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Cultivating your backup 'quarterback'

By Dan Carrison

The 2010 NFL season was so noticeable for key player injuries and/or suspensions that it seemed the teams with top reserve rosters fared the best. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed the first four games. Later in the season Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers suffered two concussions. Without their stalwart backup quarterbacks, neither team might have gone to the Super Bowl.

Coincidentally, just two weeks before the Super Bowl, Apple “quarterback” Steve Jobs announced an extended leave of absence, making way for veteran backup Tim Cook.

These are examples of high performance organizations that invested in cultivating their "next in line" leaders.

Coaches make sure their backup quarterback is part of every sideline conversation with the starting QB. He shares in the planning; his opinion is asked; and his joy in the success of the first string QB is real. If he must replace his injured comrade, he is ready to lead because he has been playing the game, mentally, alongside his leader.

As managers, we must ask if we are preparing our next in line.

We’ve all heard – and perhaps have used – the expression, "It’s lonely at the top." We are to imagine a lone executive, sequestered in the penthouse office, struggling with a fateful decision, while the rest of the employees below wait with baited breath.

What nonsense!

Executives and managers who make important decisions in solitude squander irreplaceable teaching opportunities for up-and-coming leaders. It never should be “lonely at the top.” For one thing, two or more heads are almost always better than one. But even if the decision has been made, but not announced, it will be instructive for the second string to share in the decision-making process. And the leader can witness and perhaps guide the critical thinking of subordinates.

Steve Jobs’ recent leave of absence announcement was timed wisely: Apple’s stupendous quarterly results surely mitigated the unsettling news of his continuing health challenges. But when he made a similar revelation in 2009, Apple stock fell nearly 8 percent.

This is what he wrote:

"I have asked Tim Cook to be responsible for Apple’s day-to-day operations, and I know he and the rest of the executive management team will do a great job. As CEO, I plan to remain involved in major strategic decisions while I am out. Our board of directors fully supports this plan."

Maybe the stock would have fallen no matter what Jobs said. In the public’s mind, Steve Jobs is irreplaceable – deservedly so.

But suppose he had written something like this:

"Although I will, as CEO, certainly remain in the loop, Tim will be running the show. This isn’t the first time that Tim has assumed this responsibility; he did a wonderful job of leading the company while I recovered from surgery in 2004.

"I can honestly say that I am leaving Apple, for this period of time, in better hands than my own. That is not a humble statement, by the way. In fact, I say it with unabashed pride – because I mentored Tim (when he was not mentoring me)."

His announcement might have inspired more external and internal confidence.

For Jobs’ complete statement when he stepped down temporarily in January 2009, along with my revised version, visit www.iienet.org/IM/mar-apr11/carrison.

Executives and managers would do well to emulate those NFL coaches who cultivate their second string with as much energy as their starting players. You never know when your “backup” will be needed.

Dan Carrison, a business writer and consultant, has authored or co-authored four management books: Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, Deadline! How Premier Organizations Win the Race Against Time, Business Under Fire and From the Bureau to the Boardroom. Carrison is a general partner of Semper Fi Consulting and founder of www.ghostwritersinthesky.com. Carrison lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches corporate communication for the University of La Verne. He can be reached at dan.carrison@gmail.com.

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