The Law of Team Depth

Superb Teams Have Superb Depth


It’s easy to see the value for many types of teams in having skilled, competent extra players who “sit on the bench.” For example, in NBA basketball, the five starters can count on substitutions by up to ten teammates on the bench to make sure they don’t tire too soon in the game. In raising children, the parenting team (the starters) is strengthened by relatives and friends who take over for the parents when the parents want or need a break. In local gymnastics, a big team means there are that many more gymnasts to potentially score high in competition and be one of the top three scorers of an event. 


Every team, in Minneapolis or elsewhere, that wants to excel must have depth –- strong starters and strong back-up players or to be a big team. That’s accurate in any discipline, not only sports. A few top people may be able to perform fantastically for a while, but if the team is going to do well in the long run, it needs depth. (To develop team depth in businesses, business coaching can help.)

In sports, it’s simple to identify which are the top players and which are second string. However, how do you make the demarcation in other disciplines? John Maxwell, leadership and teamwork expert, suggests the following definitions:

Starters are frontline people who directly add value to the organization or who directly influence its course.

The bench is made up of the people who indirectly add value to the organization or who support the starters.1

The team’s starters are usually the ones in the limelight, and because of this, they receive the most recognition. The teammates on the bench, or depth players, are the most likely to be ignored or disregarded. If the truth be told, the top players are the persons most prone to overlook or slight the support of the depth players. Some starters like to tease their second string about their lower status. But this shouldn’t happen. A team needs more than starters to be a success; it needs superb depth to be a superb team.

Team Depth is Necessary

Each human has worth, and each team member contributes worth to the team in some respect. These realities should provide team members incentive to take an interest in depth players. However, there are more causes to revere the bench players. A few of the causes are listed below.

1. The Current Depth Players May Be the Future Leaders

Uncommon are the persons who start their professions as leaders. The ones who do may discover that their accomplishment is short-lived. Like some basketball players who bypassed the college route and went directly into the NBA after high school, they found that they were not able to summon up the interest they received at first.

A number of gifted people are characterized early on as having potential and are coached to thrive. Another group toils in anonymity for years, studying, developing, and acquiring proficiency. After years of challenging labor, they then turn into “overnight successes.” As people like to transition from one job to the next in this time and age – and even from profession to profession – great leaders want to be on alert for promising genius. Don’t rush to categorize people on your team as nonstarters. With the correct support, instruction, and chances, almost anyone with the aspiration can someday be a valuable starter.


2. The Achievements of a Depth Player Can Enhance the Achievements of a Starter

For a team to excel, each team member should be in the position that most fits their abilities and geniuses, and in which they shine. The accomplishments of the entire team build up the starters, and the accomplishments of the starters build up the entire team. The team is truly more than the sum of its parts. Says Phil Jackson, former American professional basketball player, coach and executive in the National Basketball Association, "The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team."

You may have been amazed at teams led by individuals who understand this truth. For instance, in a business that understands this, their sales people are doing what they should be doing, making calls on potential customers. The sales person’s paperwork is delegated to support people who enjoy administrative work. The increased number of sales the sales people produce by not having to do paperwork makes more income for the company than the administrative people cost. Everybody is working in their area of strength.

3. The Depth Players Outnumber the Starters

If you look at the roster of a successful team, you’ll notice that there are usually more depth players than starters. For NBA basketball teams there are five starters and an average of nine depth players. For the parenting team, there are usually two parents and many more relatives, friends and babysitters who fill in. For local gymnastic team competitions, only three gymnasts can place in the scoring, but many more compete per team. 

There are comparable conditions in the business world. For example, an author lists some of the help they received in writing a book on the acknowledgements page. In selling a new home, the real estate agent is the front person for the construction company and contractors who built the home. Corporate executives can have up to thousands of employees working for and supporting them. In a successful organization, the face of the organization spends time recognizing the contributions of the members.

4. A Depth Player Positioned Right Will Sometimes Be More Effective Than a Starter

Starters need breaks and those are times when depth players fill in. An obvious example is when a depth player takes over for an injured starter; the depth player is more useful than the injured player. Some of a property rental manager’s duties are taken over now and then by a re-certification expert from headquarters. A third example is in a company when one person takes over another’s position while that person is on vacation. 

5. A Team with Formidable Depth Allows the Leader Additional Options

When a team doesn’t have depth, the only recourse the leader has is to keep playing the starters. In a team of only starters, if a starter can’t function, the team may forfeit the game. When a team has inadequate depth, the leader has some alternatives, but they are usually not too good. But when a leader has a team with excellent depth, the choices are limitless.

6. Depth Players Are Needed at Decisive Times

When the police are In trouble, they call for backup. When one vendor runs out of product, a company turns to another vendor. That’s just how it happens. You need depth players in critical situations, not during the smooth times. If a starter is injured and the situation is at a crucial turn, the depth player steps up. That player’s success may affect the team’s success.

If challenging circumstances have come upon your team, then you understand the value of having depth players. However, if your team is going through an easy interlude, then today is the time to improve your depth players. Develop your depth players now for future predicaments.

Your Present Acts Develop Your Future Team

While you spend time assessing your team’s starters and depth players, be aware that the future of your team is predictable. Here’s what you need to know to ensure a positive track:


1. Gains: Choosing the Right Candidate

"When hiring key employees, there are only two qualities to look for: judgment and taste. Almost everything else can be bought by the yard," said John W. Gardner, twentieth century educator, public official, and political reformer. To construct a winning team, you need great players.

There are basically two ways to hire people: fill a vacancy with the right person, or make a vacancy for the right person. In the first case, you have an opening and you supply a person for that opening. That’s how most hiring works. In the second case, maybe you don’t have an opening, but you know someone who would make great contributions to your team if there were an opening. So you hire the person and make a position for them.

2. Education: Training the Team

To solve the problems of the future you need solutions of the future. For that, you need to prepare your team to meet new experiences. To do so, you should be assisting starters to enhance their effectiveness, and training the depth players to turn into starters when it’s appropriate.

If you are a leader, give your team the advantage by developing and refining everyone on your team. 

3. Losses: Letting People Go

It’s unavoidable that team members leave. However, believe it or not, you select which members exit. When you retain ineffective people, the effective people become irritated and quit. When you get rid of ineffective team members, the team improves.

John Maxwell explains how to develop a team through the revolving door principle. He says a team will inevitably add and drop people. People are continually entering a company and exiting from it. The way to tomorrow’s victories is to acquire a more valuable person for each loss.

Maxwell gives an example. “Let’s say that you can rate every person’s effectiveness on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 as the highest. As the revolving door turns, if your team is losing 4s and gaining 8s, then your future looks bright. If you’re losing 8s and gaining 4s, then the future looks bleak. And if you’re losing 4s and gaining other 4s, then you’re wearing your team out with activity but making no progress.”2

The Stages of an Organization and the Revolving Door


Every team that is trying to evade lack of progress by developing its members will change, and as the revolving door turns, various people will enter and leave the team during different stages. For instance, when an organization is just starting out, it is just hiring. It is pleased to bring on anyone. However, the people it is recruiting may or may not be top notch.

When a team invites dedication, some team members exit the team. But that’s okay. Dedication pushes away the undedicated, while it makes those who remain even firmer in their dedication.

After the team has a dedicated nucleus and starts to flourish, it once more obtains people. The people who now join usually find the level of dedication of the current team members appealing. That motivates the team to more success.

But when a team garners success, some members will hunger for bigger success on their own. You may be able to convince them to stay on, if you can give them interesting challenges and divide up the accountability and compensation with them. (If you can’t, you may have to depend on your depth players, and then you’ll realize what type of depth players you’ve developed.)

If you can maintain progress throughout team achievements and replicate the method while continuously developing your depth players, then you can build an outstanding team.

Be a Better Team Member

Would you describe yourself as a starter or a depth player? If you say you are a depth player, then your job consists of two things: assisting the starters in excelling, and making yourself ready to be a starter if the time comes. You help yourself do that by developing in yourself the ideals of assisting and learning.

Be a Better Team Leader

If you are a leader, your team depends on you to bring better team members into the team than exit the team. A way to aid that is to appreciate the valuable team members. 

Team members can be grouped into three categories: the starters, the depth players and a third category, labeled by John Maxwell as the inner-circle members.3 The inner-circle members make the team hum. A leader’s task is to develop each category so that the depth players can move up to be starters and the starters can move up to be inner-circle members.

1 John Maxwell, The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, (Nashville, Tennessee; Thomas Nelson, Inc.; 2001), 163-164.
2 John Maxwell, The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, (Nashville, Tennessee; Thomas Nelson, Inc.; 2001), 171.
3 John Maxwell, The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, (Nashville, Tennessee; Thomas Nelson, Inc.; 2001), 176.

The ideas in this blog post were taken from John Maxwell’s book, The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork.