What CEOs Can Learn From Sports Coaches About Accepting Blame For Failure

Lucas Uebel/Gremio FBPA

At last month’s World Cup, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari accepted responsibility for Brazil’s historic defeat.

“The catastrophic result will be shared with the whole group,” he said, “but the choice, who decided the tactical line-up, the way to play? I did. So the person responsible is me.”

It was clear, direct and brutal. More importantly it was the truth.

At the same time as World Cup coaches were feeling the heat for their teams’ failure, the collective voice of Australian Retail Sector CEOs were highlighting wet weather, warm weather, consumer nervousness and the federal budget for poor performance.

Why is it that when sports coaches are asked to explain performance, their instinct is to focus internally on their teams, even themselves, yet when CEOs explain corporate performance it is almost always an external reason.

Suncorp: “Changes in the industry are not proceeding fast enough and it is continuing to impact our earnings.”

Super Retail Group: “The Federal Budget.”

Toyota Australia: “There were too many external factors beyond our control.”

IGA: “Tough market conditions.”

By contrast at the World Cup in July, Italy’s coach Cesare Prandelli honourably fell on his sword following his teams’ failure: “I talked to the President of the Federation and gave my resignation… the technical set up didn’t work, and I take full responsibility for that.”

Clearly the environments are different but it doesn’t change the fact that both CEOs and coaches are talking about performance. Both are trying to get their respective groups to perform at their best and you would think at least somewhere along the line CEOs would reflect on how well, or poorly, their teams have performed.

The most basic psychological principle of peak performance is to look internally, not externally for excuses. The weather, the market, consumer attitudes and Federal Budgets have always been there. They are in many ways just part of the game. Surely what’s more important is how your company is playing the game.

The CEO’s job is a tough one. Keeping customers, shareholders, employees and the ever-changing market happy all at the same time is incredibly demanding and why they get paid the big bucks. Why is it though that they rarely comment on their own performance and the performance of their teams?

Perhaps they are worried about giving up their strategy to competitors or impacting shareholder confidence. Or maybe they are just protecting their own backsides.

Unfortunately those close to that elite group of CEOs think it is predominantly the latter. The maintenance of their position and power and an overwhelming need to manage their careers prevents any public discussion on their own performance.

It’s a cynical view and the obvious question is, why don’t coaches do the same thing? The problem for coaches is they can’t.

Aside from an occasional and standard blaming of the referee when things don’t go well, coaches are forced to focus almost completely internally on the team’s performance.

The reason? Visibility.

Although both CEOs and coaches have to face the brutal truth of the scoreboard and the share price or balance sheet, coaches are not given the luxury of avoiding the performance of the team, because the game is available for everyone to see.

By contrast company performance is not on public display.

Visibility of performance in any field of endeavour is the great leveller, the brutal truth behind the result. The more visible and transparent the performance, the higher the levels of accountability. There is literally nowhere to hide. Perhaps not surprisingly it is usually organisations with high levels of accountability that execute well and consistently deliver on objectives.

CEOs are aware of this. Behind office walls they are applying the blowtorch to every part of their organisation to get a clear picture of how their executives and their teams are performing. They demand transparency.

So why not take the next step? Why not share a little of their insights with their shareholders and the market. It’s not like it hasn’t been done before. Warren Buffet in his annual report to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders last year showed it with a little humility and insight into his own performance:

“Fortunately, my blunders usually involved relatively small acquisitions. Our large buys have generally worked out well and, in a few cases, more than well. I have not, however, made my last mistake in purchasing either businesses or stocks. Not everything works out as planned.”

It’s not Scolari but you get the idea.

CEOs also have much to gain from a little more straight talking. Shareholders would certainly welcome the honest insight. The media would get something a little juicier, rather than well-crafted messages that deflect responsibility and CEOs themselves might look a little more like corporate leaders and a little less like politicians.

What we should not accept is CEOs escaping the scrutiny of their performance. They should not be allowed to stage manage their image so well that they can remain relatively unscathed regardless of how the company actually performs.

The Brazilian coach showed no such self-preservation in his brutally honest post match news conference: “If I were to think of my life as a footballer, as a coach, as a physical education teacher, I think it was the worst day of my life.”

“I’m going to be remembered probably because I lost 7-1, the worst defeat in Brazil’s history, but that was a risk I knew I was running when I walked into this position.”

Scolari had already won the World Cup for Brazil in 2002.

At least in sport, I guess you are only as good as your last game.

Mark Bragg is a former NBL basketball coach, who along with Martin West, is the co-founder of XGAP, a management consultancy that helps businesses execute on company goals and strategic plans. XGAP’s simple methodology has helped clients including CEOs of some of the world’s biggest companies to start-ups, small business owners and sales team managers develop a discipline to close the gap between the plan and their actual performance. A key element of their execution discipline is getting complete visibility on performance at all levels of a company.

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