Peyton Manning's Lessons In Career Strategy

This week, the Indianapolis Colts released four-time MVP quarterback Peyton Manning to look for work with another NFL team. As removed as your job or company may feel from the NFL, there are four key career-strategy takeaways for all professionals (even the ones who don't wear shoulder pads).

This week, in a much-talked about move, the Indianapolis Colts released their future Hall-of-Fame, four-time MVP quarterback Peyton Manning to go look for work with another NFL team. Moving quickly to avoid paying Manning a $28 million bonus due this week, the Colts owner Jim Irsay is now looking to the future and drafting a top college QB (most likely Andrew Luck from Stanford) to lead his team.

While one might think regular folks in the business world have little in common with NFL superstars, there are four things we can take away from Manning's situation.

1) Understand that everyone is replaceable: When Peyton Manning joined the Colts in the late 1990s, they were a middling team. With Manning's leadership and skills they became perennial Super Bowl contenders, as Manning set record after record and blew opponents away. No one worked harder than Manning or gave more to the team than he did. Unfortunately, he suffered a neck injury and had to undergo surgery last year. Without him, the Colts finished 2-14, a signal to how important Manning was to the team. Yet the Colt's leadership, looking at Manning's injury and age (and, no doubt, the looming bonus), decided to let him go so they could move forward with a new quarterback.

What's the lesson for us? If someone with Peyton Manning's impact, leadership, and work ethic can be let go, anyone is replaceable. Which leads us to the next three points.

2) Be prepared. Despite all the talk over the past season that this move might occur, it appears Manning was genuinely surprised and unprepared when it actually happened. When asked at his "exit interview" about what team he wanted to play for now he said, "I have no idea who wants me, what team wants me, how this process works, I don’t know if it’s like college recruiting where you go take visits. I mean, this is all so new to me."

The takeaway for each of us is that we always need to be ready if the ax falls. Each of us needs to be constantly upgrading our skills and learning new ones. Our LinkedIn contact list needs to be full and expanded weekly. Our resumes must be up-to-date. Don't be caught by surprise.

3) Realize you and your company are two different entities. Manning was so identifiable with the Colts that, on the Colts Facebook page, he was the profile picture. In his mind—unsurprisingly given his performance—he likely believed he'd be the Colts quarterback until the day he retired. Although he said, "We all know that nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change, and that’s the reality of playing in the NFL," that was his logical side speaking. Emotionally, it seemed clear that this move by the Colts hurt deeply.

This same thing can be true for us. When we work for a company for a long time, we can begin to do the same thing, assuming our identity is inseparable from working for that firm. But given how quickly one can move from being the company's MVP to Mr./Ms. Disposable, making who you work for part of your identity is dangerous. It's much better to keep a healthy separation in your mind between who you are and who you work for.

4) Stay classy. While it would be hard to blame Manning if he were bitter, his statement about his release was the epitome of grace. "This town and this team mean so much to me. It truly has been an honor to play in Indianapolis. I do love it here. I love the fans. I'll always enjoy having played for such a great team. I will leave the Colts with nothing but good thoughts and gratitude to Jim, the organization, my teammates, the media, and especially the fans."

If the ax should fall on us, we should also follow Ron Burgundy's advice and Peyton Manning's example and stay classy. How we act in difficult times shows our true measure. Acting gracefully puts us on a higher plane and helps us move away from an unfortunate event to a brighter future. 

In sum, should you find yourself on unstable ground at work, make sure to keep in mind these four takeaways. None of us may be Peyton Manning but we can all learn from how he has handled himself during what must be an extremely tough transition.

[Image: Flickr user Brit]

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