Thierry Henry and the Care and Feeding of Talent

We write about sport but rarely here at the Review, and that’s because it is written about so widely and so well elsewhere. But when something happens in the world of athletic endeavor that seems to call for comment, we will. In this case, it is the seemingly ho-hum news of the departure of Arsenal team captain Thierry Henry for Arsenal’s Champions League bete noir, Barcelona.

While it is by no means easy to be an American living in China and supporting any English football club, satellite television and the Internet do a passable job of keeping me and my fellow soccer fans here in Beijing plugged into the goings on. What I have also discovered is that, if nothing else, distance lends perspective.

So despite the frustration that accompanies my favorite team losing its most valuable player, not only do I understand the reasons for Mr. Henry’s leave-taking, I think it offers an excellent lesson for managing talent, especially for those of us running businesses in the people-rich but talent-poor service industries in the PRC.

Why He Left

Thierry Henry spent 8 years at Arsenal, and they were good ones, too. During his stay the club won the League and Football Association cups multiple times, set a new, seemingly invincible record for consecutive wins, moved into a brand new stadium, and earned the grudging respect of their opponents. Henry himself did brilliantly, and by October 2005 became the top scorer in Arsenal’s long and storied history.

The one accomplishment that remained out of Arsenal’s – and Henry’s – grasp was the European championship. A single point loss in the finals of that competition, combined with the gradual departure of the team’s core players, made it increasingly clear that the Champions Cup victory would be a long time coming.

In other words, Henry had been in one place for eight years – a long time in any profession. He had accomplished much, but he had achieved all he could reasonably hope for in his current situation. And after being tapped as captain of an increasingly inexperienced team, he found himself saddled with the hopes of a squad that was used to winning. No one knew better than Henry that what lay ahead of Arsenal is years of rebuilding, not a redux of its halcyon years of 2000-2004. Leadership is a lonely thing, and there is nothing lonelier than leading a group of much younger people when the odds are against you.

What the new situation at Barcelona offers is a warmer climate, a team made up of peers, and an real shot at the one victory that has eluded him in his career – the Champions League – within the few years he has left on the pitch.

Feeding Stars

Here are the lessons I’m taking away from this situation, lessons I won’t forget because every defeat Arsenal suffers over the next three years will serve as a reminder:

1. Even Stars Get Bored – or Burned Out. In China as in athletics, tenures are short because the pace of life is grueling and because change is constant, and not everybody is Cal Ripken, Jr. The situation you provide to a person today will probably not suit them forever, no matter how many new challenges you throw at them, and sometimes the harder you try to keep them in place, the more frustrated they’ll get.

2. More Responsibility is Not Always the Answer. Many managers tend to forget the simple fact that each person is motivated differently. Some may rise to the challenge of having an challenging new assignment given to at them after five years, others may bristle. When motivating a star, you either need to offer something that touches his or her deepest desires and motivations, or you start working on a transition plan.

3. Offer a Realistic Route to their Goals. Or, help them go somewhere that they can reach them. Do everything practical to build a situation in house where the star will achieve the things that are important to him or her. If it can’t be done, don’t push it. Send them on their way with your blessing.

It’s not the Star, it’s the Galaxy

4. Even a Star Needs Mentors. True achievers have reached that point largely because they have spent their lives learning from different people, and taking the daily counsel of people they admire and respect. When you take that away, leaving them with a significantly reduced group of mentors – even when some of those mentors are peers – they feel like they’ve stopped growing. Real stars know that they bask in the reflected light of others, sharing their energy, measuring themselves against others, and finding their own unique strengths as a result.

In short, stars need understanding, genuine respect, and an ecosystem of like individuals to thrive. Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, in their book
Organizing Genius, taught me that extraordinary people are happiest – and accomplish the most – when they are part of great groups.

Bon voyage, Thierry, and bon chance. Thanks for the victories, and enjoy Barca.