Weak-Link vs. Strong-Link Employee Programs

Holland Dombeck McCue Culture, Holland Dombeck, HR, Organizational Development, Recruiting, Succession Planning

On a recent road trip to Kentucky to watch my FSU Seminoles get absolutely slaughtered on the football field, I hopped on the Malcolm Gladwell Revisionist History podcast train. The podcast is a ten episode series where Gladwell revisits and reinterprets something from the past that has been universally misunderstood. My Little Hundred Million is the third episode in a miniseries examining the education system and digs into the philanthropic phenomenon of multi-billion dollar gifts to universities that already have enormous endowments. Here’s the episode synopsis:

In the early ’90s, Hank Rowan gave $100 million to a university in New Jersey, an act of extraordinary generosity that helped launch the greatest explosion in educational philanthropy since the days of Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefellers. But Rowan gave his money to Glassboro State University, a tiny, almost bankrupt school in South Jersey, while almost all of the philanthropists who followed his lead made their donations to elite schools such as Harvard and Yale. Why did no one follow Rowan’s example?

Rowan’s donation funded an engineering program that impacts hundreds of students annually from modest backgrounds, his logic being that he needed to fund a program that helped as many people as possible vs. give it to his alma mater, MIT, who already has a large endowment.

Later in the episode, Gladwell examines the gift Nike founder Phil Knight gave Stanford University that became part of a $750M endowment – the largest in Stanford’s history—to fund the Knight-Hennessy program, which will only admit 100 students each year. The students are already high-achieving and working to solve some of the biggest issues facing our global society today: poverty, human rights, global warming, etc.

Gladwell parallels the two donation types to the theory outlined in the book The Number’s Game, which breaks down the difference between “weak-link” vs. “strong-link” players in soccer (weak-link) and basketball (strong-link). In soccer there are limited opportunities to score, so mistakes made by weaker players have a bigger impact on the outcome of the game. In basketball, there a lot more opportunities to score, making it easier for a single player to make most of the points and carry the weaker players on the team. Rowan’s donation is the weak-link approach and Night’s is strong-link.

While listening, my mind wandered to employee programming and weighing the value between programs that are accessible to anyone across a company and those focused on a select subset of your employee population.

Weak-link programs are outside standard role-based training and health benefits. They come in the form of self-paced online universities that offer a catalog of courses to improve your skills in things like Excel, graphic design and project management. They also include employee resource groups, quarterly speaker/workshop series, small sum development dollars, or Tim Sackett’s latest retention pitch. These programs raise the stock of the masses making the machine run.

Strong-link programs, like the Knight-Hennessey program, touch only a select few. They are exclusive mentorship programs that help prepare your next crop of leaders, select rotational programs offering exposure to other part of the business, offsite innovation summits and green field opportunities that allow HiPos to take a sabbatical from the role they were hired for, to solve a problem or develop the company’s “next big thing.”

Some companies are lucky enough to be able to provide an offering across the two categories to their employees, while most can’t offer anything at all. If given a generous endowment, which route do you take? Me? I’m going strong-link. I’m betting the house on my company’s next big thing. My take is that majority of the employees who actually take advantage of weak-link programs are already hustlers and are going to develop the skills you’re offering through other means, so you’re better off with focusing the resources on a small group to do something big that could have lasting impact for the company and current/future employees.