Playbook for success

In sports, GMs and coaches confront great potential and risks in their first year. Winning ways? A new Korn Ferry Hay Group study chalks up the Xs and Os.

For the average sports fan, it sounds like the dream job: ascending to be the new general manager or new coach of a professional franchise or to be in a similar top role at a collegiate powerhouse. But for elite sports leaders, the first year on the job is filled with significant risks, as well as potential, new Korn Ferry Hay Group research finds.

The firm’s study looks at top sports leaders and finds, for example, that in the last five years, National Hockey League head coaches averaged 2.4 years in their jobs. That’s slightly better than the 2.3 years for National Basketball Association coaches but less than the 3.6 years for National Football League head coaches and 3.8 years for Major League Baseball managers.

Of the top 25 general managers in sports, as chosen by Forbes magazine in 2007, only five remain in their jobs in 2016. In recent years, the average turnover rate among Football Bowl Subdivision coaches was nearly 25%.

“Sports is an industry where patience is preached, but not always afforded,” says Jed Hughes, vice chairman, and the firm’s global sector leader for sports. “In sports, more than in most other professions, decision-making and the resulting outcomes are highly visible and incessantly debated. In today’s sports market, where the stakes are high, the media spotlight harsh and bright, and the average tenure short, the challenge for a first-time leader can be daunting.”

The firm’s new study says that first-year GMs and coaches, to achieve sustainable success, quickly must set an agenda, make decisions with impact, create a culture, build highly complex and symbiotic relationships with stakeholders, and oversee the building of the systems and processes that will lead to victory.

Some of sports’ top names, representing blue-chip organizations and institutions, share their experiences and insights with Korn Ferry on how GMs and coaches, in their first year, might go about evaluating talent, building and rebuilding support processes and systems, and surviving the constant, relentless scrutiny of fans, donors, owners, and athletes. Candor, communication, and values all are crucial components in athletic programs’ success, they say.

“Big-time sports have become big-time money operations, so the pressure’s nonstop for teams to win and for top players to be winners,” Hughes says. “First-year GMs and coaches can really make a mark if they can focus on what matters, while still starting to deal with other important issues, too. The very best know what their Xs and Os will be—and they also find the joy that only world-class competition can bring out of great athletes and organizations.”

Download the PDF