Sports Analogies And HR Practices

A regular reader pointed out this Jack Welch blog post which raises a deceptively simple, interesting question. Welch retired from CEO at GE in 2001 after twenty very successful years making it essentially the top producing company in the world. He still tours as a speaker, but also established the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University to help the rest of the world learn effective leadership. (No connection to Ralph Stayer, different spelling, whose fascinating story is about turning a struggling family business into a billion dollar winner through a superior leadership style that he also now promotes.)

Welch’s question comes down to this – if we take it for granted that a sports team’s CEO should be highly focused on people, especially players, managers and coaches, with financials taking an auxiliary role, why is it the reverse in most companies were the CFO plays a huge role and HR is often virtually ignored?

Well, of course, we don’t find thousands of rabid fans looking over CEOs’ shoulders at big companies asking ‘why don’t you fire that loser and hire the superstar from your competitor, why don’t you scour the universities for the next superstars and draft them at millions of dollars a year?’ To say there isn’t intense interest in who becomes the next CHRO, sales associate or even CFO is to see the joke. Much as we take it for granted that super talent is needed in virtuallyteam manager every position for sports teams to win, we equally take it for granted organizations will be staffed by pretty average people (like you and me) who will just deliver what the company strategist, the all-important CEO, dictates. Aren’t we lucky these big complex businesses are so much easier to run than a ball team playing games we played as kids.

Of course, common perception is wrong on both counts. Billy Beane’s famous discovery, told in Moneyball, that led the Oakland A’s to an amazing comeback was later used by the Boston Red Sox to win the coveted World Series honors. They proved you don’t have to hire the absolute superstars to win. In fact, good team players who can do the basic work make a better showing if properly led. Prima donna’s, it turns out, aren’t the best choices, great teamwork is. By the same token if your one prima donna superstar is the CEO, you’re stuck with the same problem.

A better question might be – since we so frequently see managers citing sports analogies as guidance, why don’t they see value in the sports model for selecting and managing people as Welch implies they should?

The answer would be that many managers would like to do just that – hire the million dollar superstars… except they can’t get the money, can’t find the ‘A’ players they dream of and don’t have the time (in their minds) because they’re so busy making sure their B and C players toe their lines. It’s not their fault, of that they’re sure. They would if they could. But who or what’s in the way? They are angry that HR won’t let them hire as if they are sports GMs and, of course, really annoyed that HR won’t do the job for them the way they dream it should be. Even worse, HR won’t let them fire the losers the moment it enters their heads that would solve their problem the way they imagine those GMs are empowered to do. All this garbage about having to interview people, documenting performance, giving weak players ‘long’ periods with help and opportunities to improve and, worst of all, human rights and political correctness. I’m sure it even rankles many that they can’t video employees at work and use that to fire them – like sports teams do, of course.

Yes, I’m stretching… a bit. But Welch’s question is sound. If sports results depend so obviously on people (and money only flows in to the extent the people perform), why can’t we see that principle just as plainly in other organizations?

Yet it is just that huge pool of sports fans (dare I say male) who often seem least likely to want to work on the people side of things, who have the least patience for it. Case in point would be this series of exchanges on LinkedIn at present. Reading them it’s almost hard to believe companies still exist where it is widespread, common understanding that coaching and mentoring are not just ignored, but actively discouraged.

A colleague who wants to retire was just pulled back in by a company that ‘really wants to change the way they manage people.’ His reaction – maybe worth a try, but I’ve heard it dozens of times before and they never listen or act. Can we hope that someday, things really will evolve?