I think most managers would agree:

When a new project comes in, there are only a select few people you’d trust to run with it: your top performers.

If you’re like many managers, that’s where your thought process stops. Once you’ve figured out who you trust to deliver the work, you’ve made your decision. I call this delivery mindset. Managers with delivery mindset are primarily focused on output (what the team gets done).

For a few managers, though, the thought process is deeper. Those managers know it’s actually possible to create more top performers (instead of waiting for top performers to fall into their laps). I call this development mindset. Managers with development mindset are primarily focused on potential (what the team is capable of getting done over the next 6-18 months). Development mindset has a side benefit: managers who practice development mindset are more likely to prevent burnout in their top performers.

This week I watched All or Nothing: New Zealand All Blacks, a six-episode documentary series on Amazon Prime Video. The New Zealand All Blacks are the most successful international rugby team in history. I love to observe excellence in its natural habitat, and this series delivered.

In this post, I’m going to take apart a personnel decision the All Blacks made that drew criticism at the time.

I love to learn from sports teams when it comes to development mindset. Because the employees are also the product on the field, sports teams seem to take development mindset more seriously than almost any other kind of business.

The trip not taken — why leaving star players at home was the right call

The New Zealand All Blacks are the most successful international rugby team in history. They are the winners of the last two Rugby World Cups. They are the #1 rated international rugby team in the world.

England, a country with 11x as many people has a 20% win rate against the Kiwis.

Australia, a country with 5x as many people has a 31% win rate against the Kiwis.

In 2017, All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen decided to rest six starters for an upcoming match in Buenos Aires. Instead of having them suit up against Argentina, Hansen sent the six players ahead to Cape Town, South Africa, where they would be playing their next match.

The decision drew criticism in the media.

Sportswriter Chris Rattue said at the timeHansen and co. are taking a surprising risk with their selection for Argentina, to my mind, especially when you recall what happened when they played without their great locks against Ireland in Chicago not all that long ago.” The All Blacks, whose fans expect to win every match had been burned resting starters on a road trip the prior year.

Implying the All Blacks weren’t taking the match seriously, Rattue pressed: “Test matches should still be about trench warfare in the name of victory, if the time is right, rather than happy-clappy World Cup prep.”

In reality, though, the rugby implications of this decision were minimal, and the All Blacks coaching staff knew it. They were undefeated in the Southern Hemisphere Championship up to that point. If they won the Argentina match, they’d clinch the cup immediately. If they lost, it would put more pressure on the team to beat South Africa in the following match (ultimately good for their long term form).

“Some teams you know you are going to beat and that’s what makes the external factors not as important as the internal ones. You’ve got to have an internal driver that wants to make you get up in the morning and be better.”

Coach Hansen knows this core truth about people development: your team members grow the most when you expose them to risk.

Risk is relative.

For the All Blacks younger players, thirsty to prove themselves, playing Argentina is a valuable chance to sharpen the axe and show the coaching staff what they are made of. On the downside, playing Argentina is also a chance to lose a game where their team was heavily favored and raise unfortunate questions about their ability to perform at the highest level.

For the world-class All Blacks starters, beating Argentina is a foregone conclusion. The match has almost no upside. Winning a match where they are heavily favored is a mediocre prize. Balance that against the possibility of injury and the health toll of air travel — the risk/reward of playing the Argentina match becomes decidedly unfavorable.

Steve Hansen never uses the word “burnout”, but it’s clearly an idea he thinks about often.

“We’ve tried to look at how we can keep players a little fresher for this remaining nine weeks where we go around the world twice and play about seven test matches and then have multiple time changes. Last year we found we really struggled,” Hansen said.

Your top performers are the ones to watch for signs of burnout

Why are top performers more susceptible to burnout?

In How Are You Protecting Your High Performers from Burnout?, Matt Plummer argues there are three key factors that set top performers up to crash harder.

Managers give top performers the toughest projects, and top performers say yes. This is a double-edged sword. Thinking of development for a moment, every new experience adds to your top performer’s skill set. Thinking of mileage, every new project has the potential to add to your top performer’s fatigue level (especially projects that suck up hours without necessarily moving the needle for your team).

Managers use top performers to cover up for weaker team members. Sometimes managers encourage this. More often, mangers demand this.

Top performers end up with extra responsibilities. They are “the only one on the team who knows how to do ___”. They mentor their teammates. They tend to have the biggest influence on team culture. These are great qualities of top performers, qualities to be encouraged. Still, extra responsibilities add up.

Your role players are following your orders and doing their assigned work. You could wear them out if you tried hard enough, but it wouldn’t be easy. Your top performers, on the other hand, keep saying yes when you offer them new work. They have extra responsibilities because of the nature of being a top performer. And of course, on your orders, they cover for their weaker teammates.

That’s why top performers are more susceptible to burnout. So, as managers, what do we do about it?

A decision framework for managers — how to decide when give your top performers a break and deepen your bench instead

Have you fallen into the trap of the delivery mindset?

Do you want to keep your top performers in prime condition? Do you want to take your middle performers and give them a chance to become top performers? Do you want a quick guide to development mindset thinking?

(An aside: I am not talking about huge, mission-critical projects. When those projects come around, don’t overthink it. Your top performers would never stand for it if you tried to give those projects away, and your team would suffer without their skills and leadership.)

Sometimes a new project comes along that looks big and shiny at first glance. That project, upon closer inspection, turns out to be just normal-sized. Now is the time to evaluate the cost/benefit of passing over your top performers.

When you’re considering assigning a project to your middle performer, here’s a three-step exercise you can use to work through the scenarios. This is inspired by Fear Setting, popularized by Tim Ferriss:

  1. What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen if I assign this work to a middle performer? Don’t stop at one thing. List all the bad things that might happen, and don’t forget that bad events sometimes happen in cascades. Let your imagination run wild here.
  2. How can I prevent the worst case scenario? For each bad thing on your list, think of one step you can take to reduce the likelihood of your worst fears coming to pass.
  3. How can I recover if the worst really does happen? For each bad thing on your list, think of what it would take to get back to where you are today if that thing actually came to pass.

If you do this exercise for a huge, mission-critical project, you’ll probably confirm that it would be a terrible idea to assign ownership to a middle performer.

Do this exercise a few times, for a few different projects, and you may surprise yourself. You might find you were ready to add another chainsaw to your top performer’s already-impressive juggling act. But then on closer inspection, that project was like the All Blacks facing Argentina: sure, your top performer would succeed, but what skills would they gain?

Remember the truth about development: your team members grow the most when you expose them to risk.

Giving your top performer a project where they have 100% chance of success is not a recipe for growth.

Giving your middle performer that same project? Might be a big time growth opportunity.

Who do you have sitting on your bench, singing “Put me in, coach. I’m ready to play!”? Maybe it’s time to give them the chance.

What happened in Buenos Aires?

Even resting six starters, the All Blacks beat Argentina and clinched the Cup.

But to the well-organized mind, the outcome of the decision is completely irrelevant. The process of the decision was correct. No matter whether they won in Buenos Aires, Coach Hansen and his staff would be happy they made the call to rest their starters.

In making that call, the All Blacks protected six key people from injury and burnout.

They gave their younger players a chance to earn some high-quality play time.

Just as important, they reinforced their identity: “We are a team that (a) pushes people to be their best and (b) has faith in our people to do their jobs when called upon.”

If you’re a manager, ask yourself about your commitment to the development mindset.

Nobody is 100% development-focused all the time. It’s just not practical. The work needs to get done at some point.

But if your thought-process is 100% focused on delivery, I’d encourage you to think about what your team could gain with a little more development thinking. What if you could create top performers without hiring? That would be like a superpower.

Steve Hansen knows.

Since you made it this far…