by Mark Settle

What job security lessons can CIOs learn from the NFL?

Aug 14, 2018
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

The on-the-job management challenges confronting CIOs and NFL coaches are very similar. Their average job tenures are similar as well. CIOs seeking to improve their personal job security might be well-advised to spend a little more time listening to ESPN during the upcoming NFL season and asking themselves if they’re committing any of the same mistakes plaguing the leaders of chronically underperforming NFL teams.

football on tv
Credit: Brad Calkins/Thinkstock

The New York Giants, Oakland Raiders, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals are all beginning the 2018-2019 NFL season with new coaches. These changes are not unusual. Similar changes have occurred over the past several years. On average, roughly one-quarter of the coaches in the National Football League (NFL) are replaced every season. 

A Business Insider analysis conducted during the midpoint of the 2016-2017 season determined that the average job tenure of NFL coaches was 4.3 years. Coincidentally, Korn Ferry – the esteemed executive recruiting firm – conducted a tenure study for CIOs last year. They determined that the average job tenure of a CIO was 4.3 years, exactly the same as an NFL coach!

There are many reasons why NFL coaches and CIOs leave their positions but on-the-job performance is clearly a major, if not the driving factor in many such moves. At least CIOs are afforded some measure of corporate courtesy in the way their departures are publicly announced. Announcements that typically accompany the departure of a CIO allude to their desires to “pursue other interests” or “spend more time with their families.” Both are laudable sentiments but usually untrue. In most instances the CIO has been politely invited to leave.

In contrast, the reasons surrounding the departures of NFL coaches are publicly dissected in excruciating, repetitive detail by TV commentators, radio show hosts, podcast authors and tweeting fans.  CIOs can at least take some solace in the fact that they’re not subjected to a public review of their on-the-job performance before and after their departures.

In light of the equality between the job tenure of NFL coaches and CIOs, it’s logical to ask if CIOs could improve their own job security by paying a little more attention to the factors that lead to the departure of an NFL coach.

Why do NFL coaches get fired?

The simple answer is because they don’t win enough games. But the real question is why can’t they achieve winning records and why can’t they get their teams to the playoffs? You don’t have to go much further than sports talk radio to identify some of the primary reasons.

Failure to recruit, develop and manage talent

If you think we have talent wars in IT, just think about the NFL! In theory, coaches should work closely with their team’s General Manager (GM) in identifying and resolving their talent needs. In reality, they don’t get to make final talent decisions because they don’t control the team’s payroll. They’re forced to accept the talent they’re given and improve it through instruction, practice and gameday experience. 

Failure to innovate and react to change

Major league football is a very sophisticated sport. Customized nutrition and strength training programs are developed for individual players. Playbooks are constantly being revised and updated to catch opponents off guard. Video analytics are used to dissect player tendencies and improve the effectiveness of a player’s stance, hand movements, footwork, head movement, etc. Strategic innovation occurs at the beginning of every season as the coaching team updates their team’s playbook. Tactical innovation is equally important in scripting plays for individual games. Sticking with one set of plays and players throughout a season is usually a prescription for disaster.

Failure to intervene when things start going wrong

NFL coaches are frequently compared to the CEOs of large complex organizations. They rely on key members of their management team – their offensive and defensive coordinators and their skill coaches – to be successful. In most instances, they discipline themselves to avoid micromanagement of day-to-day details. That’s all well and good until you realize there’re only 16 games in an NFL season. You can’t wait until the middle of the season to start making changes if on-the-field performance issues are becoming glaringly obvious.

Failure to develop effective relationships with business leaders

In reality, NFL coaches are not CEOs. The team’s owner is the CEO. The GM is the team’s CFO or COO. The pages of sports history are replete with examples of situations in which a coach never established effective working relationships with a team’s owner or GM. (Remember Al Davis?) Even in situations where a team wins consistently year-over-year, an owner will use the excuse of not winning a Division title or a Super Bowl ring for getting rid of a coach he just doesn’t like or trust.

Lessons for a CIO

Does any of the above sound vaguely familiar?!?! The job tenure of most CIOs is a direct outcome of the same factors discussed above. CIOs may get to inject some ‘new blood’ into their organizations but they largely inherit the members of their team. Skill development in all the critical aspects of IT’s “game” – applications, infrastructure, data warehousing and program management – is essential for long term success. 

The ability to innovate is critical as well. Not just to bring in new technology but to improve IT’s internal work practices, assist business partners in re-engineering critical business processes and continually enhancing the reliability and responsiveness of the overall IT organization. 

CIOs need to distance themselves from the routine operations of their teams. Quite frankly, they typically lack the technical knowledge or bandwidth to become involved in specific projects or activities.  However, a seasoned CIO has an acute ability to sense incipient performance issues and should be able to ask the penetrating questions that will galvanize actions by others. Their mere attention to an area of substandard performance will trigger action.

Finally, all CIOs know that they serve at the pleasure of their CEOs and that the CEO is typically influenced by a small inner circle of key associates. Failure to develop relationships with the CEO and his confidants is highly dangerous.

Career counseling suggestion

The coaches of the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all had losing records last season. Although their contracts were extended or maintained for the upcoming 2018-2019 season they’re probably living on borrowed time.  CIOs seeking ways of extending their own job security might be well-advised to spend a little more time listening to ESPN during the next few months and ask themselves if they’re committing any of the same mistakes plaguing the leaders of these losing NFL teams; and, if so, what corrective actions they need to take to beat the 4.3 year average!