The other night I was having dinner with a startup
founder/CEO and the topic of company cultures came up. The CEO was
acknowledging what he perceived as a disconnect between his operating style – top-down,
introverted, disciplined, process-oriented, etc. – and that of what we’d seen
at innovation-based companies that had enjoyed periods of outsized success
(relative to their peers), i.e., places like Google, Facebook, Yahoo!,
Austin's Bazaarvoice, etc.
A quick tour of these places takes you by lounges, ping-pong
tables, beer fridges (or kegerators), employees casually chatting over fair
organic trade coffee and other signs of apparent extravagance and indolence –
that is, in the context of the traditional Protestant work ethic. Of course, anyone
who’s ever worked at a small technology or media company since the mid-‘90s
will tell you this stuff is table stakes.
At each of these places, the benefits packages are fairly
unconventional. I recall Google having on-site yoga, and, as a Bazaarvoice
employee, I appreciated the company’s deliberate lack of a vacation
policy. Bazaarvoice CEO Brett Hurt
cites that non-policy as the best illustration of his “radical trust” philosophy
– hire talented people, trust them to do exemplary work and not abuse the lack
of vacation limits. And, of course, most employees needed prompting to even hit
two weeks’ vacation time in a year.
Being both undergraduate alums of SEC schools, we found a
fascinating parallel in last week’s game of the century college football
matchup between Alabama and LSU.
Alabama is coached by notorious taskmaster Nick Saban, an
NFL product who has effectively trademarked the term “The Process” as a
descriptor of his approach to winning football games. Saban is relentlessly
disciplined and a film study obsessive, prone to spouting management book-isms like
“excellence is a habit.” Saban has won BCS championships at two different
programs – LSU and Alabama. In his second year at Alabama, he had the Crimson
Tide playing for an SEC championship. At the end of his third season, the Tide
were BCS champions.
On the other side of the field is Les Miles, Saban’s
successor at LSU. Miles, it can be confidently said, has a friend in Chaos. EDSBS’ Spencer Hall wrote something to the following effect: Les Miles rides the Les Miles ride because
even he doesn’t know how it ends. Miles’ wild endings to close games are
legendary and the source of much heartburn among the Tigers’ already
hot-blooded Cajun fanbase. But do not doubt Miles’ madness. In his first
season, as Louisiana was mired in Hurricane Katrina fallout, Miles led the
Tigers to an 11-win season and a division championship. Like Saban, Miles
hoisted the crystal football in his third season.
Oh, and there’s this:
freewheeling Miles is 3-2 against process-devoted Saban, including a
current two-game winning streak against Saban’s Tide. Granted, that’s a very
small baseline of data. But, if you start with the presumption that
militaristic discipline should win out more often than not (otherwise, why have
a military at all?), you have to be surprised that Miles is anywhere close to
.500 in this series.
I’m not drawing any absolute conclusions here, because I
can’t. There are a lot of styles to winning. But I do find Les Miles’
phenomenon to validate the management style Jim Collins profiled heavily in Good to Great, that of hiring smart
people and getting out of their way. Contrast that with Saban’s notoriously top-down
approach – Saban’s assistants are widely (and unfairly) reputed to be his clones.
Like Google or Facebook, LSU has recruited superbly – both
players and assistants. (For that
matter, so has Alabama.) And, it’s possible that, like Facebook and Google,
Miles has, wittingly or unwittingly, created an environment where those talents
are granted autonomy to play and coach the game as they see fit, with Miles only
stepping in to handle the key moments of the game, like whether to go for it on
4th down or how to handle the last two minutes of a close game.
Where I see the strongest parallel between Miles and the
companies I mentioned above is that I think Miles, like those companies’
founders, is an optimist, more enthralled by the potential to do something
spectacular than deterred by the risk of failure.
I think the best illustration of this from Miles came in the
final seconds of the 2007
LSU-Auburn game (scroll to the 8-minute mark in the video below). Trailing Auburn by 1 point
with 25 seconds to go, LSU had the ball on the Auburn 23 yard line, facing 3rd
and 7 with one timeout left.
Every coach in America – and most assuredly Nick Saban –
would play the percentages and either kick a field goal or run a quick play to
get in better field goal position on the final down. Miles, however, was in his
moment, percentages be damned. He casually let 12 seconds run off the clock and
trots his offense out on the field. They throw a deep pass in the corner of the
end zone … and complete it for a touchdown with a second left on the clock.
Pandemonium erupts in Tiger Stadium, which is always prone
to such things (see the Earthquake Game from 20 years prior), while confusion
reigns in the broadcast booth. With both the game and a division title at
stake, why on earth take such stupendous risk? If that receiver (who was
blanketed) dropped the pass, hordes of angry Cajuns surely would have burned
Miles’ house to the ground.
Quoth Les, when asked by the sideline reporter: “Because we
had the opportunity to kick their asses.” At this, I suspect current and
soon-to-be billionaire tech CEOs nod their heads appreciatively.