In the world of basketball, what separates Michael Jordan from Steve Alford? It's a very important quality, and making assessments about its presence (or lack thereof) is an essential skill for marketers.
"Julio Iglesias¹ is the Sinatra of Spain, which makes him like the Steve Garvey² of Tibet."
--Mad Magazine³, circa 1984*
Successful marketers learn to evaluate potential: theirs, their employees, and their businesses. Without an objective evaluation of potential, it's impossible to make good decisions.
An old saw says that it's better to be a big fish in a small pond. In marketing, however, there's no guarantee that a weaker set of competitors will lead to greater success. In fact, the opposite is often true. Coke and Pepsi have both grown in greatness as their hundred-year cola war continues across the globe. The truly great rise to the challenge of greater competition and become even bigger fish when transferred to a big pond.
My favorite (and particularly timely) example is Michael Jordan. Jordan was cut from his junior high school basketball team. From that humble beginning -- as a small fish in a small pond -- his growth outpaced his surroundings. He was a good high school player, a very good college player, and the greatest player ever in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Each time the bar for his performance rose, his level of play rose even further. Jordan grew with his pond. Mark my words, Jordan will rise to the challenge of his young heirs; true competition with Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, and Allen Iverson will only make his greatness more apparent.
In contrast, Steve Alford was better off as a big fish in a small pond. Alford was a legendary player in Indiana high school basketball, had a stellar career at Indiana University, and was a massive failure in the NBA. By the end, he was clearly a small fish in a big pond.
What separated Jordan and Alford wasn't work ethic or mental toughness; Alford was an incredibly hard worker and a true student of the game of basketball. What separated them was potential. Jordan had "upside." Alford had already maxed out his potential as a ballplayer by the time he entered college.
However, Alford didn't let his failure as a player discourage him. Instead, he became a basketball coach and is now ascending the coaching ranks, growing with each new job. He was a good head coach at Manchester (IN) College, a very good head coach at Southwest Missouri State College, and is now an outstanding head coach at the University of Iowa.
The lesson to take away from this is that you need to figure out where you, your employees, and your business stand in terms of potential and choose accordingly.
If you believe that you have a great deal of upside and potential growth, moving to a bigger pond with stronger competitors will improve your performance and bring about growth. If believe that you are close to your maximum potential, moving to a bigger pond will get you eaten, and you should learn to be content with being a big fish in a small pond.
² Steve Garvey played first base for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres. A perennial all-star who was known for his All-American Ken-doll image, he's now best known for siring a string of illegitimate children and inspiring a T-shirt, "Steve Garvey is not my Padre."
³ Mad Magazine is a parody magazine often found in orthodontists' offices, which made a name for itself with crude caricatures of overblown Hollywood blockbusters such as "The Poseidon Adventure," not realizing that the movies themselves were caricatures. Today, it's main claim to fame is that it appeared in a recent "The Simpsons" episode, which guest-starred the boy-band *NSYNC.
* Readers who recognize both the archaic and modern references in the above footnotes should give themselves a big pat on the back. Like this columnist, they have clearly consumed too much American culture.
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Chris and his work have been featured in Fortune, the Financial Times, and the New York Times. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School.
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