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John Wright | Managing stars

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-06-2014 John Wright

Any sports team will have people belonging to varied levels of potential, experience or longevity, and fame. The ones that come at the highest end of these three dimensions are typically what are referred to as the stars of the team. I have had the pleasure of coaching teams like the Indian cricket team in the early 2000s, and more recently the Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League where I have observed and worked with the dynamics that come with having star individuals in the team. There are lessons from them which might be applicable in the construct of organizations, which deal with their own star performers.

In sport, the selection process is very important. There are some demonstrable and visible skills in sport, unlike in some corporate roles, which make it easy at one level to identify the right individuals based on talent. However, what helps identify the potential stars from the rest, is something you observe over time—it is the combination of sound technique, impeccable work ethic and discipline, and the mental ability to adapt to any environment. Even when they’re exceptionally brilliant in technique, the other two are really what raise the bar of a sportsperson to being a star. As a coach, becoming redundant to a player is one of my ways of knowing that the star within him has come through.

Subsequently, when it comes to putting together a team in sport, the ability to adapt comes a long way in making individuals into team players. You see the difference in cricket in simple ways—fielding performance, for instance. Chasing a ball to the boundary and converting a three into a two even when it doesn’t seem like the most important thing in the context of the game are all signs of the work ethic and commitment that makes a star what he is.

Just as stars are critical to a team’s success or failure, how the rest of the team rallies around a star is critical to his or her performance. A star feels supported when the coach distributes responsibility to other performers in a team towards taking the pressure off, as the team impacts the star’s ability to maintain performance and focus on their delivery.

The Mumbai Indians team is an interesting medley of individuals, each of whom has been a national hero. Suddenly they’re thrown together with a bunch of other achievers, who command the same respect nationally and internationally. Peer pressure is actually a good thing—stars respond positively to it, and don’t shy away from healthy competition and mutual learning. A coach needs to effectively integrate all these superstars. This is a process of acknowledging their unique strengths, while also nurturing respect for each another and appreciation of how the other stars in effect contribute to their own ability to perform well and under lesser pressure.

It is essential to not let first-timers and youngsters get overawed by stars in the team. Any new member needs to feel comfortable and towards that, the onus is on the coach to cultivate an atmosphere of openness. A good induction process goes a long way. Young entrants must feel like they belong and that the team is pleased to see them. They should be able to visualize how the team works and where they fit in, uniquely, yet they must appreciate team priorities.

For instance, in cricket, it is required to ensure that the team that gets to play the next game gets the first go at practice. A critical element of achieving this understanding and comfort while leveraging star power is to help stars channelize their experience and wisdom towards guiding newcomers.

Not all stars are natural leaders or mentors. However, a coach can act as an effective medium to steer a star towards sharing his vast knowledge and strengths with youngsters in the group. However, I’ve seen that stars respond well when given responsibility, as it adds a facet to their ability that is beyond their specific skills. It adds to keeping them inspired and involved, even when they’re not designated leaders of the team.

Establishing a set of common values in a team that is adhered to by everyone is key. Fundamentals like punctuality, respect for each other and a strong work ethic are non-negotiable. Beyond this, you get everyone to sit down, discuss and agree on other ground rules. Through this process, you establish a culture where everyone is comfortable with expression and individual agendas are not allowed to overcome team objectives.

However, beyond this, a coach must also accommodate some of a star’s unique quirks and needs, although not at the cost of the team’s agenda. For instance, in cricket, on occasion I’ve exempted some of the players from specific warm-up regimens and have been okay with them getting into the kind of practice mode they are most comfortable with. Sometimes they’ve just earned the right to know what’s good for them.

It is essential for a coach to manage talent and temperament in a star. Stars are not infallible. With success comes its pitfalls and stars are vulnerable to those. Cricket is a harsh game. It can raise you to the very heights of achievement and deliver a resounding kick on the backside while you’re not looking.

With the cumulative experience of being a coach and seeing so many come and go, you can see it happen before it actually happens. When stars tend to go into individual territories and personal agendas, the responsibility lies with the coach to be able to illustrate to them that they’re only harming themselves in the process.

Stars need positive encouragement just as much as anyone else, they don’t take their success for granted. They also are comfortable with communicating their issues and don’t often hesitate to speak their mind.

Stars are big assets to any team or organization, and are inevitable since people and their abilities are not homogenous. The art lies in managing them in a way that brings out the best within them as well as from the rest of the organization towards a common goal.

John Wright serves as the head coach of the Mumbai Indians team.

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