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The Best Bosses Are Experts in Your Field, Not Experts at Handling Your Personality

The prevailing wisdom in professional sports is that the best players often make for the worst coaches.

There’s probably no better example of this than the divergent, post-playing careers of Steve Kerr and Michael Jordan. Kerr and Jordan were teammates on the 1990s Chicago Bulls teams that won six NBA championships in eight seasons. Kerr was a role player on three of those championship squads, his primary contribution being an off-the-bench sharpshooter who’d post up for some catch-and-shoot three-pointers and provide enough spacing for MJ to do his thing. Jordan, meanwhile, was the greatest player who ever lived. (In fact, Kerr’s playing career mostly exists as a footnote to Jordan’s legacy: Jordan infamously punched Kerr during an in-practice scrimmage that got a little chippy, and sports fans always point to this as proof of Jordan’s unparalleled competitiveness.)

That said, Kerr and Jordan have been on opposite trajectories since their playing days ended. Kerr is the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, where he’s on track to lead the team to their third NBA championship in four years. He won Coach of the Year for the 2015–2016 season, and he’s well-regarded as a “player’s coach,” who masterfully manages his team’s many egos. Jordan, meanwhile, is believed to be a terrible NBA executive. Many blame him for ruining Kwame Brown’s career with his non-stop belittling, and he has an equally spotty record making personnel decisions as the current owner of his hometown Charlotte Hornets.

Case closed, right?

Not quite, according to Amanda Goodall, professor of management at the Cass Business School in London. Goodall’s research finds that the opposite is actually true (no matter how good Kerr might be as a coach and how shitty Jordan might be as an executive): The best NBA players make for the best coaches. It’s an idea that extends to an array of other industries, too. Contrary to what management-consultant firms such as McKinsey and Deloitte would have you believe, the best bosses aren’t generalists, but ones who have a depth of technical expertise in their given field.

As a lifelong sports fan who has internalized certain ideas as unassailable truths over the years — e.g., great players can’t make for good coaches — I was dubious of this research. Like another drone at McKinsey, I’m also guilty of thinking technical experts make for bad people mangers, for reasons I can’t really discern. So to challenge Goodall on these points and get more clarity about her work overall, I spoke with her by phone earlier this week. I can tell you that she’s very certain of two things: 1) Expertise is more important than “management skills”; and 2) the cottage industry around executive coaching is mostly a racket.

The rest of our conversation is below.

I was intrigued by your findings, as they ran counter to all my assumptions about the relationship between expertise and management skill — specifically, I’ve always been taught experts make for bad managers.
Most leadership advice is just male CEOs telling their anecdotal stories. Blah, blah, blah. There are entire industries around this advice — leadership training, leadership publishing, etc. And almost none of it is evidence-based.

What I tried to do was look at longitudinal evidence to see if I could find a pattern. My fellow researchers and I first looked at research universities and tried to answer a simple question: Who should run them — good managers or good scholars? And we found the best scholars lead the best universities. We were able to replicate those results in other industries as well. The core business knowledge of the head of an organization is fundamentally linked to organizational performance.

But why, then, does this (apparently false) prevailing wisdom exist?
Because management is still a relatively new idea in the span of human history. Decades ago, most businesses were family-owned. It’s only been in the past 60 or so years that businesses became the large, multinational corporations they are now. With that, came the role of management. From that, came business schools, MBAs and the emergence of the managerial class, who didn’t necessarily work in the industries where they got manager jobs. That’s how we got to where we are today.

There was a time, though, that when anyone was an internal hire, it was the norm that you had to understand the core business to move up. You didn’t have people who moved around from one industry to the next.

Your research sounds like bad news for the Big Four consulting firms.
Just look at who’s running those companies. The CEOs at the Deloittes and McKinseys are people who have been at their companies for their whole lives.

What then is the advantage of having a boss who’s a technical expert?When we looked at data from people in all different kinds of jobs and with all different kinds of backgrounds, we found employee satisfaction was much higher and the intent to quit was much lower if you felt your boss could do your job — if the boss had moved their way up within the organization, for example, and the employees considered their boss competent.

But does that necessarily mean they’re also good managers of people?
We’re doing research into this currently with academics and doctors reporting on their bosses. Interestingly enough, all of them report they communicate better with an expert boss, the morale is better and their performance assessments are more accurate. So yes, expertise does seem to make a better manager.

I understand this in the context of the business world. Having a competent boss who understands your job on a personal level seems great. But you also say the best basketball players make for the best coaches, and knowing what I do about professional sports, I have a harder time believing that.
In basketball, it was very much the best, best basketball players who were successful as coaches.

What league did you study?
The NBA, and we looked at the results of 15,000 games. And we found that basketball teams led by players with long careers and who were All-Stars did considerably better than ones coached by people who never played.

I suppose that explains our different perspectives. A multi-year All-Star is definitely a great basketball player, but not necessarily the Hall of Fame caliber talent I thought you were referencing.
Sure. The main thing I’d say to that is we shouldn’t fixate too closely on any one industry. Instead, we should look at the patterns found across industries. Because my research shows that if you really want your company to get to the top, you want someone leading it who really is the best in that core business capacity. For instance, the CEO of Mercedes-Benz, one of the most successful car companies in the world, is an engineer who has worked with the company for decades.