Football Coaches and Outsider CEOs: When the Messiah Isn’t

This is a picture I took from the stands durin...

"Touchdown Jesus" via Wikipedia

There are many reasons to love this time of year.

Day (actually daylight) will start to get longer, spring and warmth is not too far around the corner, and it’s also the time of year when the annual churn in US college and professional football teams happens with uncanny predictability.

For those of us who work in “regular” business, the football sports world offers a great analogue for things like leadership, assessment, and succession. Unlike business, where a large number of measures can inform what’s regarded as success and failure (profit, market share, patents filed, clinical trials initiated, etc.), the variables and the success factors that exist in football are usually binary; did the team mostly win or lose? And if the team won more games than it lost, did it win enough – at least for that particular college or professional football franchise?

And while I don’t like the routine firing of coaches for the teams that didn’t win, or win enough, it’s instructive. The answer for teams that don’t win (enough) usually is to sack the current coach and hire someone new. Hire a coach who can play savior to restore – if the team had prior success – prior glory. And for those teams who have never been successful? A coaching messiah to bring the program to the promised land.

And what will happen to most of those coaches who have been brought in to play savior? They will mostly be termed not successful enough and be whacked. And the same thing (this is the analogue part) happens in business time and time again when the outsider is brought in to turn things around.

Just who are examples of football saviors that have been fired recently?  The NFL Cleveland Browns fired Eric Mangini this week after two seasons.  Notre Dame University fired Charlie Weis after 5 seasons last year, 1 more season than the prior program savior Ty Willingham – who had better record at Notre Dame than Weiss. The NFL Washington Redskins fired Marty Shottenheimer a few years ago because he was not successful enough and enticed highly successful college coach Steve Spurrier to come on board as their solution. Spurrier lasted two years, was fired, and Jim Zorn replaced him. Two years later Jim Zorn was fired, and Mike Shannahan is currently on the hot seat. The fate of the University of Michigan’s Rich Rodriquez, hired 3 years ago to bring that storied program to greater glory. Most pundits suspect he is out.  His fate will be decided Wednesday. Rodriquez as fired.

You get the point.

And guess what? The record for firms bringing in saviors from the outside for senior roles such as CEO (and others) is just as dismal. As Harvard Business School’s Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development Raskesh Khurana noted in his book, “Searching for a Corporate Savior: the Irrational Quest of a Charismatic CEO,” the emphasis on fast (usually unattainable) results has created a system were salaries are out of whack, and desired results that no one could achieve.

Like rostering all the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys, the list of outside savior CEOs that have been whacked for one reason or another in the recent past is a long one: Mark Hurd (Hewlett Packard), Terry Semel (Yahoo), Robert Nardelli (Home Depot), Paul Pressler (Gap), etc.  A Booz Allen study from 2003 noted that 55% of outsider CEOs were forced to resign in North America; the number in Europe of outsider CEOs forced to leave involuntarily was 70%.

People like Ford CEO Alan Mulally (interviewed here with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg) – successful CEOs brought in from the outside – are rare, unusual placements. Those types of selections are seldom repeatable. It’s crazy to build succession plans are placements that are likely not to work, and yet that is what any number of organizations – sports and regular businesses – do every day.

There are organizations that mostly have this type of succession nailed, and it’s done generally well. So what should those firms who struggle do for their talent and succession plans?

More to come.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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