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The Most Critical Job In Professional Sports Requires Extensive Formal Training. The Only Catch: Few Are Getting It.
General Managers: Important, Powerful … Trained?
Most sports fans know about “Moneyball,” the best-selling book about Billy Beane, the intense and innovative general manager of the Oakland A’s. Beane, a former player, built the A’s into a winning franchise despite the constraints of being a small-market team with a shoestring budget. But fewer people are aware that it was Sandy Alderson, the prototype for the modern GM, who built the foundation and mentored Beane.
When Alderson was named general manager of the Oakland A’s in 1983 at age 35, he was not only among the youngest to ever hold the GM position in pro sports, but he broke an unspoken baseball tradition. Instead of the résumé of a baseball lifer, either as a player or scout, Alderson was a Dartmouth and Harvard Law School grad, and a Marine infantry officer who served in Vietnam. With little baseball background, Alderson turned conventional wisdom on its head. He brought the concept of analytics into baseball and spawned the long-running success of the small-market team in Oakland that somehow, with a miniscule payroll, managed to win pennants, stay near the top of the league and find underpriced but potent talent.
Alderson, now the general manager of the New York Mets, was so far ahead of his time that it wouldn’t be until a couple of decades later that a wave of young, whip-smart GMs such as Theo Epstein, John Schneider and Sam Presti began remaking the front offices of professional sports. Instead of former players and scouts, this new generation arrived with Ivy League degrees, little or no playing experience and a penchant for data-driven decision-making. “The fact that analytics people populate front offices these days is a significant change,” said Stephen A. Greyser, a sports management expert who teaches at Harvard Business School.
But there may be something even more significant behind the egghead GM movement in pro sports. For decades, most franchises have relied on former athletes, scouts, coaches and managers to provide leadership. They’ve had a natural affinity for the work, and the pipeline seems to have worked well enough. The only issue? It may be all wrong. A growing number of pro-sports experts say that the complexities of sports management today, not to mention the billions of dollars in play, require stellar GMs who are less “born” to the job but instead require extensive training to master the craft. What is notable, however, is how few franchises are making that effort.
“You need an individual who really knows the business intimately, not only in terms of how the game is played but also knows the capabilities of the entire player pool,” said Rick Burton, professor of sport management at Syracuse University. “They’ve got to be a bit of an alchemist able to produce for a manager or coach the optimal employee pool that can help a team win.”
A GM can’t learn this on his or her own. Burton says the work is experiential and one’s success depends on soaking up vast amounts of knowledge from mentors in front offices, mentors who invest in the education of next-generation leaders. “Can you teach that? It’s tricky,” he said. Even more tricky: getting teams to put the time and resources into molding the GM of the future. “The training to become a general manager has to be based largely upon mentorship and practical experience,” said Bill Polian, former general manager of the Indianapolis Colts and an inductee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “We really are falling short on both counts.”
Certainly the stakes involved in pro-sports leadership couldn’t be higher. In the past decade, as the four major North American professional leagues—Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League—have seen revenues and profits soar, the role of the general manager has become more complex, more challenging and exponentially more stressful. Increased media attention, fueled by the relentless 24-hour news cycle of cable television, the Internet and social media, has put general managers under intense, unprecedented scrutiny.
The job, once an unheralded backroom post handled in relative obscurity, is now tracked and analyzed with such precision by fans and the sports media that job security has dropped precipitously. In an environment where winning is inextricably tied to the bottom line and the general manager is spending the money of often-impatient billionaire owners, there is no place to hide and little tolerance for extended periods of futility.
Of the top 25 general managers in sports as chosen by Forbes magazine in 2007, only five remain in their jobs today. Given that professional sports is in the midst of a financial golden era—according to a 2015 report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, combined pro-sports revenue will reach nearly $73.5 billion by 2019 (up from $60.5 billion in 2014), an annual growth rate of 4.8 percent—there is an urgency for general managers to win and build stable and profitable franchises.
A winning general manager, they say, will create alignment. Alignment is about interweaving philosophy, style of play, type of players, embrace of technology and comfort with a collaboration with ownership and head coaches. Successful general managers understand that the job is ultimately about creating hope for the fan base. It is not only about generating enthusiasm and winning, but also about creating sustainable revenue streams built upon promising and delivering a team that has, at the very least, a chance to win it all.
In the old days, say 30 years ago or more, general managers were out of the spotlight, working to find talent and sign contracts while toiling in the shadows of successful coaches. Legends like Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers and Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics served as their own general managers while building dynasties. Front office staffs were smaller, and opportunities for aggressive and talented young executives were at a minimum. With the advent of free agency, massive expansion and multibillion-dollar television deals, the general manager’s job description changed forever.
“The general manager has to be smart, self-confident—both publicly and privately with owners—have an academic orientation, but also be telegenic,” said Billy Beane. “He has to be able to build an all-encompassing vision,” he added. Working with Alderson was an exceptional experience, Beane said, because he wanted his management team to learn every aspect of the business. Rather than being focused solely on baseball, Alderson wanted “really smart, well-rounded people.”
Given the vicissitudes of sports, there remains a significant gap between excellence and mediocrity in this crucial position. Success often depends more on the acquisition of a superstar athlete than on an impressive management skillset. Navigating the turbulent salary cap waters, making often-risky bets on long-term contracts and free agents, and building a potent team on and off the field humbles even the most talented aspiring GMs.
Ironically, given the importance of the general manager position, there remains little formal training and preparation for the job. The development of successful general managers is more art than science, and every franchise handles its front office differently. There are individuals such as Alderson, Polian and former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who took seriously the task of encouraging and mentoring young prospects. The impact of their efforts is evident in the number of their disciples who emerged as general managers for professional franchises. But remarkably few teams have embraced this philosophy, preferring to create specialists in individual disciplines rather than generalists with broad skillsets.
“In the past, the GM needed to have played the games, bloodied their knuckles and bloodied their nose,” said John Schuerholz, president and former general manager of the Atlanta Braves. “The GM job today is much more sophisticated. It involves player analysis, a statistical component and softer skills such as getting a feel for the players. It’s also essential that GMs have a lively intellect.”
When Brian Burke, president of operations for the Calgary Flames, joined the Vancouver Canucks front office in 1987, “the room was full exclusively of former players.” General managers who hadn’t played the game were rarities. Burke was one of the first when he became GM of the now defunct Hartford Whalers in 1992, and as he recalled, “I was about as welcome as a porcupine in a balloon party.” The landscape is very different today. “Everything is more sophisticated and you, as an executive, need to be more sophisticated.”
Alderson pointed out that working closely with people is more valuable than a curriculum or syllabus when it comes to developing quality front office people. “We have what we call ‘the lunch bunch,’ ” Alderson said. “It’s not a formal staff meeting, but we get together and we talk about such things as the first day of a home stand, the first week of the season. It is just about having lunch and talking about things and having everybody there, including the interns.” Alderson encourages collaboration throughout the organization and involving as many people as possible in specific issues across a broad base.
R. C. Buford, the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, agrees. The Spurs have won four NBA titles under Buford’s stewardship, plus one in 1999 when he was assistant GM. He is a proponent of leading by sharing knowledge. Spurs interns are exposed to as many front office disciplines as possible. There are myriad pieces to address: analytics, performance training, growth, social media, player development, salary cap management. “We can’t have 25 people all doing the same thing,” Buford said. “We try to distribute information across platforms in our group, whether it’s face-to-face or different forms of distribution.”
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One young general manager, who chose not to be identified, noted that his success has been built upon “a combination of mentorship, timing and displaying confidence and taking responsibility.” He noted that when he came up in baseball, front office staffs were small compared to today, and thus he had an opportunity to do many different types of jobs. “There wasn’t a lot of intellectual firepower in most baseball front offices, so I was able to dip my hand in a lot of things,” he said. He got firsthand lessons in player development, administration, contracts, the draft and many other critical tasks.
Despite the obvious, the resistance to development programs is widespread. In the National Hockey League, for example, only one person per team is allowed to attend the league’s general managers’ meetings. Calgary’s Burke has advocated for the past 15 years to be able to bring the assistant GM to the meetings, to no avail. “I think it’s absurd,” Burke stated. “I think we should be training the next wave of general managers now. We have no formal training procedures. There’s no other business in the world that turns businesses of this size over to people who have just gotten their learner’s permit.”
Can it be taught? For Bill Polian, who had great success in three NFL cities, the answer is yes, but with a caveat. It is far tougher to sustain such success and develop front office talent than it used to be. “We gave people projects where they would do things that were outside their area of responsibility,” Polian said. “We tried to prepare them. I don’t think there are a lot of teams that do that.” According to Polian, the main impediment to talent development is a lack of longevity and the increased pressure to win. “Everyone is fighting for their lives week in and week out, so there is no time to formulate a plan and to evaluate people,” he said.
Though professional sports is a unique environment, leaders in every aspect of business find lessons in the travails of the general manager, a reason sports are so popular with the corporate set. The pressure of making quarterly numbers is at least as stressful as reaching the playoffs. Corporate boards are as demanding as billionaire team owners, and despite the absence of championship trophies and parades down Main Street, executives who successfully identify and train a company’s future leaders are richly rewarded.
In the end, the most successful GMs recognize that, like coaches, the job today is about leadership. “I tell coaches ‘You’re a leader first and a coach second,’ ” said Danny Ferry, former GM of the Atlanta Hawks. The same thing applies to general managers. “How do you train someone to do that?” Ferry asked. “The first thing is to understand the challenges of leadership and choose to be a leader. It’s a conscious decision.”