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I recently read about Marcus Allen, one of the greatest running backs of all time in both college and professional football. Allen was awarded the Heisman Trophy as a player at USC in 1981, after a record-breaking year in which he became the first NCAA player to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season. After college, Allen played for the Los Angeles Raiders for 11 years, and continued to make his mark as a stellar player.  He was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year during his first year with the Raiders.  His second season play earned him the NFL Most Valuable Player title.  One highlight of Allen’s years with the Raiders occurred during the 1984 Super Bowl when he led the Raiders to a 38-9 victory over the Washington Redskins with 191 running yards and two touchdowns. Both the 191 yards rushing and a 74-yard touchdown made Super Bowl history.   Allen was, undisputedly, one of the most talented players in the NFL.

Although many details of the story are unknown, in the late 1980s, Raiders team owner Al Davis ordered Allen to be benched for the two years remaining on his contract.  Davis’s decision reportedly stemmed from a contract dispute between the two men.  Consequently, a talented and valuable asset to the team sat underutilized for two years.  Benched!  It was an epic football tragedy.

How many times has the Marcus Allen story played out in workplaces – in offices, factories, shop floors, retail establishments, hospitals, and C-Suites all over the world? Bright and talented workers who are valuable assets to their organization are underutilized.  Talent wasted.  Experience untapped.  Knowledge lost.  Workers benched.  Companies leave so much talent on the table that it is an epic business tragedy.

Why does it happen?

A bad hire or bad fit between the job and the worker results in a worker’s full talent not being used.  It is important for companies to hire the right person for the right position, what Jim Collins calls in his book Good to Great “getting the right people on the bus.” Likewise, individuals should pursue jobs that are a good fit for their talents, personality, and work style (even though in this down economy, people are sometimes happy to accept whatever job they can get).

Companies often value and focus on the product and the process of getting the job done rather than on the people doing the job. As long as the target numbers of widgets are built or customers are served in a day, companies are often oblivious to the people who actually built the widgets or served the customers.  You need look no further than most corporate goals or performance appraisal systems to know that this is true.  Leaders are held accountable for meeting productivity and revenue/profit goals. Rarely are leaders measured on or held accountable for how they treated their employees or utilized their talents along the way.  Not surprisingly, as long as goals are met, companies fail to recognize how much more could have been achieved by tapping into the immense talent that was wasted.

Workers are often pigeon-holed into job descriptions that don’t suit their talents.  Instead of looking at how an employee’s knowledge and skill can be used, companies focus instead only on the tasks in the job description.  Many employees are capable of performing at a higher level than the tasks outlined in their job description, but they are not allowed to go beyond those boundaries.

A weak leader’s insecurity and incompetence can lead to workers not being used to their full potential. Some managers are intent on making sure their employees don’t outshine or upstage them.  The manager wants to be the one who knows more and does it better.  He believes that his worth is tied to his knowledge and acumen, and he fears that he will be replaced by others who out-perform him.  Strong leaders know, however, that smart and talented team members actually strengthen them as leaders, and make them more, not less, successful.

Unfortunately, some leaders are like the former Raiders’ owner Al Davis – they will bench a worker simply because they dislike some aspect of their working relationship.  They know that they are wasting talent, but they would rather selfishly get their way than put feelings aside and work for the good of the company.

Amazingly, companies are surprised when employee morale is low or workers are not engaged.  Companies try to address morale issues by offering monetary rewards or recognition programs, when what workers want is to contribute their talents and to feel valuable to the organization. How would you expect a talented worker to feel who has been benched on the job?  Nothing has been written about how Marcus Allen felt during those two years he was benched as a Raiders player. I think it’s safe to say that for Allen, being benched was not a morale booster. Although Allen has said very little about the situation, he once said that he believed that Davis was trying to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

So, what is a benched worker to do?

An experience like Allen’s could break a person’s spirit.  It could be career-ending.  For Allen, it was not.  When his contract ended with the Raiders in 1992, he went on to play for five years with the Kansas City Chiefs. He led the AFC in touchdowns his first year, and he, along with teammate Joe Montana, led the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game, resulting in Allen being named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.  During the five years Allen played for the Chiefs, they won more games than any other NFL team.

Allen was confident in his talent and abilities.  He did not allow Davis’s actions to break his spirit or diminish his ambition.  There may not have been much he could do during the two years that Davis benched him, but he knew that his contract would end and that there was light at the end of the tunnel.  In 2003, Allen became the Hall of Famer he deserved to be.

If you feel that your knowledge and skills are being underutilized at work, take a few pages out of Marcus Allen’s playbook.

Believe in yourself and your abilities.  It is very easy to lose your confidence and second-guess your worth when your talents are not being used.

Have an exit strategy.  Allen envisioned the end of his contract and the continuation of his career.  What is your plan to get out of your present situation and into one that is more rewarding and fulfilling?  It may require changing jobs, changing careers, finding a new position in your present company, or talking to your leaders about how you can contribute more to the organization in your current position.

Don’t merely sit on the sidelines.  Do something to enhance your knowledge and skills and to use your talents in the meantime.  Take some classes. Earn a professional certification. Find activities outside of work that allow you to use other talents and skills.

Resist becoming bitter and disillusioned.  Bitterness and hatred hinder your forward progress.  They mask your talents and make it harder for others to see your value.  Allen probably had every right to become bitter toward Davis.  He could have chosen to hate him and to forever hold a grudge. Apparently, he did not.  In September 2012, more than 20 years after being benched, Marcus Allen accepted the invitation by Al Davis’s son Mark to light a flame at the Raiders game to honor the memory of Al Davis, who died in October 2011.

Marcus Allen emerged a winner from circumstances that could have derailed his career. So can you.

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