Fire a failing manager and other lessons from sports

Manager David Moyes of Manchester United reacts to goal

Manager David Moyes (R) of Manchester United reacts as Juan Mata of Manchester United celebrates on the touchline with team mates after scoring their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Manchester United at St James' Park on April 5, 2014 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. 

Why can’t the corporate world be more like major league sports? When a sports team loses too much, the coach gets the boot, and gets it fast. In the past week, the Knicks fired their entire coaching staff, Manchester United sacked their manager, and the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team coach was fired too.

Far be it from us to endorse bloodlust, but why aren’t CEO's dealt this kind of fate?

1. They are, you just might not know it.

The Conference Board has done a lot of research on corporate succession, and one of their researchers, Melissa Aguilar says “the probability of a succession event is higher following poor performance.” Huh? What? Succession event? Yes, ‘succession event’ – Aguilar didn’t say ‘firing’, because “not everything that gets called a retirement is a retirement.”  You’d be surprised at how many CEO’s “retire” at a young age. Plus, coaches are more like managers, not corporate executives. And you can be sure that in the corporate world, a manager who doesn’t perform well will be shown the door.

2. A good CEO is hard to find. 

“I can tell you, I’ve managed a number of successions – it’s very hard!” in the words of Joseph Bower, who teaches at Harvard Business School.  “Companies are much more idiosyncratic than we think or as an economist would pretend - they have complex cultures, they have capabilities that tend to be unique,” and they’re made of complex arrays of humans which, as we all know, behave rather strangely in large groups. Finding the right person can be hard, and it can take a long time.

“I remember at one point the head of Johnson wax was hired by Nike because he was a good marketing executive and it was thought he could do well at Nike,” says Bower. “It turns out that marketing furniture polish is very different from marketing running shoes. That didn’t work out.” 

 3.Because a CEO isn’t a real thing.

Otherwise put, being a CEO isn’t a real thing. It’s not like being a blacksmith or a French teacher, where there’s a specific and universal skill set. You could run a company of two people selling pickles or a company of two thousand advising commodity investors – in both cases you’re a CEO. That doesn’t mean you can do both well.

4.You can’t hide the fact you lost a game. You can totally hide the fact your earnings are down.

“For a corporation, results are much more opaque,” says Smith college’s Andrew Zimbalist. “It’s not win or lose. Although corporations like to have growth and profit, there are ways to hide the lack of profits or to inflate the actual profits.” 

To be fair there are a lot of other things you can blame for bad results if you’re a CEO – the economy, GDP, China – take your pick of scapegoats real or not. 

“At a corporate level there’s more cronyism,” says Zimbalist. “You have boards of people who are CEOs themselves. It’s a social circle that’s more tight, and they are likely to be more lenient since they are in a similar situation. 

5.If Shareholders were like fans, Wall Street would be full of drunks and burnt out buildings

“It’s well known that some investors are not rational, but almost anybody would agree that very few sports fans are rational,” says Matteo Arena, who teaches finance at Marquette University. “Most fans react to poor results in a very passionate way and put a lot of pressure on teams.” That thirst for revenge and destruction is why sports teams often ditch their coaches or managers so quickly.  

6.Maybe Shareholders are like sports fans, but just slower.

A sports team can lose ten games in a month, but it takes a corporation 2.5 years to have 10 quarters of bad earnings. And CEOs usually walk shareholders through the ups and the downs, explaining what they expect to happen, which can sometimes be like talking down an angry mob.   

7.The CEO is often in charge of replacing the CEO

“In more than 50 percent of publicly traded companies in the US, the CEO is also chairman of the board,” says Matteo Arena. How easy do you think it is to replace the person in charge if that person ... is in charge of replacing the person in charge? 

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...