Coach Poach

With its season about to begin, the powerhouse University of Alabama football team offers a classic case of how to build a long pipeline of leaders.

Leaders at successful organizations expect rivals to hire away their direct reports. But few have had to deal with the kind of poaching that the head of one of the nation’s winningest college football programs seems to face year in and year out.

Indeed, under head coach Nick Saban, the University of Alabama has won the national title five out of the last 10 seasons. But when the new season kicks off next week, no coach from the 2017 Alabama team—the last year the school won the national title—will be with the Crimson Tide except Saban himself. Seven assistant coaches were hired off last year’s staff, 15 have been poached since 2015, and 37 have found other jobs since 2007.

Coaches getting recruited from successful teams is a fact of life in sports. What separates great leaders from merely good coaches is their ability to build a pipeline of leaders on and off the field, says Jed Hughes, leader of Korn Ferry’s Sports practice. “Great general managers and coaches hire bright people and give them opportunities and responsibilities that allow them to see how the whole organization works,” he says.

In addition to Saban, Hughes cites Bill Belichick and Andy Reid of the NFL and Gregg Popovich of the NBA as examples of coaches who take their role as a mentor seriously. For them, coaches who go on to lead other teams are as much a part of their own legacy as their on-field performance.

That isn’t to say that these coaches aren’t focused on their performance. To be sure, Tierney Remick, co-leader of the Board and CEO Services practice at Korn Ferry, says that there are common attributes that differentiate leaders who build great leaders, whether in sports or business. They are adaptable, for instance, and can delegate while maintaining clear control. They are extremely engaged, have high expectations, and are very strategic with decisions. At the same time, they exhibit higher self-awareness and empathy.

“These types of leaders can be challenging,” says Remick, “but that’s what attracts people to them, the fact that they will be constantly challenged.”

Or, as Saban told the Wall Street Journal recently, “I think if you look at most of the coming and going, it’s people getting better jobs … I actually look for people who have goals and aspirations, who are hard workers and very committed to what they do.”

Remick says Saban’s words mirror a shift in thinking that’s taking place among leaders in the corporate world. The era of the superhero CEO is over, and corporate leaders now realize that the nature of the job is to develop leaders who not only thrive for the organization now but also can carry that success forward to whatever organization they step into next.

Inherent in the mentality shift is the fact that the accelerating pace of digital transformation means retaining great leaders is only going to get more difficult. “At some point, the executive pyramid gets very narrow, and at that point, leaders who take the responsibility for building other leaders seriously encourage them to launch into other opportunities to continue to develop themselves,” says Remick.