Articles from Cass Knowledge

From coach to CEO

The best players make the best leaders, a research project suggests - whether it's on the basketball court or in the City. Joe Boyle reports.

Any organisation recruiting a new head should take a look at the NBA, America's elite basketball league. Examine, for example, the case of Glen Anton "Doc" Rivers, a defender during a 13-year playing career and now Head Coach of the Boston Celtics. In 2008 he led the team to its first NBA title in more than 20 years. The lessons to be learnt extend far beyond the sports arena. The implications for recruitment policy in many of our leading public and private institutions could be far-reaching. Dr Amanda Goodall, a Visiting Fellow at Cass, argues that the best leaders in expert-knowledge environments are likely to be those who possess expert knowledge. In Why Do Leaders Matter? A Study of Expert Knowledge in a Superstar Setting, a paper co-authored with economists Lawrence Kahn at Cornell University and Andrew Oswald at IZA and The University of Warwick, and published this year in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, she analyses the success of coaches in the NBA. Success as an elite player, the paper concludes, is a reliable predictor of subsequent success as an elite coach. In her 2009 book Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should Be Led by Top Scholars, she demonstrates that the best university leaders are those with an outstanding research pedigree, equipping them with a deep understanding of their institution's core business. The findings from basketball add another level of evidence to the argument.

Domain expertise
"I would like organisations to consider the amount of domain knowledge their leaders hold," she says. "You need to understand the core business of your organisation. More recently we've assumed that because you're a great manager you can chop and change the industry you're in. The NBA research highlights that top basketball coaches were domain experts." What can happen when non-domain experts find themselves in charge is demonstrated by the case of Andy Hornby, the Chief Executive of HBOS when the bank failed in 2008. Hornby, a retailer by background, told a Parliamentary Select Committee: "I do not have any formal banking qualifications. I have an MBA from Harvard." The cultural perception now is that managerialism exerts too strong a grip, especially on public institutions. "Under New Labour," says Dr Goodall, "the number of managers in schools, universities and hospitals increased. There has been a backlash." A business leader with a demonstrable record of success in a similar discipline can also make an impact in a new sector. Richard Gillingwater CBE, Dean of Cass, came from a professional services background which, Dr Goodall says, "has a similarity of culture with an academic setting".

Core need MBAs
The challenge is to provide knowledge experts with the skills needed to become managerial experts. Dr Goodall says she is encouraged that management modules are making their way into degree courses for doctors, lawyers and architects and argues that business schools also need to deliver MBAs that are designed around core needs. As well as her role at Cass, she is a Senior Research Associate at IZA Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn. Her fascination with leadership stems from a decade ago when she worked at the London School of Economics in the senior management team with Anthony Giddens, the Director from 1997 to 2003. She arrived there having completed her first degree when she was in her mid-30s. She had left school aged 16, after which she modelled for a few years before travelling to India, where she worked on a small rural development, witnessing an aid project in operation. This was followed by time working with a number of charitable and campaigning organisations. How have these experiences shaped her views on leadership? "I'm trying to move away from this idea that (business) leaders are hand-picked by God," she says. Her ambition now is to explore what she calls the "transfer processes". The NBA research suggested that former elite players had greater credibility, could see the game better and had an increased likelihood of controlling highly paid egos. "We need to understand more empirically about what these leaders actually do," she says.

Football managers
She has already started her research with a sport closer to British hearts: football. Research in conjunction with the School of Industrial and Labour Relations at Cornell and Warwick Business School considered the characteristics of those managers who could best handle elite players. Matthew Amos, Member Services Executive at the League Managers Association (the representative body for football managers in England), said: "There is no relationship between the level at which they played and the performance of managers at the top level. Experience is the main relationship." In fact, the NBA link between an elite playing career and coaching success has an echo in English football as well: 52% of Premier League managers at the time the paper was written in 2009 had played international and top-flight football. Ideally, leaders will have both domain knowledge and experience. It is a combination that possibly finds its highest level in Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United Manager, who played for his country and has been a successful manager for 37 years. Unearthing a leader with the qualities of Ferguson is the Holy Grail of recruitment. And here, too, Dr Goodall has a recommendation. "There is some evidence," she says, "that if a hiring panel is a group of outstanding individuals, they're more likely to appoint someone of equal calibre to themselves." In other words, excellence attracts excellence - surely a blueprint for universities and banks as well as basketball teams.

Joe Boyle is a freelance writer whose work and contact details can be found at