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Improving Your Bench Strength: Some Tips From College Basketball

March Madness is here and for all my fellow college basketball aficiandos, I say “let the games begin!

Since I am in the business of developing leaders and developing organizations, I wondered if there is anything we can learn from the elite college basketball programs that can be applied to leadership and organizational success? The answer, of course, is a resounding “yes” or why else would I bring up the question, right? In this blog, I will share with you some of the ways that you can model the success of the top basketball programs over the past 25 to 30 years to ensure your organization will be ready for the future?

The first thing that strikes me is that the success of a college basketball team and the success of almost any organization is tied to “bench strength.” In organizational terms, we call that succession development. Take a minute to look at your organization and ask yourself, “Are we developing our next generation of leaders/players?” Your long-term success will be directly impacted by your answer to this important question. You may have a starting line-up now of All-Americans but it would be very short-sighted if you were not developing players for next year and beyond.

If you look at the dominant basketball programs over the years (the North Carolina Tar Heels, the Kentucky Wildcats, the Duke Blue Devils, and the UCLA Bruins) what is it they have in common that sustains their success year after year, decade after decade? Take the Tar Heels (in the spirit of complete and honest disclosure, this is my alma mater!), their success over the years has been dependent on the great leadership that coaches like Dean Smith and Roy Williams provided. As coaches and leaders, they have mastered the art of recruiting and developing exceptionally talented players and they both recognized the importance of having an outstanding bench. They knew that when they needed to go to their bench, these players better be ready to play!

A “ready for prime time” bench gives a team depth and without depth, it is very unlikely that a team can go the distance (in other words, win a National Championship, which all of the aforementioned teams have done several times.)

So, let’s bring it back to your organization and your need for a “deep bench” of successors. Here’s a good place to start: plan a series of meetings devoted to answering these questions:

  • Where will the key position vacancies l be in your organization in three, five, and 10 years?

  • What will the impact be if you don’t have successors ready to step in?

  • What leadership competencies will be essential for the success of your organization?

At the risk of offending my Duke Blue Devils’ readers, I would like to take some leadership and coaching tips from the pages of North Carolina Coach Roy Williams’ playbook that can help move your succession development system to the next level.

Identify your current and future team and leadership needs by answering these questions:

  • What are our key positions and what specific skills and abilities are required in each of these positions?

  • What are our team’s (i.e., organization’s) current and anticipated future strengths and weaknesses, in these key positions?

Determine your top priorities for leadership bench strength

  • Identify who is “graduating” (i.e., retiring) or going to the NBA (i.e., leaving and going where the big money is!) by reviewing your “roster.”

  • Anticipate what key talent is likely moving on and leaving you with vacancies in key positions in the next three to five years. This will determine the key positions that require your attention now.

Assess your current bench and their level of preparedness

  • Look at your bench and identify who is ready now to fill in for your “current starters”. Are they fully prepared to step into a starting role?

  • What do these future players/leaders need in order to be (and feel) ready to step up and take on a whole new level of responsibility? In other words, what “starter” skills and abilities do they need and how can they attain them?

For each bench player, create a plan of action for their development

  • Each bench player’s development plan should include development activities that are focused on leveraging their strengths and addressing their weaknesses. These activities might include activities within your taking on certain types of assignments or or being mentored by current leaders.

  • Each player’s development plan should include a time frame that is realistic and that focuses on the skills that need to be developed. It is important that you can measure progress in their development so you can determine their readiness to come off the bench.

By following these steps you will be able to better ensure that you have leaders who are ready to move up and into a “starter” role.


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