CEOs and Coaches: How Important is Organizational 'Fit?'

How big a factor is matching the right coach with the right team? As the Super Bowl approaches, Boris Groysberg and Abhijit Naik discuss football-related research that also has implications for the world of corporate hiring.
by Boris Groysberg & Abhijit Naik

“It’s a match made in heaven!”

One hears this said at weddings, at the end of mergers, at the hiring of CEOs, and, of course, at the hiring of coaches in the National Football League. Human history is rife with examples of a union of two entities being described thus, in the language, perhaps, of misguided optimism.

In truth, it is deceptively difficult to predict ex-ante the success of any union. We’re reminded of this as the Super Bowl approaches: when it comes to predicting the success of a football coach, short memories, hope, and impatience rule the day.

"Research has shown, quantitatively, that it definitely matters which coach is matched up with which team"

The question of whether matching matters takes on critical significance in the corporate world as well. Choosing talented employees makes a great difference to team productivity, but is merely hiring star candidates enough? Do companies often try to fit square pegs in round holes when they hire exceptional managers? Does finding a “good fit” matter and does a “good fit” create value for a team or a company?

Research has shown, quantitatively, that yes, it definitely matters which coach is matched up with which team. And these findings hold value in the world of corporate hiring, as well.

In 1996, Jeff Borland and Jeanette Ngaire Lye studied data on Australian football coaches to investigate whether a good match plays a role in a coach’s mobility and success. To do so, they studied the period between 1931 and 1994, within the Australian Football League and its precursor, the Victorian Football League. (See Matching and Mobility in the Market for Australian Rules Football Coaches by Jeff Borland and Jenny Lye, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, October 1996)

Australian football is a perfect laboratory to study coach-team matching effects. Clear-cut measures of team performance and precise employment records are publicly available, and the set of teams vying for coaches’ services is comparatively small. Controlling for coach and player quality as well as other important factors, Borland and Lye found that coach-team matches do indeed affect team performance. In other words, a winning record was dependent on the degree of match between coach and team.

The research provided two important takeaways, which we can see reflected far beyond Aussie Rules Football—in the NFL, for example, but also in the world of corporate hiring.

First, Borland and Lye found that a coach’s years of experience might be not as powerful of a factor as people might think in explaining a team’s winning percentage. This finding implies that experience, defined purely in terms of duration, sometimes might be overrated when it comes to choosing coaches—and perhaps while choosing top managers as well.

A successful coach-team or employee-employer match can be found even when the coach/employee is inexperienced. There are several such examples among coaches in the NFL, such as Sean Payton, who received his first head coaching job in 2006 with the New Orleans Saints, and won the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year award that year; Chuck Noll, who took his first head coach job with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969 and coached the team to victory in four Super Bowls; and Bill Walsh, who went straight from coaching college football at Stanford to coaching the San Francisco 49ers and led them to three Super Bowl victories. In the corporate world, the implication is that hiring an experienced manager or a former CEO might not necessarily translate into improved performance.

Second, coach-team matches are important in explaining team success. Even the best teams need the right coach to translate their performance into organizational success. What is less well known is that even the best coaches need to be in the right environment to fully leverage their abilities into organizational success.

Similarly, in the corporate world, talented managers need the right firm environment, the right organizational culture, and the organizational support and time to implement their program in order to succeed.

Right person, right time, right place

The adage of “the right person at the right time” should be modified to “the right person at the right time in the right place.”

It is really hard to know what a good match is or who the right person is in advance. Otherwise, there would be no divorces or painful separations. In many cases, it is only ex post facto that one can ascertain the value of a good match.

Consider the case of Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles. At the start of the 2015 season, team owner Jeffrey Lurie praised Kelly; according to a December 31 article by Philadelphia Daily News sports reporter Les Bowen, Lurie called Kelly "a builder of a roster, culture builder. He's everything that I think we all thought when we interviewed him and more."

As Bowen noted, Kelly has often mentioned his philosophy is "culture beats scheme." Mentioning this during the press conference announcing the firing of Kelly last month, Lurie said, "Sometimes there's a culture within an organization with players that create a momentum and create energy and create a fluidity. We never achieved that. It was too inconsistent."(See “Jeffrey Lurie Wasn’t Wowed by Chip Kelly After All” by Les Bowen.)

It was quite clear in just three years that this union was not the “match made in heaven” that Lurie initially thought. In words of Lurie, the team was “looking for somebody who interacts very well and communicates clearly with everybody he works with and comes in touch with. Understands the passion of our fans and what it's like to coach the Philadelphia Eagles. It's a unique and incredibly passionate fan base that just wants to win, and you've got to incorporate that in your life and your heart . . . You've got to open your heart to players and everybody you want to achieve peak performance."

Lurie believes that he found the person who fits this description; on January 18, the Eagles announced Doug Pederson has been hired to replace Kelly. It was also recently announced that Kelly would be the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, barely a fortnight after he was fired by the Eagles.

In their paper, Borland and Lye concluded that “one implication is that two teams might both significantly improve their performance by switching coaches, depending on the specific team and coach characteristics.” Is it possible that both Philadelphia and San Francisco are better off? A total of seven coaches were fired in the NFL this year. All vacancies have been filled in less than a month. How many of these hires are good fits?

We know that fit matters. Still, the question remains, how does one know if one is a good fit with one’s employer? Are Ron Rivera, head coach of the Carolina Panthers, and Gary Kubiak, who leads the Denver Broncos, good fits with their clubs? One sees time and time again that processes used to determine a good fit are deemed successful after the fact—a classic case of survival bias.

So how can we tell if one is a good fit? And what are the dimensions of this fit? Does the manager-firm fit really matter? Finally, do we give enough time to managers to prove their worth and reveal whether they are a good/bad fit in the twenty-first century? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. We would be interested in our readers’ perspectives.

Other Stories In This Series

NFL Black Monday: How Much Do Coaches Really Matter?
Is it Worth a Pay Cut to Work for a Great Manager (Like Bill Belichick)?

Boris Groysberg is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the coauthor, with Michael Slind, of Talk Inc. (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). His work examines how a firm can be systematic in achieving a sustainable competitive advantage by leveraging the talent in all levels of the organization. Follow him on Twitter @bgroysberg. Abhijit Naik is an independent researcher.

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