When Managing Talent, Don’t Let Michael Jordan’s Failure Become Your Failure

Several years ago I had the pleasure of working with a certified R&D rock star. I’ll call him Tom. Tom had led teams that had created an endless string of top-selling products. The company saw so much promise in their golden boy that they put him through a top executive MBA program, eventually promoting him to president of the organization. But within six months Tom found himself on the outs with just about everyone in the organization. After a long and mostly brilliant career, he had completely failed and was without a job.

After recovering from the shock of what had happened, Tom was quickly picked up by a competitor and was soon leading successful product development teams again. The company that had let him go had made a common but huge error. It had taken an enormously talented employee and put him in a position where he couldn’t use his core strengths. His employer wanted to bring his long record of success to its broader business, but that meant playing him out of position. As talented as he was at inspiring engineers to produce top-selling products, he was unable to engage the rest of the organization in the same way – most notably, the global sales force. This error is repeated time and time again by organizations around the world. One of the most famous examples is that of the basketball superstar Michael Jordan.

In the fall of 1993, at the peak of his athletic abilities, three-time NBA finals MVP Michael Jordan quit the Chicago Bulls to join a minor league baseball farm team in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a rough transition. In the NBA he seemed to score almost at will; in his first season with a small market baseball team he carried a miserable batting average despite working ferociously in the batting cage. By the spring of 1995 he decided to return to basketball and continue his unparalleled career, giving up his – and his late father’s – dream that he would be a professional baseball player.

This strange footnote to Jordan’s career exemplifies how even an enormously talented person can fail when he is poorly positioned. At the end of the day, Jordan was a world-class basketball player because that was the sport that best matched his natural ability, talent, and training. He grew up constantly playing against his older brothers and received excellent coaching at several levels.

Despite the obvious importance of aligning an employee’s talent with his or her job, a 2012 Gallup study indicated that only 50% of U.S. workers use their strengths throughout their day. More important, there are at least hundreds of thousands of employees at large organizations who each could be more effective in a different position at the same company. Maximizing the strengths and talents of your workforce to increase employee engagement and productivity, reduce attrition, and ultimately improve business results is a basic management and human resource goal.

Know and understand the strengths and talents of your people and ensure they are in the roles where they are as useful as possible. For larger organizations, Gallup can be an excellent partner for assisting in this. For organizations on a tighter budget, the Predictive Index is a good tool, when coupled with effective manager training.


Published on Forbes, 16th May 2013.

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