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What Business Can Learn From the Jeremy Lin Story

Lin's story underlines the importance of knowing the quality of an organization's talent and finding ways to empower individuals to become breakout stars who can demonstrate their very best.
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Move aside football. New Yorkers and much of the nation are fascinated with a basketball player named Jeremy Lin who went from obscurity to stardom by leading the Knicks to seven straight victories (at the time of this writing). An unknown talent, considered mediocre and lucky to even sit on an NBA bench, stepped in to fill a void when several starters were out with injuries. And, things got "Linsane." Now, basketball owns the hearts of New York and nearly no one remembers that this season was almost lost to a contract dispute between players and owners. My experience in consulting with business leaders tells me that there are very important lessons to learn from Lin's rise to greatness.

Talent management -- the assessment, identification and development of organizational talent -- has become a common practice in business, especially in Fortune 500 organizations. The launch of this discipline was driven by intense competition for the best talent as the landscape shifted from a product-based economy to a service-based economy. Lin's story underlines the importance of knowing the quality of an organization's talent and finding ways to empower individuals to become breakout stars who can demonstrate their very best. The very same thing happened with the New York Giants' wide receiver Victor Cruz who came out of nowhere to stun the league with his talent, not to mention his dancing ability.

Here are some important messages for business leaders when considering the Jeremy Lin story:

Know Who You Have on Your Bench: It is highly important to spend time identifying the capabilities of the talent you already have in your company. This is the old philosophical axiom lived out: Knowledge is power. When you have an accurate assessment of the capabilities of your people, you can do a much better job of realizing their potential by exploiting their talent for the good of the company and for the benefit of their own career advancement.

Don't Just Focus on Your High Potential Talent: I am saying this as a consultant who has run many "High Potential" programs for companies. High Potential employees are individuals who currently perform extremely well but also show potential for higher level leadership positions within the organization. These are very important folks to focus on and retain within your organization. Interestingly, Jeremy Lin would not have been placed in this group a month ago. There are plenty of people who may have a ton of potential but, for one reason or another, they are not performing up to the standards which have been set for their role. There may be very specific reasons for this including lack of rewards, wrong job assignment against a skill set, or lack of organizational resource to support success. These individuals are an organization's hidden resource. It is incumbent upon the business to develop a strategy for moving this talent from the back of the bench to the starting lineup.

Give Your People Opportunity: Despite an excellent career in high school and college basketball, no one seemed willing to give Lin a chance at the professional level. For one thing, he was an excellent team player and the tryouts for the draft were more focused on individual performance. Business leaders need to be more willing to take risks with their people. Often, this is the best way to develop employees' capability and get them ready for promotion. Stretch assignments not only teach new skills and enable the development of new positive behaviors; they provide motivation to the workforce writ large.

Connect What People Do to the Global Strategy: Lin's remarkable situation is more meaningful because of the larger stories of the Knicks struggling season and this past autumn's NBA lockout. In companies, we too often fail to tell the big story to our people. This leads to a big disconnect between the overall strategy of the business and the jobs that individuals do. The more employees understand how their roles align to the strategy of the organization, the more motivated they are to outperform expectations. We want our story to be part of a bigger story.

Success is Infectious: It is so much fun to watch the other Knick players take so much delight in the success of their new teammate. It has created a team synergy that has raised the game of all involved. I am tempted to call it team "Linergy." A season that appeared lost (there was a good chance that the Knicks would not make the playoffs) has become a season of opportunity. In business, we need to celebrate successes in a way that draws teams together and builds more potential for breakthrough results.

Diversity Rules: Lin's race is an underlining story of this phenomenon. Yesterday, when getting an acupuncture session, I heard the all-Chinese staff laughing enthusiastically. They were speaking Chinese so I didn't know what they were so excited about. Then, I heard Jeremy Lin's name and I could only imagine the pride and excitement they felt. For many reasons, diversity has become a key strategy for talent management and business success. For one thing, non-traditional pools of talent (meaning, non-white men) provide additional openings to find stars who can raise the game of an organization.

Besides helping his team win games, Lin is good for the business of basketball. Learning from his story could be good for business in general.