‘Load Management’ for Corporate Athletes?

The new NBA season shines a spotlight on the practice of resting star athletes. Should corporate leaders consider it for top talent?

For the first three games of a weeklong road trip, the team’s star performer was on the court for practically every minute. For the next game—a meaningless one the team was expected to win handily—the coach decided to give his superstar a much-needed day off. The team’s next game, at home, was against their archrival, and the coach wanted his player rested and ready for it. 

As the NBA launches its season this week, fans will get a look at this increasingly prevalent and controversial practice, known as “load management.” Teams will be resting their stars at planned intervals to reduce injury risk and, in the days leading up to key games, increase peak performance. And now the idea (and the sports metaphor of load management) is gaining traction in the corporate world, according to Sharon Egilinsky, a partner in the Organizational Strategy practice at Korn Ferry: “Firms need top talent playing at their best to win,” she says.

In the NBA, load management upsets fans expecting to see their favorite stars in action; when you’ve paid a lot of money for your ticket, it can be hard to see the long-term benefits of the practice. But in the corporate world, the benefits of keeping talent fresh are demonstrated in studies. Today’s top-working talent puts in longer hours, takes on more responsibility, and in the process burns out at higher rates: more than 50% of managers report being burned out, for instance. If leaders are overburdened with voluminous low-priority work, experts say, load management can help them redirect their workloads toward strategically critical business objectives and high-value clients.

To illustrate how leaders can practice load management with their “corporate athletes,” Egilinsky points to the popularity of regimens featuring short, intense work “sprints” followed by rest.

Load management has benefits for employers as well. Studies show that rest leads to not only increased productivity, but also to higher levels of motivation, engagement, creativity, and more. Most importantly, it provides an approach to developing the next generation of talent, says Tamara Rodman, senior client partner in the Culture, Change, and Communications practice at Korn Ferry. “It’s not about resting stars,” she says. “It’s about building the talent pipeline.” Giving other team members bigger assignments or a chance to work closely with marquee clients, for instance, allows leaders to be more inclusive with talent, Rodman says.

Some talent might not see it that way, however. In professional sports, a limited number of available positions and short average career spans mean that entire livelihoods depend on getting playing time wherever and whenever possible. As competitive as the corporate world is, it’s not that competitive, and experts worry that employees may not relish the idea of more work falling to them so their superiors can rest.

There are other risks for leaders to consider as well. Much as sitting their star players has financial implications for teams and leagues in terms of ticket sales—so much so, in fact, that the league instituted new rules this season to limit the use of load management—clients and customers may wonder why they aren’t getting your best talent, says Jenna McLaughlin, head of collegiate athletics at Korn Ferry. “If your ‘stars’ aren’t playing or working due to load management, then are consumers and clients getting what they paid for?” McLaughlin asks.


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