Last week media giant ESPN decided to abruptly shutter the website Grantland, the sports and pop culture site, (and which was pretty literary for a sports and pop culture site), that had been founded and led by Bill Simmons. Simmons was let go, (or more accurately, informed his contract would not be extended), in the spring, following a series of clashes with ESPN management over Simmons' comments about the NFL and its commissioner Roger Goodell.
After a few months of muddling along, Grantland, now devoid of Simmons (and many other talented writers and editors who left Grantland after Simmons), has now been shuttered for good by ESPN, who in a statement indicated they have 'decided to direct our time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.'
Without Simmons, there really could be no Grantland, and certainly ESPN doesn't need a Grantland wihout the founder, leader, and most popular personality on board anyway. The 'core' site of ESPN.com is one of the web's most visited properties after all. Any Grantland talent that remains with ESPN can be absorbed by ESPN.com.
But despite the demise of Grantland, it is still worth making a couple of observations about what happened with Grantland/Simmons, and how this episode in Talent Management / Employee Relations might offer a couple of lessons or things for the average HR and Talent pro to consider.
1. No succession plan, no future
While Grantland had dozens of staff, including some acclaimed, award-winning writers, the face, inspiration, and key to the entire endeavor was Simmons. There was simply no other, singular, talent that emerged over Grantland's four year run that could rival/replace Simmons in this role. It could be argued that once ESPN released Simmons from his duties earlier in the year, that they always knew Grantland would be closed soon after. But if they had developed or at least identified a plausible candidate to assume Simmons' place as the leader of Grantland they would have had more options. Simmons dominated Grantland to an extent that it made no sense to continue it without him, regardless of if ESPN would have like to see it continue.
2. The best managers understand the role and importance of the best talent
The job of leadership is to get talent to produce and create, and this does not work by threatening with rules or by levying discipline. And managing the very best talent is probably the hardest challenge for the manager, even harder than managing out poor performers. How much leeway do you give the best talent? How many rules do you allow them to dodge or break? How much freedom do you give top talent to create, unencumbered by roadblocks and rules?
What for organizations is next in importance after finding and hiring the best talent? Finding and hiring the right managers that can confidently, carefully, and diplomatically get the best work out of these talented folks while at the same time keep the other 95% of the workforce from hating them.
3. The best talent, brand-building talent, is very hard to find and keep
ESPN certainly helped build Simmons into the star media personality he has become. But ESPN also certainly had underestimated the value and power of Simmons popularity. Over the years ESPN seemed almost as interested in controlling and keeping Simmons toeing the company line as they were in supporting and positioning Grantland for success. That attitude might be effective (and needed), for the 95% of the staff who are just good to very good, but it almost never works or sits well for that 5% of employees who are really elite.
There are very few talents like Simmons out there. And the more that management tries to tell these talented people what to do and how to act the more they are going to be alienated and look to move on.
Talent still runs the world. Even if leaders like to think otherwise sometimes.
Have a great weekend!