The Parallel between CEO's and football Quarterbacks: An evolutionary model comparing "Field Generals" to "Boardroom Generals"
Because I received significant feedback and interest relative to the post "The Stage-Driven Burden of Corporate Leadership", I decided to further explore the topic to see what additonal debate or illumination can be acheved. Accordingly, I chose to explore a metaphor between the rigors and requirements of beign a CEO in a high tech company at various stages of growth, and the requirements necessary to play what has been called "the most critical position in American sport", Quarterback in football.
The metaphor hardly takes distinctive insight or genius to arrive at....because no position in the high tech enterprise is more vital, with more tactical and strategic leverage, than that of the CEO position. Put an individual who is both highly capable as well as well-matched to the stage the company is going through, and great outcomes can result. Alternatively, fail to land a leader who is both skilled AND well-matched to the growth stage of the company, and sub-optimal performance usually awaits.
Let's start with the metaphor, using some fairly non-controversial metrics of performance, by level of competition, for football, and then we can return to examine the parallels to corporate CEO's in the high tech firm arena.
The following might be a good "high level" comparison of what is expected, by development stage/level, of a football quarterback in order to be successful:
High School QB Metrics:
High School Run/Pass ratio: 70% run, 30% pass
Playbook scope: 50 plays
Offensive formations typical: 5-8
Useful typical passing range: Up to 30 yards
Reading defense priority: relatively low
Number of maximum "reads" expected during a pass play : 2
College QB Metrics:
NCAA Run/Pass ratio: 60% run, 40% pass
Playbook scope: 80 plays
Offensive formations typical: 8-12
Useful typical passing range: Up to 45 yards
Reading defense priority: pretty important
Number of max "reads" expected during a pass play: 2-3
NFL Pro QB Metrics:
NFL Run/Pass ratio: 40% run, 60% pass
Playbook scope: 120 plays
Offensive formations typical: 15-20
Useful typical passing range: Up to 60 yards
Reading defense priority: absolutely vital
Number of max "reads" expected per pass play: 3-4
So, given the above metrics, is it any surprise that different skill sets are needed to play quarterback at each evolutionary level of football ? Not only would one be foolish to put a high school QB with limitted arm strength and defense reading capability into an NFL offense, but think about putting Tom Brady or Peyton Manning into a "Run-Option" offense that a lot of highschool QB's run - they would be horrific in that offense, as mobility and durability running the football just aren't in their skill set.
Moreover, some of the most successful quarterbacks in NCAA history have gone on to be complete failures at the NFL level, due to the changing nature of the job description - Heisman Trophy, and National Championship, winner Tim Tebow and former National Championship quarterback Vince Young being just the most recent examples of this all-too-familiar faillure to succeed at the next level. Quite simply, it takes largely different skill sets and attributes to be successful at the quarterback position at these different levels, and failing to accomodate that is a pathway to team failure.
Now, let's complete the metaphor by looking at the requirements and talents needed to be a CEO for each of the high-level stages of corporate growth:
Start-up Company CEO:
Functional Worker - must be able to individually contribute in functional role
Vision/Novel Idea a "must" - the seed of innovation starts with him
Ability to pitch/sway Investors - 90% of start-ups are "Angel" funded - must sell well to Angels
Creates corporate culture - establishes/models what company's culture will be
Regulatory expertise - minimal required
Large scale operations knowledge - mimimal required
Management "best practices" - some basic knowledge, but no extensive need
"Commercial Ramp" Phase CEO:
Functional Worker - must be able to dive in periodically, but delegation a "must"
Vision/Novel Idea a "must" - updated corporate vision required, but not seed idea
Ability to pitch Investors - Must be able to pitch and sway sophisticated Venture Capitalists
Creates corporate culture - develops and refines original corporate culture
Regulatory expertise - must begin to position company for regulatory compliance
Large scale operations knowledge - some large scale Ops knowledge useful
Management "best practices" - MUST migrate firm to "best functional practices"
Sizeable Public Company CEO:
Functional Worker - virtually zero requirement - must DELEGATE and MANAGE through others
Vision/Novel Idea a "must" - no seed of innovation necessary....just know how to drive growth
Ability to pitch Investors - Now required to be able to talk to "The Street" and position company
Creates corporate culture - drives evolutions and refinements of original culture
Regulatory expertise - must be a virtual expert to stay within compliance of all regs as public co. CEO
Large scale operations knowledge - large scale operations knowledge a must....efficient scaling required
Management "best practices" - MUST be an expert in "best functional practices" with continual evolution
Therefore, similar to the wildly changing requirements of playing quarterback at the different levels drive completely different skill sets to be successful, so do the different stages of corporate growth....yet it is all too rare that Founders (and their Boards, who often lack a significant "independent" constituency) come to this realization on their own. We have all heard the paradigm: "If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail...", and while that may be an oversimplification, the fact remains that the dramatically contrasting skill sets required to lead high tech companies at different stages creates a "superset" of skills and talents required that only a few can legitimately claim. The "toolbox" of the CEO attempting to bring a start-up firm through all three stages must contain many implements, in order to be successful as the demands of the leadership mantle evolve, and a Board that fails to anticipate those stark challenges is, in many ways, similar to a professional NFL head coach entrusting his "pro style" passing offense to a rookie quarterback with a "run first" offensive pedigree. Short of dramatic and wholesale changes and skills development, the chances of success are remote.....at least compared with the options utilizing a "matched" skill-set quarterback to lead the offensive unit.