Allow Employees To Work In Their Zones of Excellence

The Wall Street Journal recently profiled Miami Heat forward Duncan Robinson, a 6-7 sharpshooter with an improbable journey to the NBA. 

My favorite anecdote is when Robinson’s high school coach chided him for passing up a shot.

“You’re being selfish,” his coach said, per the article. “You’re being selfish if you don’t shoot.”

It’s rare to hear a coach call a player selfish for trying to be unselfish, but I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more frequently. When a gifted player deprives his/her team of their best asset, it hinders the team’s success - especially when that skill is in short supply.

Seems pretty straightforward. So why is this such a foreign concept in the workplace?

Companies Can Be Their Own Worst Enemies

Rather than employees wasting their talents, what I’ve seen more often is employers under-utilizing their employees’ unique talents and unknowingly suffering the consequences.

How many times have you seen the Peter principle firsthand? Ever witness colleagues shoehorned into roles that don’t play to their strengths, but they satisfy the company’s immediate needs? In some cases, there’s an overlap between the skills required for the role and the candidate’s abilities. But more often than not, the Venn diagram barely intersects. 

The results - less innovation, higher employee churn and burnout, lower employee engagement - are avoidable. But to solve this, it will take a shift in mindset.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for a school-recess environment where employees pursue whatever activity suits them best regardless if it serves the company’s needs. Companies are accountable to their shareholders and have to run their businesses accordingly. 

What I believe, though, is that employees’ roles should be less rigid and ought to be defined - at least in part - by individuals’ unique skill sets instead of 100% based on the company’s perceived needs. More on this later.

This Mindset Is Common Sense

I worked for the Houston Texans during defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ tenure from 2011-13. He’s renowned for his 3-4 defense, but Phillips always tailored his defense to his talent and not the other way around.

“I don’t understand the people that say, ‘Hey, this is our scheme and that guy can’t play in it,’” Phillips said to Sports Illustrated in 2016. “Well, to me, there’s something wrong with your scheme. You adapt the scheme to what the players can do, not what you can think of. We’ve always done it that way.”

Phillips has been a part of 21 different top-10 defensive units during his NFL career and has coached a total of 31 Pro Bowlers. He knows his shit.

So what is the solution for the workplace?

Solutions Require Acknowledgments

The problem we’re discussing occurs when:

  1. Companies do a poor job hiring*

  2. Employees are promoted from individual contributors (ICs) to managers

  3. Existing roles morph into something employees were not originally hired for

For No. 1, weak job descriptions attract the wrong candidates by misleading people on what the actual role entails - leading to poor fit and wasted time. Also, when companies cut corners on the vetting process, they can miss glaring signs that the candidate is not suited for the role and they may not even identify the candidate’s greatest strengths.

Here are two things I recommend:

For No. 2,  the primary reason why ICs aspire to be managers is because they think it’s the only way to earn more. Few people genuinely love to manage employees, and there’s a subset of these people (typically narcissists) who love the idea of ruling over their own fiefdom. These people are sick.

The solution is for companies to create career laddering tracks for individual contributors whereby they can earn as much - if not more - than their managers. This will help companies avoid the majority of square-peg-round-hole scenarios.

For No. 3, companies often add work to employees’ plates and characterize these maneuvers as temporary until someone else is hired or additional personnel moves are made. To be fair, companies may believe these are stopgap measures. 

Whatever the case, these decisions lead to less employee bandwidth and more employee resentment, and often the additional burden falls outside of employees’ core competencies.

In these scenarios, the ball is in employees’ courts to communicate that they can add more value in other ways or that they’re ill-suited for the current role. It could be that what the company urgently needs is not aligned with an employee’s skillset. If that’s the case, employees can grin and bear it, or leave. 

Companies cannot do acrobatics to keep employees happy if their house is on fire. On the flipside, do employees want to work at a place where everything is a fire drill?

Written by 3rd & Lamar co-founder Nick Schenck


*In terms of hiring, this book, “Who: The A Method For Hiring,” came highly recommended. It’s on my list to read it, but figured I’d share it with you. Also, here are top interview questions from First Round Capital.

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