What Executives Can Learn From Fastball Pitchers

What happens when your greatest gift becomes a source of your greatest liability?

High heatThat's a question that Tim Wendel explores in his new book, High Heat, a lively tale about pitchers past and presence who make a living throwing the fastball. Pitchers who can throw a fastball upwards of 95 miles even topping 100 miles per hour and do it consistently and with control are in high demand. The greatest of them all—Walter Johnson to Sandy Koufax, and Bob Feller to Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan—are in baseball's Hall of Fame.

But those who can bring it, but not consistently are footnotes to the game, they are could have been but never were. Good fastball pitchers learn to pitch; they learn control as well as other styles of pitches (curves, sliders and change ups) to keep batters off balance. Those who don't make it, never learn to control their greatest gift or fail to learn another pitch.

And here's where there is relevance to leaders. Those who are considered for promotion are often exceptional contributors. They are masters of their craft, be it accounting, design, marketing, but when moving into management they need to learn new skills. As individual contributors, they work on what they do best; as managers of contributors they work to bring out the best in others. The challenge is not in learning administrative tasks; it is in learning a new approach to dealing with others.

Adopt a new perspective. One of the reasons that superstar athletes do not make good coaches is because they see the game differently from ordinary players. As a result they may lack the ability to teach it to others. As a manager you need to be able to see the problems and provide ways for others to solve them. Sometimes they require getting resources; other times it requires teaching.

Resist the desire to do it for others. When you do something well, the natural inclination is to do it yourself. Managers need to resist this instinct. While it is acceptable to pitch in and help, you cannot do the job for others. It prevents you from managing and it prevents employees from developing their job skills.

Practice patience. Working with others can be taxing and so it is necessary to learn to hang back. How? Make a habit of listening before speaking. Check your ego at the door by soliciting input from your direct reports. Encourage them to generate ideas. Patience may be a virtue, but you can turn it into an action step when you are managing others.

Moving into management does not mean that you give up what got you noticed. After all, fastball pitchers make their reputation for their ability to bring the heat. So too can managers who bring exceptional talent to their job continue to practice their craft. A case in point is a senior executive I once worked with who made a name for himself as an expert negotiator. As he rose through the ranks he had less time for negotiating but he kept a hand in high-level deals that required his input.

The challenge for talent performers who choose to manage is significant, and sadly too often the individual manager is not provided with the support that will help him or her succeed. Yes there may be introductory management courses, but little attention is paid to the personal side. Giving up what you do best so that others can do it, maybe not as well as you, is very hard. [Of course such managers may opt to remain as sole contributors and that may be a good solution for both individual and the organization.]

Such manager can benefit greatly from a mentor within the organization, someone who understands the situation and can provide guidance. Short of that the individual manager needs to immerse himself in a learning program, starting with observing how other managers do their jobs, asking questions and keeping their options open. Otherwise they may end up like the fastball pitchers you never heard of. Blessed with a gift they may not be able to control and so it ends up controlling them.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world's top 25 leadership experts. John's newest book is 12 Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert Your Authority to Lead. Readers are welcome to visit John's Web site, www.johnbaldoni.com

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