Managerial Styles of NFL General Managers and Head Coaches:
Does Your Team Have Executive Presence?
by Stephen Long, PhD – Motere Consulting
The NFL coaching carousel is in full swing. After Black Monday and the following weeks, there are six head coach openings and at the time of this writing in January 2015, four of the positions have been filled. It’s unlikely that a sitting head coach will leave his current position, but in today’s NFL anything is possible. The Jets and the Bears are also looking for a general manager along with a head coach.
The days of Tom Landry, Don Shula and Chuck Noll are over. Respectively, each of those coaches served 29, 26 and 23 seasons. They made longevity a possibility for emerging coaches, but today’s NFL (meaning Not For Long as well as National Football League), head coaches are expected to produce immediately and consistently. The average coaching tenure is 4.27 seasons with the median between 2-3 seasons. Just as in any business, success is expected and demanded from senior managers, but it appears senior management stability (head coach and general manager) in the NFL correlates strongly with performance consistency. Head coaches with the longest tenures have most consistently appeared in the playoffs. Not surprisingly, the NFL General Managers of these successful organizations are also practitioners of job longevity.
Not coincidentally, all of these organizations have won at least one Super Bowl during the same time frame except for the Cincinnati Bengals. Obviously there is something to the NFL General Manager and head coach tenure and team success. On average, these teams average 8.7 playoff appearances since 2000. Would the fans of the Buffalo Bills and the Oakland Raiders settle for that? One might say they would settle for half of that. Between those two teams they have employed 16 head coaches in the same time frame including the new hires of Jack Del Rio for the Raiders and Rex Ryan of the Bills. That kind of instability correlates strongly with failure to make the NFL playoffs.
The Raiders have not been to the playoffs since 2002 when they lost the Super Bowl and Rich Gannon was the NFL’s MVP. The Bills are more inept. They haven’t appeared in the playoffs at all during this 15 year time frame. One may think the Bills are actually trying to be incompetent.
What separates these seven head coach & NFL General Manager partnerships? Is it simply a matter of statistical probability where only 6-8 head coach & NFL General Manager partnerships will achieve consistent success? Obviously, players count for a lot. Even good coaches lose with lousy players. Or could it be more of an organizational issue? Could it be a matter of the working relationship between the general manager and the head coach? Generally speaking, GM’s set the roster and the coach establishes strategies for those players. The success of one is completely dependent of the other. Organizational success is dependent on the people within the organization working together and complimenting the strengths of each other. What does ownership know about their senior managers? What are the behavioral tendencies of senior management? How do the skills sets compliment each other? Or conflict with each other? How does ownership leverage those tendencies for organizational success? However, it appears that NFL teams are more likely to experience an adversarial relationship between the GM and the head coach rather than a complimentary, effective working relationship. Maybe the secret to performance consistency is the working relationship between the NFL General Manager and head coach.
The recent departure of Jim Harbaugh from the 49ers and John Fox from the Broncos illustrate strained relationships with their GM’s, respectively Trent Baalke and John Elway. Both organizations had significant success in the past four years with those organizations reaching the Super Bowl and consistent playoff appearances. Why the change? Why did each head coach & NFL General Manager “mutually agree” it was time to move on? Is it simply a difference of vision? Of strategy? Of execution? If so, those mistakes were made during the hiring process.
Which hire is more important —The GM or the head coach? One could say it depends on the owner. Every personʼs leadership style looks and feels somewhat differently based on their personality, background, conditions and environment among others. By reviewing the theories and practices of researchers and experts exceptional leadership is founded on five core competencies called Executive Presence. Practically thinking, the head coach & NFL General Manager need to work together and compliment each other’s skills for the organization to succeed.
Leaders with a strong degree of Executive Presence are able to balance two critical dimensions: Time and Focus. Time includes two factors — present and future. Focus includes two factors — people and organization. The first four competencies are behaviorally oriented where they reflect the critical roles effective leaders adopt: strategist, executor, team builder, and recruiter. The behavioral competencies reflect how leaders balance present and future time perspectives on both people and organization. Future time perspectives may vary, but leaders need to offer a direction for where the organization is going. Present time implies immediate direction. The final competency, Execution IQ, centers on the belief system that is critical to consistent execution and sustaining the actions effective leaders take. The combination of actions and beliefs develops the degree of Executive Presence leaders exhibit.
The X Factor for both a head coach & NFL General Manager is Execution IQ. Water rises to its own level. The organization will only achieve and execute to the level of its leaders. The ability to lead others begins with the personal qualities and characteristics of senior management. Leaders who are grounded through their values and beliefs, credible through their judgment and thinking, emotionally mature through their ability to self-analyze and connect with others, and willing to learn and grow as a leaders, then they have an opportunity to master the competencies of being an exceptional strategist, executor, team builder, and recruiter.
Job interviews are inherently subjective, but can be improved significantly. Some candidates are highly skilled at interviewing and some hiring managers are terribly flawed at interviewing candidates. That combination usually results in organizational failure. The key to asking the right questions is having access to the right information. Motere’s Executive Presence Report provides data on the five managerial competencies. The primary benefit is hiring managers are aware of managerial tendencies two weeks before a hire instead of three years after a hire. Job fit along with job competencies are equally important.
Let’s examine a couple of hypothetical working relationships. Organization A has a GM who is an Executor and Strategist. As an Executor, the NFL General Manager is present time oriented (win now) and organizationally focused. The GM excels in the concrete and actionable world of execution and is clear and decisive in getting things done through the people in the organization. The NFL General Manager sets clear priorities and accountabilities to get things done. The NFL General Manager also has a strength as a Strategist indicating he is able to move to a future time perspective. He digests abstract concepts by being aware of changes in technology, demographics, and political realities that affect the organization, its stakeholders, and how it creates value. He clearly articulates a vision that is exciting and energizing and creates strategic traction that gets the strategy implemented. The NFL General Manager creates consensus around how best to organize and respond to achieve the vision.
The head coach is a Team Builder and a Strategist. As a Team Builder, he is focused on winning now through his people. He is skilled in identifying the current talent that allows the team to achieve its goals and ensure the players and assistant coaches have what they need to deliver those goals. However, there is a problem, a serious problem. The organization needs to rebuild and requires a coach with a future time perspective. The head coach feels pressure because, in his mind, he has less than three years to produce a playoff team so he argues with the GM about winning now and mortgages the future for the present. Like the GM, the head coach is also a strategist able to see around the corner to see what’s coming but the problem is that the GM and head coach see different things around the corner. They may not even be looking at the same corner. These types of conflicts create the irreconcilable differences between two highly valued senior managers. One will surely lose their job and the stability and performance of the organization suffer as a result.
The GM rose to his position due his Strategist skills and the head coach has risen due to his Team Builder skills. They are both highly respected around the NFL and highly valued within their organization. However, this relationship deteriorates because they both hold above average skills as a strategist. They both hold a vision of the future of the organization, however it is diametrically opposed to the other guy.
Strengths have a way of casting a shadow over weaknesses. In many cases, hiring managers dismiss weaknesses because they are under-estimated as compared by the candidates strengths. Both of these senior managers lack competencies as a Recruiter. Both fail to identify and attract talent — players and assistant coaches — needed to execute the strategy. This is evidenced by the head coach who specializes in offense and fails to recruit a qualified defensive coordinator. The team can score points, but can’t hold their opponents to less than 30 points per game. Meanwhile, the GM fails to build for the future when three of the four defensive backs will run out of steam in 2-3 years leaving the defensive coordinator with no lock down corners making it impossible to implement an effective pressure scheme. Who is at fault? Both the GM and the head coach, but both blame the other. More importantly, neither holds or exhibits above average Execution IQ. It’s not that one or other will fail. It’s destined the working relationship will fail setting the organization back years.
Organization B, however, has a GM and a head coach where the managerial tendencies compliment, rather than conflict, with each other. The GM is a Strategist and a Recruiter. He is focused on the future direction while keeping a clear line of sight between the future strategy and the skills that are required to deliver that strategy. As a Recruiter, he knows who, how and why to attract the right talent for the future. The head coach compliments the GM through his tendencies as a Team Builder and Executor. He is present time oriented while keeping his focus on people and the organization. He sees the big picture while laying the foundation for consistent performance. The key is both the GM and head coach are focused on the organization and people. They aren’t polarized or conflicted with either.
As strong as a fit the NFL General Manager and head coach appear in Organization B, the key lies in their Execution IQ. If one or both are average or deficient, relationship problems are sure to emerge. Like any senior managers, these two people are highly driven toward goal achievement — each wants and needs to be recognized and acknowledged for attaining those goals. However, deficiencies in self-awareness, self-control, self-confidence, impulse control and/or resilience can unravel organizational success in a matter of days that took years to build. Selfmanagement and relationship management go hand-in-hand. Senior managers are unable to lead and manage others if they are unable to lead and manage themselves first. Players and support staff recognize this and it’s reflected by modeling dysfunctional behavior throughout the organization. It’s a fascinating aspect of human nature that people who preach, teach, and instruct team success over individual success are sometimes the ones who expect and demand recognition for their individual contribution and responsibility of that success.
Senior managers with a high Execution IQ recognize the value of the relationship between the complimentary skills between the peers they rely on. Just like a wide receiver knows he’s nothing without his QB, a running back without his O-Line, the inside linebacker without his DLine and lock down corners without their rush DE’s, success of the NFL General Manager and head coach are dependent of each other. Maybe the best recent example is the relationship between Pete Carroll and John Schneider of the Seattle Seahawks who were hired within a week of each other in 2010. The Seahawks CEO, Peter McLoughlin and owner Paul Allen may know something that many NFL organization leaders don’t.