Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Time to Bury the "Coach in Waiting"

Succession planning poses one of the greatest challenges to leadership in any organization. Most organizations fail woefully, others build leadership depth and generate pipelines of leaders for their own organization and others much like the Marines or Proctor and Gamble. A few appoint successors a couple years in advance to provide stability, reassure outside groups and let other leaders know and give them a chance to go elsewhere for their own shot. IBM and GE both take this approach.  The modern athletic variation is to appoint a "head coach in waiting."

This is an idea that deserves to die. Despite the best and sometimes malicious intentions, the whole approach is a lousy idea and has failed miserably at the intercollegiate level.  The latest debacle at University of West Virginia provides one more piece of evidence along with the messes at Maryland, Florida State, Texas etc. At West Virginia the athletic director annointed a rising coordinator Dana Holgorsen as the Head Coach in Waiting (HCIW) to be mentored for a year while Oliver Luck eased our actual Head Coach Bill Stewart who had served under Rich Rodriquez. It reesmbled a sort of choose your poison approach.

As any student of leadership could predict it all fell apart. First, often these appointments are foisted on the head coach by an athletic director. The head coach resents it and the team and recruits and boosters face divided loyalties and split chains of command. Worse it destroys coherence and morale among the rest of the coaching staff who are vying to satisfy two masters, one who is coaching the other who will determine their jobs next year.

At Florida State Bobby Bowden loudly refused to go and had to be pushed our wrecking the succession of Jimbo Fisher. At Maryland the whole mess blew up when the head coach refused to step down and had to be fired. I could go on, but the West Virginia raises all the stakes and reveals the blunt failure of the strategy.

The West Virginia fiasco ended with the athletic director under pressure from the President firing Stewart and replacing him with the HCIW. But only after weeks of nightmare press and chaos for students. I will leave aside the issue of the accuracy of the stories, but as gossip piled upon rumor piled upon calumny, it became clear how divided the team was and how deeply the Head Coach resented his displacement/ replacement despite the cordial smiles in the above picture. Suddenly innuendo about the HCIW's drinking habits and unpredictable behavior appeared in blogspheres and gossip columnists. Later it comes it that they stories might have been planted by a resentful Steward. The truth of the accusations do not matter, what matters is how profoundly mistaken the attempt to replace a coach in their prime who does not want to leave. No succession planning worth its salt puts a successor in place against the express wishes of the existing head and expects it to work.

Far better to fire the coach clean and pure.

Pay the buyout and then hire whom you want. I don't know what drives athletic directors to do this. It appears a good idea to ensure continuity, help recruiting and keep high powered coordinators from going elsewhere. The reality as I argued elsewhere and experience demonstrates is that it undermines command structure, divides loyalties, encourages unhealthy internal rivalry and jealousy and undermines the search for diversity,  "The Head Coach in Waiting concept is a bad idea that cannot work smoothly. The younger or more vibrant the Head Coach, the lousier the idea. Appointing a Head Coach in Waiting violates every good principle of leadership and a commitment to diversity and fairness in hiring. It is a bad idea"

Time to bury it.

1 comment:

  1. It's a great challenge, I hope persons involved in this be totally sure of what they're gonna do because once they take a decision there is not option to change it.