Team Management Lessons from Trading Places

Looking good, Billy Ray!

Feeling good, Louis!


This refrain has been among my favorite New Years sayings for years, and Trading Places is among my favorite holiday movies.  On January 2nd, the refrain means even more - the morning Billy Ray and Louis get revenge.

What struck me during this season's rewatching was, Coleman wins big, for a butler.  Technically, Coleman works for the villainous Dukes, but at the end of the movie, everyone who has been manipulated by the "science experiment" joins forces against Clarence Beeks and the Dukes.  Coleman contributes logistical support, and his life savings, to a nice manipulation of Futures contracts in Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice.  At the end of the film, Coleman, Billy Ray, and Louis are all enjoying fresh seafood and champagne in a Carribean paradise.

A few lessons:


  1. Let your employees buy in: having enough capital was crucial to the coup executed by Louis and Billy Ray, and both Ophelia and Coleman put up their life savings. They were richly rewarded.  Employee stock purchase and retirement plans can't quite keep up, but for startups, the risk/reward gets closer.  How are your teams incentivized?
  2. A steady hand is hard to find: Although Coleman clearly detests the Dukes, he's a solid judge of character and can see Billy Ray is a fish out of water.  When Coleman offers to straighten up after Billy Ray's party, it's compassion and the kindness of a trusted deputy  - we've all had team members like that, and it's never a bad thing.  Keep them happy and treat them well.
  3. Be careful about gossiping in the restroom.  Not that anyone would condone rich oligarchs running social engineering experiments on unwitting citizens (let alone employees)  - it's all undone when Billy Ray overhears Randolph and Mortimer in the Mens' Room.  

  4. The stakes matter.  Think about the demands we make as managers - and the requests we fulfill for our senior leadership.  There is a different level of scandal altogether when finding out about the maneuvers or perverse incentives of the head honchos.  Transparency, governance, and the red face test, matter. Team leaders shouldn't make side bets, whether it's for a dollar or not, but it's the insignificance of the amount that pushes Winthorpe over the edge.

There are surely more lessons, but for 2015, my hat is tipped to you, Coleman!