Well that’s Lin-teresting: How You’re Missing Great Talent on Your Bench

Amber Johnson Care for people

Sports news invaded even NPR and the New York Times last week as Knicks’ bench player Jeremy Lin scored 136 points in his first five starts. That’s the most by any NBA player since the NBA merged with the ABA in 1976.

As the New York Times said,nobody saw this coming. Lin was cut during the pre-season by the Golden State Warriors, and then again by the Houston Rockets, one of the more statistically savvy teams in the league. Lin had been undrafted out of college — that college was Harvard, by the way, where Lin had a G.P.A. of 3.1 and majored in economics.”

Lin’s success caused an overnight sensation on the internet. Sports Illustrated columnist Phil Taylor tweeted: 
Sure, now Taylor and the rest of the sports world recognizes this. But just over a week ago, Lin’s sudden rise to basketball stardom was unimaginable. He was overlooked talent, sitting wasted on a court-side bench. 
Some of your biggest potential leaders are probably sitting benched right now too. How do you keep from leaving your big scorers on the bench? Here are two ideas, culled from the leadership lives of the often overlooked:
1. Go outside headquarters. Some of your best bench players may be sitting a few cities away. And they may not be willing to relocate. 
Carla (name changed) was a middle manager with high potential at an international firm. Though her leadership had been recognized in modest ways, she was continually overlooked for promotions because she was unwilling to relocate her young family. When it became clear that moving to headquarters was a deal breaker, Carla took her talent outside the company. “I’ve never seen such an outpouring of appreciation than when Carla left,” said her division’s senior vice president. 
Relocating can be an even bigger challenge now, with so many home owners with mortgages underwater. If your top talent won’t move, accommodate them in other ways: negotiate travel schedules, increase use of video conferencing, develop local staff around a rising star. 
2. Test the waters. The Knicks’ turned to Lin after they’d exhausted other point guard options. He was the last person on the bench, and they got lucky: he was more than ready for the job. 
Lin hadn’t been sitting on the Knicks’ bench for long: he’d been undrafted, tossed around from team to team, and made a few trips to the D-League. No one knew what he could do in a real NBA game … mostly because he hadn’t been tested. 
When it comes to identifying talent, always test the waters. Trust young employees with specific responsibilities and watch how they deliver. Do they meet expectations? Exceed them? Take criticism as a challenge rather than a blow? Do they bring others along with them? Command the respect of other leaders?  Remain positive? 
If you can answer yes to those questions, then you’ve found a star, potentially years before the natural progression of a career would have led them to your office door. Take them off the bench and put them into the game. To do anything else is, well, Lin-sanity. 
Amber Johnson is the Center for Values-Driven Leadership‘s corporate relations and social media advisor. She is a non-profit and small business communications professional.    
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