On the Hunt for Greatness
The NFL firing season is already underway—two head coaches, two offensive coordinators, one GM and one team president have already been let go—which means the NFL hiring season will soon be upon us. A major player in that process each year is Jed Hughes, an executive headhunter with Korn Ferry who has consulted with NFL teams and major college athletics programs on hires including Seattle GM John Schneider, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. Hughes, a former football coach who served under five Hall of Fame coaches, has a unique perspective on what teams are looking for in their next leaders. He recently wrote a report, “Great GMs are made, not born,” about the attributes needed for success in perhaps the toughest job in all of sports. The MMQB asked Hughes to take us inside the search process and demystify the role of a headhunter.
VRENTAS: You’ve worked in the executive search field for almost two decades?
HUGHES: Yes. I worked at Spencer Stuart before I came to Korn Ferry. I started in the executive search field in ’97. My first search was working with Jerry Jones. He had to make a decision whether to hire Terry Donahue or Chan Gailey [as the Cowboys’ head coach], and he went with Chan Gailey. I remember getting a call at 2 o’clock in the morning when Jerry was trying to make his decision. My wife was wondering, who would be calling at this hour? And it was Jerry. We were talking through the pluses and minuses of the two candidates. I think up until his current coach, he felt he might have made a mistake in letting Chan Gailey go, because there was a little bit of a rift between Chan and Troy Aikman. I can’t speak for Jerry, but I think he really believed in his quarterback and wanted a coach that the quarterback really liked. That gets into alignment. Everything starts with alignment.
VRENTAS: Was that around the time when it became more common for teams to use headhunters?
HUGHES: No, I think it’s hit and miss. Now many teams use former GMs to help them consult. There are different models and ways that teams use to access people.
VRENTAS: What made you want to get involved in this line of work?
HUGHES: It’s no different from coaching, to put a person in an organization in the best position to be successful. So whether I am a defensive coordinator calling a defense or helping Dan Quinn make a decision on the Falcons for what is best for their organization, it’s about counseling, it’s about guidance, it’s about trust and building a relationship.
VRENTAS: What did you learn about what makes a successful leader from working as an assistant under coaches such as Bo Schembechler and Chuck Noll?
HUGHES: First of all, none of the guys I worked with did it the same way. The one thing they were able to do is get the attention of their team and build a culture that was consistent with their personality. John Ralston at Stanford, we won two Rose Bowls with him. He was a very positive person. Every day was the best day of your life, and tomorrow was going to be even better. And then Bo Schembechler at Michigan clearly was based on emotion and teaching and fundamentals, and playing really hard. Terry Donahue was really good at managing the media. Bud Grant had an instinct as it’s related to using the environment to his advantage. Whether it was outdoors, in no shirts, no gloves for the players, and no heaters; or indoors, where you had a lot of noise and you were trying to do things that you could take advantage of to affect the other team. He was very much a gut-type of person. And then in Chuck Noll, you had a tremendous, really bright, very technique-focused coach; he could coach your position better than you could. He had a very broad knowledge of the game, was able to teach the game and he was a tremendous teacher. He also was probably the most of a Renaissance Man. Every summer he would go away and learn something. It might be learning how to fly a plane or something about wine or something about cooking or something about boats. So every summer we would come back and the question would be, what are we going to learn about this year? He was very good at being able to tell those stories. I would not trade those experiences and the teams and the coaches I had an opportunity to work with.
VRENTAS: Walk me through your role when a team hires you to assist in a search.
HUGHES: It varies depending on the assignment. But initially, it is to gain alignment on what the organization is looking for. And then once you gain the alignment, then you begin to look for potential candidates who would fit. Then depending on if you are in the NFL, and you have rules as to when you can interview people and you have to seek permission, you begin the interviewing and assessment phase. In the NFL, you have tight time deadlines, especially if you are in the playoffs. I was involved in hiring Dan Quinn and we had to wait until the Super Bowl was over to be able to hire him, so there is a little bit of risk there. That’s an ownership decision. That’s one that the owner has got to be patient in believing that there is a good opportunity it’s going to happen; that they are going to be able to get that person.
Almost all the teams that have won championships in the major professional sports leagues in the last five years have done it with a first-time GM.
VRENTAS: You wrote a report about developing and finding successful general managers. Why is that so difficult?
HUGHES: Everybody talks about coaches, but no one has ever really tried to understand where the general manager comes in, how they are developed and how you create this climate that allows for a team to be successful or to fail. If you look at Seattle, GM John Schneider and Pete Carroll have created great alignment there for the last couple years. Schneider is starting an initiative for a GM seminar, because coaching seminars exist all the time, but there aren’t GM seminars.
The one thing the NFL hasn’t done that baseball and basketball have done, they haven’t gone after those young, really smart people and transitioned them in. Football people are pretty insular; they develop football people. In the NFL people don’t move that much in an organization, they don’t move from one organization to another. I think that’s because the demand on winning is so important, you are trying to figure out who the next player is, as opposed to developing people. It depends on who the GM is or the head of football operations to help develop people and give them more responsibilities. That’s what John Schneider is talking about. That’s what the Ron Wolfs and the George Youngs of the past used to do. [Chiefs GM] John Dorsey and John Schneider are both products of Ron Wolf. They got to see firsthand how everything is done because Ron exposed them to that. Ted Thompson, who took over for Ron in Green Bay, approaches it the same way. Schneider and Dorsey, and Reggie McKenzie, GM for the Raiders, all three of them came out of Green Bay. That goes back to a successful organization that had mentors that gave them opportunities and they took advantage of those opportunities.
VRENTAS: What are the important factors for a GM to succeed?
HUGHES: We looked at the teams that have won championships in the major professional sports leagues in the last five years, and almost all of them have done it with a first-time GM, which is pretty incredible. Only two didn’t. That’s very revealing. Also, who is in place first, the GM or the coach? If you look at the Spurs, Gregg Popovich was in charge before RC Buford was named GM; Pat Riley was in charge [in Miami] before Erik Spoelstra was named head coach. So, usually it’s the GM, but in some cases, the head coach runs the show as it’s done with the Patriots and Bill Belichick.
The other thing is stability. Look what has happened with the Mets. The Mets hired Sandy Alderson, he hired the coach, Fred [Wilpon] has supported him and they’ve been able to build a team that is now competitive. You had alignment, you had stability, people bought into the philosophy and Sandy is one of the truly great leaders as it relates to collaboration and bringing people into meetings and having lunch bucket kinds of meetings. Most organizations are not built on developing people within their organizations. They are built to try to win immediately.
VRENTAS: Why do you think GMs rarely get a second chance in the NFL? According to your report, only two of the 32 GMs this season were recycled, the fewest number of any of the major pro sports leagues.
HUGHES: I think it’s the history. Unlike coaches, for the GM it’s tough. When you are a head coach and you get fired, you can become a coordinator or a bench coach. When you are the GM and you get fired, what role do you go to? How do you rebuild your career? It’s tough to rebuild. Look, the Dolphins took Mike Tannenbaum after he was let go with the Jets, and they signed Ndamukong Suh for a lot of money and now the coach is gone and they’ve been through four head coaches in a short period of time. Lack of alignment.
The ones that teams have brought back in haven’t done well. I think it’s obvious that when you do that, they struggle and as a result, the NFL tries to follow a model that is successful, not one that is not successful. The successful GM is a different story. Now with Bill Polian, who was successful, he moved into three different jobs, that’s not a recycled GM, that’s a GM who has chosen to move because his contract ran out. That’s different from someone who has been let go and rehired.
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VRENTAS: It seems like the current trend in NFL is GMs with a scouting pedigree. Do you think that will continue to be en vogue for the next few years?
HUGHES: Those who come up the salary cap route—Saints GM Mickey Loomis is one that has come up that way, and he was promoted internally. I think that the fact that John Idzik took sort of that background into the Jets and would appear to have failed, people are going to look more toward the people who are stronger talent evaluators. Because in the end, when you are investing in free agents, trades or draft picks, you have to be able to figure out, who are the ones who can do it? I think where Seattle was really successful is early on they brought a lot of players through the organization and developed the type of player they wanted. You have to understand what kind of player you want in your organization, in terms of their work ethic, attitude, their ego. All of those things have to be part of the blueprint.
It depends on the organization and who is available and who is really good at that. That’s easy to say externally, but when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of how these decisions are made, it’s that alignment piece—who is controlling the roster, who is reporting to the owner, who is reporting to the GM. I think this year, over half the teams, the GM and the head coach are both reporting to the owner. If you say, what’s the one trend that is really occurring more, that’s it: the GM and the head coach are both reporting to the owner.
Alignment is the reason organizations succeed or fail. When the owner, head coach and GM all see things the same way, that translates to the players—they see the consistency, and they buy in.
VRENTAS: What is a fair period of time to evaluate a GM’s success?
HUGHES: I think you need to give him three or four years. You need to see his draft choices come in and go through the system.
VRENTAS: You mentioned observing a “lack of alignment” in the Dolphins organization. How can that be fixed?
HUGHES: That’s a hard one. That’s up to their owner Stephen Ross in terms of what he thinks is necessary to make that organization successful. He’s obviously trying a lot of different combinations. He had one person there, Todd Bowles, who was his interim head coach, and he let Todd go. Owners have different ways they want to be involved in an organization. Some want to be very involved, and some allow the organization to run itself. It’s how do you get those three pieces aligned, how do you get the owner, the head coach and the GM all seeing things the same way and that translates to the players. Because the players see the consistency and feel the consistency and they buy in. Alignment is the reason organizations succeed or fail. We did two college [searches] this year, Michigan and Florida, and both of those two individuals looked [early in the season] like they could be up for coach of the year.
VRENTAS: Harbaugh came from a 49ers organization where there wasn’t alignment. Was that a risk?
HUGHES: No, he created alignment, and then it blew up. I would say this: Of all the people who have ever coached football, Harbaugh may go down as the best. I say that for these reasons: There is no one who has gone up the intercollegiate ladder, had success at the NFL and then come back to college and been successful. Bill Walsh and John Robinson were successful in college, Bill Walsh won Super Bowls and went back to Stanford and wasn’t that successful. John Robinson, same thing. But Harbaugh, first it was the University of San Diego; then he took Stanford, which hadn’t won in forever, to the Orange Bowl; and he took the 49ers, who hadn’t been the same since Walsh left, and took them to the Super Bowl; and then he’s got Michigan going. Nobody has ever been able to take a team at so many different levels and have that kind of success. Some have done it in college, some have done it in the NFL, but to work both sides, intercollegiate and pro and back again, it’s rare. He’s a tremendous leader. He knows the game, and he is a student of the game. He is passionate, he’s competitive and those ingredients he has, he instills in his team.
VRENTAS: When you advise a team on a hire, how invested are you in hoping they will succeed?
VRENTAS: Does it affect future business?
HUGHES: I think we’ve developed a process and a way we do things that people respect in all the different sports. We’re efficient, and they feel good about the outcome.
VRENTAS: Who are some of the best candidates for this upcoming hiring cycle?
HUGHES: I’d like to share that, but then people aren’t going to want to pay for our services.