For a Home Run, Put Your Rookies in the Game

Avid sports fans may recall the name Wally Pipp. If you don’t know Pipp, he’s the first baseman who, in 1925, asked New York Yankees manager Miller Huggins to bench him for a day due to a headache. He was replaced in the lineup—that game and for the next 2,129—by Lou Gehrig.

Pipp was an accomplished player, but Gehrig was a rookie who was ready, willing and able. He didn’t necessarily tear up the league in his first year, but that is to be expected of rookies.

What about your corporate roster? No doubt, there are rookies on your team. Are they getting their fair share of play so they build experience and can be of value to your team?

“Even the greenest employees can, and must, be given roles with responsibility and accountability.”

Like sports teams, every company has its rookies, too many of which are sitting on the bench. They’re playing supporting roles—taking notes, proofing memos, answering emails and phone calls, populating spreadsheets, or just plain observing. That’s fine in moderation. Yet even the greenest employees can, and must, be given roles with responsibility and accountability. They may strike out at first, but that is part of the game…and part of the process of becoming competent.

Here’s my mantra: Put the rookie in the game and see if he or she can play. Sure there’s risk. After all, how many corporate rookies are the next Gehrig? Few. We’ve all been burned by giving subordinates too much to handle too soon in their careers. However, ask yourself: Could more support and supervision have avoided these errors?

Here are low-risk ways of getting rookies up to speed so they can start creating value.

  1. Allow them to sit in on important meetings when viable. Let them see how top executives carry themselves and argue their points. Allow them to witness, in action, role models to emulate.
  1. Mentor. There are countless coachable moments in a day or month that get missed if there is no one to mentor a younger professional. Provide mentors and ensure they interact regularly with your rookies. Ensure the relationship is bilateral—experienced mentors know they can learn a lot from junior staffers. (Technology questions anyone?)
  1. Evaluate and support. Today’s more sophisticated personality and behavioral assessment methods (often used in hiring) can highlight areas in which professionals need improvement and attention. Identify gaps and weaknesses and address them early on.
  1. Think team. Strong collaborative teams can anticipate, avoid or cover individual weaknesses or errors.
  1. Cut your losses early. If the rookie isn’t going to make it, let him or her go. There is also a risk that older executives will get “pipped” (yes, it is a verb) and perhaps lose some of their responsibilities to a brash youngster. This rarely happens, of course, as most companies have more than enough responsibilities to go around. But if this is a decision you make, then maybe—as with Gehrig—it was meant to be.

Look around your office. Is there a rookie sitting on the bench but ready to play? If so, take a risk, and put the kid in the game.

Charles W.B. Wardell III :Charles W.B. Wardell, III is president and CEO of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, based in Oak Brook, Illinois.