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Short-Term Strategy: A Lesson from the University of Michigan

December 19, 2014

John Baldoni is an expert on leadership and has written many articles and books on the subject. In addition to being a well-known author, he is an Ann Arbor, Michigan, native and holds an MA from the University of Michigan. He sat down with AMA to discuss the recent developments at the top of the Michigan Wolverines’ athletic department.

AMA: John, thank you for sitting down with us. Recently, the University of Michigan’s athletic department has been put under the microscope with fans and alumni calling for change. What kind of strategy change did you feel was the best option here?

John Baldoni: When you are faced with a huge problem, sometimes a short-term solution might be the best option. Dr. Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan, did just this by asking James Hackett to be interim athletic director after the resignation of David Brandon, the previous AD.

AMA: For those who are unaware, can you please explain why David Brandon resigned?

JB: Brandon had been a lightning rod for criticism about the failure of the football program on the field and the negative publicity for the program off the field. Over 400 students gathered outside the president’s on-campus house shouting for Brandon’s removal. More than five thousand signed a petition requesting his dismissal. Hiring Hackett, the recently retired CEO of Steelcase, was a strong move to shore up morale amongst students, alumni, and fans, all of whom had become disenchanted with Brandon’s high-handed management style and emphasis on sports as a brand, not a tradition.

AMA: Usually an organization will avoid hiring a short-termer, but you say that in this instance it makes good sense. Why is that?

JB: Hiring an athletic director can be very time consuming. Former head coach Brady Hoke is gone as well, and that means the clock is running on selecting a new coach. Schlissel, who is a new hire himself and an M.D. and former provost at Brown University, is largely unfamiliar with major collegiate athletics. Hiring an experienced executive with strong Michigan ties (Hackett played football at Michigan and later became friends with former President Gerald Ford, also a football alum) was a necessary move to right this program quickly.

AMA: What can Michigan realistically ask of Hackett in his interim role?

JB: Hackett’s job will be to stabilize the athletic program, assess the football coaching staff, and likely make big changes. This will enable him and his team to move forward with selecting the next coach. Michigan traditionally has been regarded a destination location for coaches but, with Brandon at the athletic helm, few coaches of repute would want to work for him. Now that problem is removed.

AMA: How can we relate the recent developments at the University of Michigan to the business world? Are there any similarities or parallels to draw here?

JB: What is happening at Michigan has parallels to situations I have seen with startups. Often the people who have a blockbuster idea are not the ones who can turn it into a viable business. Such businesses need experienced executives at the helm. Many of the Silicon Valley startups from Apple to Google have hired professional managers to help run the show. Some, like Eric Schmidt at Google, did great jobs; others, like John Sculley at Apple, had mixed results.

In many instances with smaller companies, venture capitalists will hire a short-timer, one who may have an important title like CEO but is really a temp. Their task is to stabilize it, prove the concept, and then transition the enterprise to another executive who will manage it for the long run.

The idea of going short to set yourself up to go long is solid. In some instances, this may be the best option if you do not have the right person available to run the organization immediately. You need an interim person.

AMA: Are there any other implications in a short-term move that owners of any business can relate to?

JB: Such a move also does something else that applies to any business. It proclaims that you don’t roll the big dice for every move. Sometimes you can take your chances on smaller decisions with less risk in the short term and more upside in the long term.

This is what Michigan has done with its new athletic director and it’s a play that other organizations – big or small – can incorporate into their playbooks.

John Baldoni, leadership development chair at N2Growth, is an executive coach and the author of many books, including MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership. For more from John Baldoni, visit www.johnbaldoni.com.

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About The Author

John Baldoni, chair of leadership development at N2Growth, is an internationally recognized leadership educator, executive coach and speaks throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. John is the author of more than a dozen books, including MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership, Lead with Purpose, Lead Your Boss, and The Leader’s Pocket Guide. John’s books have been translated into 10 languages. In 2015 Trust Across America named him to its list of top 100 most trustworthy business experts for the second consecutive year. In 2014 Inc.com listed John as a Top 50 leadership expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Also in 2014, Global Gurus ranked John No. 11 on its list of global leadership experts. John has authored more than 500 leadership columns for a variety of online publications including Forbes, Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg Businessweek. John’s leadership resource website is www.johnbaldoni.com

2 Comments »

  1. avatar

    Just a dumb article. Do something in panic, then have a shill write a story about what a stroke of genius it is. UM’s athletic problems – especially football – are deep rooted and cultural. The needs to “have a Michigan man” and “send guys to the League” are roadblocks to moving forward.

    I hope Jim Harbaugh does well, but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. avatar

    Sounds like Michigan has a plan. This interview was before they hired Harbaugh. Looking forward to better results from the football program.

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