking and elaborated on four reasons why coaches should focus on the bench more than on the stars playing:
- The bench creates the culture, he said. If left to the egocentrism and competitive values of the star-performers, then the culture of our team would rapidly become cut-throat competition, individualism and what you call conditionality. The bench players sit together, they have the mass-power to change the culture. Leave them on their own, unsecure about their future, not knowing what their career ladder is, unclear about why they are not actually playing on the field and they will create a negative, vindictive and inner fighting culture. Support them, help them to create self-confidence, make them proud of their job and of wearing the colour and they will be living models for the junior players, the press and the public of the team culture you try to build.
- The bench sets the level of the bar for the team. It is not those playing on the field who necessarily set the level of the game, but those who push them to raise the bar. If your attitude of leader is one of unconditional support, generous sharing of best practices and encouragement, he explained, then the bench will set the tone. The bench will encourage the base team to perform one level up.
- The Support/Challenge coming from the bench is more impactful than anything I can say: The coach doesn’t always know the stories happening in the private lives of players. The coach can’t always feel how players feel. The bench does! Support and challenge coming from the bench peers is usually better understood by the field players. Now, he added, if all you do as a coach is to challenge without supporting, the bench will do the same and my key players will underperform.
- The way you treat your bench will profoundly impact your star players: The last point the coach made sounded so powerful: The way you treat your “bench people”, those who are temporarily weaker and therefore sitting on the bench, will send a strong signal to the others and deeply impact your team culture. How do you treat those whose who temporarily underperform or are not needed yet? Do you “abandon” and let go those who loyally served the team and are now “too old to rock’n’roll”? Or do you treat those with respect and support them fully?
I assume there is a lot in this for us, leading our teams through the highly competitive landscape of our businesses. Who is our bench? How much attention do we give to the “second layer”? Do we let our star performers suck all our attention? Star performers are fragile, in business like in sports. They need attention and reinforcing, positive feedback. But their energy is usually high, boosted by excitement of their challenges and the self-confidence inspired by their results. Our second layer may need a bit more excitement and self-confidence.
Hay identified that 70% of an organization’s culture comes from the behaviours of its leaders. Our bench is definitely part of our leadership team. When my partners and I work on cultural changes, we seek to focus, like my coach friend, not so much on the star-performers, usually busy with other glorious battles, but on that solid bench.
And if you totally disagree and continue to believe that your unique point of attention should be your star performers and yourself (since you must be a star as well;) watch out, you may end up like Jose Mourinho, Fabio Capelli or Diego Simeone…
Leadership is an art… Enjoy your artistic journey!