retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

There’s a simple law of physics that defies argument. You cannot put a square peg in a round hole.

Sadly, there’s a completely conflicting law of management, which requires us to do that with people all the time. Every manager knows that it’s virtually impossible to find the perfect person for every job. In fact, it rarely happens. So the key becomes reshaping the hole to make sure the square, round and every other peg will successfully fit.

There was an unusual lesson in this recently in the National Football League. While most of the attention in Washington, DC, has been on budgets and debt, the story that really gripped the city was about the city’s beloved football team and its two biggest soap operas: quarterback Donovan McNabb and defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth. The former came to the team last season after a long and successful career in Philadelphia; the latter in a disastrous signing two years ago. In a span of hours last week, the Redskins traded them both.

Both provide interesting lessons in management. Let’s start with Haynesworth, who at times in his career has been a spectacular player, but only at times. At other times he seems disinterested.

The Redskins’ coaches tried everything to motivate him, including public humiliation, which failed miserably. No doubt, Haynesworth’s revenge will be a wonderful season for his new team, the New England Patriots. What Haynesworth’s debacle reminds us is something many human resource directors cite time and again: hire for attitude, train for skills. If the Redskins had followed that simple directive they would have realized that Haynesworth’s enormous talent couldn’t be easily motivated and they might have looked for a lesser and cheaper player who would have done anything to win.

The reason Haynesworth will likely succeed in New England is the culture on that team seems to specifically corral reluctant players and get them focused on the goals of the team. The rules are extremely simple and the track record of success remarkable, plus the players there—a group that consistently wins—seem to enforce the culture.

The McNabb story is more complex and more compelling. The Redskins traded valuable assets for McNabb, but according to all reports, the coaches regretted the trade instantly. While McNabb had a long record of success, the Redskins coaches saw numerous flaws in their new player. McNabb had the attitude the team wanted, but his skill set didn’t fit the team’s plans. McNabb’s single season with the Redskins was a disaster, even though the quarterback never did anything to question his coaches.

In the end, the team had no choice but to trade him elsewhere for lesser assets than he cost. As one Washington Post sportswriter suggested, McNabb’s failure represents a coaching failure most of all. The team knew McNabb’s strengths and weaknesses when he arrived, yet they insisted on trying to change the style of a veteran performer instead of working around his considerable skills, as his previous coaches had done. In short, they tried to pound a square peg into a round hole and failed.

The reality is that we don’t get perfect associates. Good managers figure out how to emphasize strengths and diminish weaknesses, even as we work to make certain the job gets done right. Good managers adjust the holes so all the pegs fit where they are best suited. Had the Redskins done that, McNabb and the team might have done significantly better. Sports history is full of coaches who successfully changed the style of their play to fit the talent they had. It isn’t easy, but winning never is.

Dealing with imperfections is what makes coaches—and managers—great.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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