[Land O’Spin] Addition by Subtraction

Land O’Spin is an occasional set of writings focused on best practices in coaching and assessment: how do take what you observe, know what it means, and draw conclusions about what outcomes will occur in the future.

The news came in different ways about different people but the intersection was all mine: addition by subtraction was at play.

The sports news channels were filled with the predictable dispatches about Terrell Owens ‘ release from yet another National Football League team – this time the Dallas Cowboys. Owens, a man of many on field talents and by press reports just as many off-the-field disruptions had been released by the team. 72 hours later he was picked up by another NFL team, the Buffalo Bills, apparently the next team to believe that his receiving talents outweighed the locker room toxicity he reportedly brings. The other news came quietly and confidentially from someone in the search community who knew I had run Barclays Global Investors US staffing operations. Terry Watson, the Global Head of Risk and Compliance, was no longer with BGI.

Earlier in this series {Land O’Spin) I noted that two keys in assessment are to observe behaviors (people and/or organizations), and be clear about what you’re seeking to seeking to have evidenced or demonstrated. This post introduces a third element in the assessment process: what is the impact or effect of the behavior?

The case of Terrell Owens would appear to be straightforward: high individual achievement on the football field accompanied by well-chronicled cases of disruption in the locker room and the team. None of the teams that Owens has played for has won championships while he was on board – all the while Owens has notched up strong individual results. Owens has played for three teams (49’ers, Eagles, and Cowboys) with that same pattern playing out. Prediction? Buffalo will be the same experience: good personal achievement with locker room upheaval.

The Terry Watson case is both different and similar in that it points to a broader pattern. Watson is the latest of a number of senior managers to leave BGI, including the General Counsel, the Head of Corporate Communications, the Chief Technology Officer, and the Chief Financial Officer – all within the last few years. [Update: R enaissance Technologies LLC announced last week that they had hired Matt Scanlan, the former Managing Director and Head of BGI’s America’s Institutional Business.] By all accounts, and my own experience with him, Terry is thoughtful, hard working, and bright, has good relationship skills, and is personally authentic: not exactly someone you want to lose from your employ. I have no idea of the reason behind Terry’s departure – it may be that after a number of years of working hard and being successful that he’s taking some time on the proverbial “beach” and spending time with his kids. He may just as easily been recruited away, a jewel of a hire for some other firm. What I understand is that’s no longer with Barclays.[Update Two: I had a chance to catch up with Terry over hot chocolate at Peets in mid-March. He is doing great, taking some down time, and considering any number of options. As always, he was very frank and very thoughtful. One thing stuck in my head from my catch-up with him: I believe he said that of the thirteen senior managers he had interviewed with when he came on board BGI in late 2003, only one person was still with the BGI.]

What I do know however is while it’s not unusual to have some churn at any firm, significant executive turnover in a business that had been formerly achieving strong results is in my experience a flag that the problems are likely above – managers senior to somebody like an exec like Terry Watson – that the this churn is likely to continue until that area gets sorted out.

Apart from seeing the pattern from afar, and working with it professionally a time or two, I have my own direct personal experience in this matter: while working with McKesson corporation in the 1990’s I saw two different groups of executives working in the company’s drug distribution business come and go (including me).

From the “observe the actions / behaviors”, watch the impact” flow, significant executive changes started to occur when McKesson named Dave McDowell Chief Operating Officer and President of McKesson Corporation in 1992 , until McDowell left the corporation in 1996. In the COO role he supervised the operating unit business unit presidents, such as my boss the President of the then $13 billion McKesson Pharmaceutical (formerly McKesson Drug). People that left in that unit during McDowell’s tenure – some of which he had hired, others which he had inherited – included two presidents, three executive vice presidents and most of executive staffs such as heads of finance, HR, sales & marketing, etc. Many of the folks who left, such as Bob Funari and Tom Simone, continued to have successful business careers. After McDowell left the executive churn in many of the units abated, apparently a case of addition by subtraction at work.

The intersection of Terrell Owens and Terry Watson for assessment purposes is this: when a high achieving individual bounces from team to team, look to what the individual as the “source”, not the organization. When formerly high performing individuals are leaving an organization, look above them in the reporting hierarchy for the possible “source”, not at them.

In the case of Owens, teams believed that they would perform better (addition) by having him off the team (subtraction). In the case of Terry Watson, his departure along with a number of his colleagues based on similar patterns that I’ve seen suggests that some other factor may be at play – a factor which has yet to be fully worked out.

To recap:

  1. What’s the behavior (person, team or organization) that you observe?
  2. When’s simply assessing all behaviors, what’s the impact / effect of the behavior?
  3. For assessing fit against a role, what’s the behavior you’re looking to observe and how is it expressed / evidenced?

More to come.