Running a corporate company like a sports team

Inspired by Kai Havertz’ two penalties (he missed the first one but redeemed himself on the second) today against Dortmund in the Champions League, here is a new jumbo mumbo piece. 

DRI (Direct Responsible Individual) is the default.

Havertz has been designated as the penalty kicker for Chelsea in this match. He is responsible for executing a penalty kick if he is on the field; no one else, including the captain or manager, will take the penalty. Havertz was likely selected as the penalty kicker based on his skill as the most capable penalty kicker on the team [1].

When a handball was ruled in Dortmund's penalty box, Havertz stepped up to take the penalty for Chelsea. Unfortunately, he hit the post on his first attempt. However, he was given another chance as some Dortmund players had entered the box too early. Felix and Sterling, two of Havertz's teammates, looked at him and gave him the ball again. Havertz took the penalty again, using the same exact style, and this time the ball went in.

This might seem trivial: he was just unlucky the first time (or lucky the second time, depending on your perspective). What's more interesting are the reactions from the other Chelsea players. Joao Felix and Raheel Sterling, both top scorers and presumably backup penalty kickers, didn't even think twice. They gave the ball back to Havertz again, basically telling him that this is his job, and he got it done.

Imagine in a typical corporate environment, one day you are assigned a project / job / task, but you are not the only one responsible for the outcome of it and you cannot make decisions “above your pay grade”. You always listen to the highest paid person in the room, as we all know HiPPO matters the most. You keep escalating to your boss / other co-workers’ boss because of blockers etc. Finally, if the outcome turns out to be great, you’ll humbly tell everyone it’s teamwork and specifically thank your co-workers / boss / VP / CEO for the opportunity, even the ones you kept complaining about before; if the outcome turned out to be bad, you’ll blame lack of resources and alignment, and your boss agrees it’s not your fault at all. The cycle repeats again.

Fuck this BS. If you are assigned a job, get it done. Nobody else will get it done for you, and you can take all the credits if you do it well, and you are the only one to blame when you fail. Take your penalty kick.  

Managers are paid less than players.

This is an obvious conclusion in sports, but for some reason, in corporate America, it's the opposite. I'm not sure why or when most companies decided that a manager who talks all the time without doing most of the actual work deserves to be paid a lot more than an engineer, sales rep, or customer support person. These so-called "thought leaders" only want to focus on "strategy" and making "strategic decisions", which, to me, is code for "I can't actually do the job (anymore), so I'm just going to talk about it".

To my monkey brain, it seems outrageous for a manager sitting on the sideline to be paid more than a player on the field. Why? Because of our focus on value creation. Who individually talks to customers every day and brings in more revenue: a sales rep or a sales team manager? Who individually writes more code, ships more features, or fixes more bugs: an engineer or an engineering manager? Who individually answers more customer support calls and responds to more tickets: a support rep or a support team manager?

I have a cynical hypothesis as to why there is a difference between sports teams and a typical corporate business. In a corporate environment, transparency of performance directly correlated to value creation does not exist. Sports players make more money than managers because it's clear that fans come to see them play, not to see the coaches or managers sitting on the sidelines. The better you are as a player, the more fans want to see you play, and the more money you make. While there is value in having a great manager, the best managers in the world don't get paid anywhere close to the best players.

In a typical corporate environment, the bloated and opaque structure and hierarchies, intentional or unintentional, make it impossible to transparently and accurately assign performance to value creation. It can be argued that an engineer should be creating more value than an engineering manager, but this is not always apparent in many companies, where there are usually no DRIs for anything. This lack of direct responsibility and transparency in terms of impact on value creation leads to inconsistency in performance. In general, it is observed that 20% of employees in a corporate company do 80% of the work, following the typical 80/20 rule. Imagine a televised sports game where only 20% of the players are actively participating. 

“Growth” is about being a better team overall, not adding numbers.

In startups, growth is often quantified in terms of numbers such as revenue, employee count, and number of customers. However, for a sports team, growth means being promoted to a higher league, earning a spot in the playoffs, and becoming a better team overall. This same approach should apply to companies. Growth should be about becoming a better team: are we collaborating more effectively this year than last? Do we have more robust and user-friendly products? Are we receiving fewer customer complaints?

[1] Soccer fans will probably call me out as I’m simplifying a lot here. Taking a penalty is the most nerve-racking moment for a soccer player and skills are not the only important factor in a moment like this. Practice, focus, mental preparation and luck all have much impact.

[2] Yes I realize how unrealistic that is in a capitalist society. Certainly I believe a strong + correlation between “numbers” and the soft metrics I propose here.


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