Managing Talent: A Running Metaphor

When I first joined the cross-country team in high school I naively thought that running was all the same, you just ran. Then came the first day we ran hills. It was then that I realized that running has a lot more technique and skills then were initially apparent. One of the most important things I learned was how run down hill.

On that first day of running hills our coach told us to “really work it going up the hill and recover on the way down.” After reaching the top of the hill I began my “recovery” back down the hill (i.e. jogging slowly). However, I noticed that everyone else was flying passed me on the way down the hill. Not only that, but when they reached the bottom they seemed even more rested and recovered than I was.

After practice I asked one of the guys on the varsity team why everyone’s “recovery” speed was so much faster than mine. In true Southern California surfer fashion he said “Dude, you just got to learn how to let your legs go.” Let my legs go, what the hell does that mean? Is that some sort of weird surfer zen thing?

What he meant was, when running uphill you really have to churn your legs to keep moving. However, when you reach the top and start going down, your legs are already churning. With the help of gravity, your legs will keep churning unless you actively try to stop them. See also: Newtons first law. It is the same effect you get as when you drive down hill and put your car in neutral.

Once you figure out how to “let your legs go” you just have two things to worry about. The first is that you regulate your speed. Your legs can take you far faster than you can safely go, so you should constantly be regulating your speed to go as fast as is safely possible. The second thing is avoiding obstacles. It only takes a small rock or divot to catch you off guard and send you tumbling down a hill. The further away you see the obstacle the easier it is to avoid.

Managing talented people fundamentally uses the same technique as running down hill. Imagine your team as the legs and you, as the manager, are the head. When you have a talented team, they should be able to move incredibly quickly. While their ability to move fast is a good thing, it is your job as the manager to make sure that your team is going as fast as they can while still being safe. If you allow the team to move too fast they will eventually trip and fall. Hopefully its just a scrape or a bruise and they can get back at it. But sometimes the injury can be really serious and the recovery process is a long and painful one.

Avoiding obstacles is the second skill you need to master. As the manager you are the vision. You see whats coming both short and long term, it is your job to steer the team appropriately. You have to make sure you are tracking what is right in front of you as well as what is on the horizon. Its important to remember that the further away you see an obstacle, the more smoothly you can steer the team around it. If you are really good, your team wont even notice the small course correction you made a while back that let you “effortlessly” avoid the giant bolder that would have eventually blocked their way.

If there is one piece of advice I can give you about managing a talented team it is: “let your team go.”


Unknown said...

I"m not sure if "let your team go" is the appropriate word choice for managing a team. I think that would more commonly mean lay your team off. Otherwise, excellent analogy between your running and managing a team.

Are you in a position of management now?

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