Rock Stars and Turn-Dials

Make sure to get Rocks Stars to control your Big Dials!

Troy Aikman, the Hall of Fame quarterback that led the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories in four years—the first team to do that—started his college career at Oklahoma. Heralded as a high school athlete, he certainly did not disappoint. In his first season as a collegiate starter, Aikman led the Sooners to a 3-0 record, beating Minnesota and Kansas State before knocking off the rival Longhorns of the University of Texas, ranked number 17 in the country at the time. Unfortunately, his season was cut short by Oklahoma’s next opponent, the University of Miami, when the Hurricanes’ Jerome Brown sacked Aikman, breaking his ankle. A long story shortened is that Jamelle Holieway, a freshman, replaced Aikman. And after finishing the season with a National Championship; the school’s sixth, but first in a decade; Holieway became part of Oklahoma lore, to this day considered one of the all-time greats. Oh, and he just happened to be a totally different style of quarterback than Aikman, forcing then head coach Barry Switzer (who ironically would later coach Aikman to a Super Bowl Championship with the Cowboys) to completely change the offense from a traditional one in which the quarterback dropped back and threw downfield to “The Wishbone”, where the quarterback was the focal point of the running game.

You’re probably saying about right now, “Again, Bobby? What are you talking about?” Well, here’s the punchline: Troy Aikman was relegated to a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. He was perhaps the best drop-back passer in the country at a school that was now– and would be for years– known for its running attack. So what did he do? He transferred to UCLA. And after being forced to sit out one season due to NCAA rules, he led the Bruins to a 20-4 record (over two seasons), won two bowl games, was awarded the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top passer, and was voted a Consensus All-American. And of course he was later drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, the number one pick overall in 1989, and as I mentioned, went on to win three Super Bowls and was inducted into both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

Okay, I’ll get to the point. You need Rock Stars to turn your big dials. Karaoke Artists can control the rest! At Oklahoma, running the ball was their big dial. And they had a rock star controlling it. Unfortunately, they also had a rock star at the controls of a small, now insignificant, dial- downfield passing. In plain English, when you have something that is important, crucial even, you need the best person you can find running or managing it. When the task, job, or project is not as critical, less than the best in the world is more than acceptable.

That’s especially important in business. Since most ventures have either limited resources or a limited pipeline to available talent (or both), energy and focus should be spent on filling those positions essential to the long-term viability and success of the company. That’s not always easy- for several reasons. Often times, the founder of the business started the company in large part because of his knowledge or experience in the business’ primary products or services. In his mind, he is the rock star, overseeing and directing the company’s biggest turn-dials. Even if he (or she, of course) is correct in his assessment, when and if the company grows, that will change. It must change. Because the founder is occupied by all aspects of the business, he can’t possibly be as devoted and committed to learning the skills that led to the company’s creation in the first place. The dial becomes too big (and important) for him to handle. Or inevitably—if the company is lucky—distribution, sales, marketing, product development, and other areas become increasingly important. Because of ego, because of ignorance or blind faith, or more honestly because of a lack of resources, this is often overlooked. As a result, less than stellar performers are often placed in charge of the most important functions of the organization—often hired from within, a perpetual musical chairs of those employees most loyal, but often least qualified– without a realization that the most important dials are different than they were months or years earlier.

Alas, coming up with a solution to matching the right performer to the right function is not nearly as simple or straightforward as identifying the pitfalls or challenges this dilemma creates. After all, the success of companies, and in any other area of life really, is often predicated on giving people opportunities to stretch themselves, to try new things and grow beyond their current comfort levels. Front line employees become managers, graphic artists and tech writers become marketing directors, and staff accountants grow into controller and hopefully CFO positions. But in reality, this is not always successful. In fact, often times it can be detrimental, if not disastrous. There’s even a term for it, the Peter Principle. So dubbed by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book with the same title, this eerily applicable law states that “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his (or her) level of incompetence.” And it’s not just in the corporate office, either. It happens everywhere. Assistant coaches become head coaches. Backup singers leave the band to go solo. Heck, people even make the mistake of marrying (“promoting”) the man or woman who was a good boyfriend or girlfriend only to find themselves stuck with a spouse they can’t stand. It’s obviously not good if the person promoted is not qualified. It only becomes counterproductive and painful, however, when that person oversees something important—like half of a marriage! The rule is universal. An online retailer will suffer if the person in charge of the development of online marketing, sales, and distribution is a dud just like a business that relies on a direct sales model but appoints a C+ employee as its leader will fall flat on its face. No matter the industry or organization, you need Rock Stars to turn your big dials. Karaoke Artists can control the rest!

To compound matters, these organizations, teams, and groups often have great performers in less important roles. And while having a top grade (and paid) customer service representative or the best system administrator in the city is not a bad thing in and of itself, if you have few customer complaints or rely minimally on your IT infrastructure, these roles represent resources (and money) wasted. And they deplete energy and resources that are better served finding (and being able to pay) talent that is absolutely necessary.

The solution, again, is not obvious; and even if recognized, not easy or always fair to implement. I’d argue that organizations should conduct regular autopsies of the company, grading all roles and functions on (A) their importance (maybe a scale 1 to 5 works); and (B) the employee fit by ability (again, maybe a scale 1 to 5 makes sense). Simplifying things, management could then make sure the functions and employees match. Matching ‘3’ Level Employees with Level ‘3’ Functions is ideal, as is 5’s with 5’s and 1’s with 1’s. (Proud owners and managers who argue their organizations do not have any 1’s should remember their college statistics class and that most social phenomena fall within a normal, bell curve, distribution. Thus, even in an organization with extremely bright and gifted individuals, someone inevitably has to be at the bottom of that talent pool, or to the left of the bell curve.) Matching 2’s with 4’s (in either direction; either a “2” Employee in a “4” Role or a “4” Employee in a “2′ Role) might be tolerable. But 1’s and 5’s should be considered cats and dogs, never to be paired together, lest the company suffer the dire consequences.

The Cowboys discovered a new Big Dial in 94. Sanders was the Rock Star they needed!

Back to my story about Troy Aikman. He was a Rock Star among Rock Stars with the Dallas Cowboys. On his offense were two other eventual Hall-of-Famers; Emmitt Smith, who would become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, and Michael Irvin. Given the moniker of “The Triplets”, they represented the linchpin for one of the most potent offenses of the 1990’s. But after dominating the NFL for two seasons, they loss in the 1994 NFC Championship game to San Francisco, where the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers outmuscled and outsmarted the Cowboys in a hard-fought game decided by only 10 points, this after the Cowboys fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter. The loss forced the Cowboys to recognize another, new, Big Dial- pass coverage in general and cornerback, specifically. And in the following season, they acquired Deion Sanders, possibly the biggest Rock Star at the cornerback position. And what happened that year? They won the Super Bowl. In football, like in business, you need Rock Stars to turn your big dials. Karaoke Artists can control the rest!

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About bbluford
I am an executive finance professional with a love for process and application development (MS Access, Excel, Quickbooks), mostly as it relates to Accounting and Business Functions. I also love to write and share ideas with other people in this world. I'm an admitted Gym Rat who works out excessively. The best summation of me is that I love to teach and to learn.

2 Responses to Rock Stars and Turn-Dials

  1. Carlton Osborne says:

    Great post, Bobby! It takes some of the things we’ve talked about and gives depth and context. Also, very quotable.

  2. bbluford says:

    Thanks, Carlton. And in no way am I immune to the laws this dogma suggests. But that is a good thing. What I think it does is keep us all open and honest with ourselves. For me, it means looking in the mirror each morning and telling myself that if I want to be in functions that are considered “Big Dials” (and I do), I need to make sure I continue to work on my craft as to not be a dud in the critical roles I hope to continue to fill.

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