Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lessons From a Lost Season: Succession Planning

I have written before about the most recent season of the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks and the actions of their previous head coach, Jim Mora Jr.  The Mora saga offers a number of opportunities for reflection on topics relating to human resources, recruiting, management and leadership.  Today, I though I'd focus on just one, succession planning.

Prior to Jim Mora, Jr., the Seahawks' head coach was Mike Holmgren.  By far, Holmgren was the most successful coach in the team's history, leading them to a succession of division titles and one Super Bowl appearance.  Holmgren led the team for 10 seasons.  In the last few, there were always rumours of the coach's imminent retirement.  Each year, he toyed with the idea of stepping down, but always decided to come back for one more season.

In 2007, the Seahawks hired Mora as an assistant head coach, and it was essentially confirmed that that he would replace Holmgren upon retirement.  In 2007, the Seahawks had a mediocre season, and it was thought that it might be Holmgren's last, but in 2008 he returned.  2008 was abysmal.  It was the worst under Holmgren and the worst the team had experienced in over a decade.  There was, apparently, locker room dissention, with some players being "Holmgren guys" and some being "Mora guys".  Following 2008, Holmgren finally retired.  He claimed to have promised his wife, but many thought he was pretty much forced out by management.

2009, under Mora, was, arguably, even worse than 2008.  It was not merely the number of losses, but of the poor effort put forth by season's end.  The situation was so bad that Mora lost his job after just one year (very few coaches are terminated after one season).  There are many reasons it went so wrong, but the poor succession planning was definitely a part of it.

Unlike many organizations, the Seahawks troubles in properly planning for personnel changes came from over-preparation, rather than under preparation.  It is one thing to identify potential candidates for promotion within your organization, or shortlist some external candidates, should the demand for one arise.  It is quite another thing to bring someone in ostensibly as a subordinate, but whom everyone knows will eventually be wearing the crown.

It's not unheard of to have a head coach-in-waiting.  In the 1990s, the New York Jets had already tagged Defensive Co-ordinator Bill Belichek as the replacement for the current head coach, Bill Parcells (another former Super Bowl winning coach), should Parcells step down.  However, The Jets did not bring Belichek in.  He was a disciple of Parcells, having worked for him with the New York Giants and again with the Jets.  There would be no concerns of "Belichek guys" vs. "Parcells guys" in the locker room, because Belichek himself would have been considered a "Parcells guy".

(It should be noted that this didn't quite work out for the Jets.  Even though it was in Belichek's contract that he would be offered the head coaching gig should Parcells leave, when Parcells took a job with the New England Patriots, Belichek rebuffed the Jets to follow Parcells to New England to remain as his Defensive Co-ordinator.  Nonetheless, it was a good attempt by the Jets.)
So, what should Seattle have done back in 2007, when they were concerned about Holmgren's potential retirement?  There are a few possibilities.

First, they could have afforded him full control over his future and done no succession planning whatsoever.  This may not seem like it would have been the wisest course of action, but it would have had one huge benefit: Mike Holmgren.  Holmgren was one of the best coaches in the league, and had been for a couple of decades.  He'd been to the Super Bowl three times with two different teams, winning once.  He had done more for the franchise than anyone other than owner Paul Allen.  He had certainly done more to raise the level of football that was played in the Pacific Northwest than anyone else.  An organization could have decided that keeping this man around for an extra year was worth more than any succession planning they could have done.  As well, the organization could have decided that, even if it left them in a potential hole, extending this courtesy was the proper thing to do.  It would have said much about the character of the organization.

(Ironically, the man who ousted Holmgren, General Manager Tim Ruskell, always put an emphasis on "high character" players, often to the team's detriment.)

Second, they could have consulted with Holmgren when planning.  The Seahawks Quarterbacks coach, Jim Zorn, seemed like a potential head coach to groom.  Not only was he good at his job, but he was one of the first stars of the organization after their inception in 1976 (he was their first ever starting Quarterback).  In fact, in 2008 Zorn was tapped as head coach for the Washington Redskins.  Granted, it didn't work out too well, but that's probably more about the Redskins than Zorn.  As well, Zorn may have been better suited for a head coaching job had he been given more mentoring by a potential Hall of Fame coach.

Beyond that, Homgren might have had some ideas of people outside the organization he would have liked to bring in as a replacement.  This could have been someone, unlike Mora, who had the same philosophy regarding systems and personnel as Holmgren, thus easing the eventual transition.
Third, they could have done succession planning in secret.  No, I'm not suggesting some deceptive covert operation; I just mean they could have started to investigate potential coaches they would have liked to hire without making any pronouncements.  This could have been an on-going initiative that was regularly re-visited.  Lists could have been revised as new information about aptitudes and availability came up.

Finally, they could have fired Holmgren.  This seems rather harsh, and quite rude, but it would have been a lot more straightforward than the path they eventually took.  In the end, it is a business, and if they truly felt that the future of the team lay with Jim Mora and not Mike Holmgren, it would have made sense to just turn the team over to Mora.  It would have been similar to what happened to Brett Favre in Green Bay.  The Packers had planned for his retirement (that still hasn't really happened), so they just parted ways with him.  His replacement, Aaron Rodgers, went to the Pro Bowl.  Yes, this sort of manoeuvre would have seemed unfair to Holmgren (and, arguably, it would have been), but it is, essentially, what they did; only they made it play out over two years.

Of course, maybe the question isn't what they could have done, but what they shouldn't have done.  They shouldn't have made a hiring decision for 2009 back in 2007.  They shouldn't have ignored the fact that the aspect of the team that Mora coached in 2007 and 2008 (the defensive backs) severely declined during his tenure underneath Holmgren.  They shouldn't have ignored Mora's intention to hire his friend, Greg Knapp, as Offensive Co-ordinator after Knapp had a fairly poor run as Oakland's Offensive Co-ordinator.  They shouldn't have decided to force the team's greatest coach out in order to bring in someone who'd recently flopped as Atlanta's head coach.

In the end, it seems that team’s management suffered from their infatuation with Mora, and it was quite understandable that they were initially infatuated with him.  He’d had some success as an NFL coach.  He was young; he was outgoing; and he was a hometown kid.  It was exactly the sort of story you’d want to see.  Unfortunately, this infatuation seems to have eliminated any critical thinking on the matter, and consequently, a team that played in the Super Bowl in February 2006 had become one of the worst teams in the NFL less than four years later.

This decline not only claimed Mora’s job; it claimed the job of the man who hired him, Tim Ruskell.  There are fewer lessons that are as clear about the necessity of proper succession planning as that of the 2009 Seattle Seahawks and Jim Mora, Jr.

1 comment: