Brian Vickery

Continuity vs. Carousel – Consistent Leadership Matters

By: Brian Vickery | July 17, 2013 | 

Continuity vs. Carousel – Consistent Leadership MattersBy Brian Vickery

57 Wins (team record)

#3 Seed and 9 straight playoff appearances

Coach of the Year

Executive of the Year

Pink Slips??

Sounds like a fairy tale with a surprise ending, right?

Well, that is the true tale of the Denver Nuggets – a team that over-performed in what was to be a rebuilding year with the third youngest team in the NBA. The executives started reading the news reports, and they were quick to cut ties with “Coach of the Year” George Karl when a hot-shooting Golden State Warriors bounced the Nuggets from the playoffs.

The Spin Sucks crowd could focus on the hypothetical question: How does a PR team convince a fan base that getting rid of the Coach of the Year – and Executive of the Year – is a step in the right direction for winning a championship?

While you mull that over in your brains, I’ll focus on the leadership ramifications.


George Karl’s coaching philosophy (his “message”) leverages a defensively opportunistic, fast-breaking team that can wear down opponents. Switching to a patient, half-court team will require going back to the drawing board to teach players the new philosophy. The sudden change also assumes that the existing players’ physical gifts will match the new style.

Organizations do not get to flip a switch and go from a products-minded company to a services/consulting approach. And they definitely do not make the jump from “let’s pass that through legal before issuing a press release” to having an intern post Grumpy Cat photos on the company’s Facebook fan page.

Changing the message involves a cultural shift over time – and then ensuring the organization has the right personnel to execute on the message.


George Karl changed his coaching style after battling back from cancer twice. He went from a hands-on, micromanaging dictator to a hands-off coach who delegated a lot of the coaching to his assistants. He even allowed input from key players during in-game timeouts.

Imagine losing a key person in your management team. This person had an open-door policy and actively solicited input from employees through daily stand-up meetings. Now, imagine replacing that key person with a manager who keeps the door closed at all times and demands weekly written status reports.

You may lose more than one key person – you might lose an entire organization as employees chafe under the new management style.


George Karl relished building a team through the draft, and then focusing on player-development with a “team first” mentality. This player-development framework will come tumbling down if executives now decide to “gut the pipeline” by trading several young players for a single star athlete.

Rather than having a deep and selfless bench, you have a single star athlete and a bunch of ill-equipped supporting players.

I see a great parallel in professional services organizations. Do you build talent through internships, college recruiting, and cross training? Or do you ramp up quickly by hiring mercenary consultants at premium salaries?

The first approach builds loyalty, culture, and a workforce tailored to “your way of doing things.” The second approach gives you some quick wins, but the mercenaries are always looking for their next HIGHER PAYING gig without regards to company loyalty.

FYI, you need both approaches in the real world of professional services. The mercenary approach “keeps the lights on and pays the bills” while you establish the “long view” train-your-own framework.


As coveted NBA players hit the open market during free agency, they noticed the Nuggets fired their Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year…and let their own star free agent sign with the team that knocked the Nuggets out of the playoffs.

That kind of organizational turnover is not attractive to free agents looking for the best path to a championship. You can’t win with instability in the organization.

Social media platforms such as LinkedIn, review sites such as Glassdoor, and professional networking organizations make the world a very small place. If you have organizational instability, and a reputation for a bad work culture, the best free agents and savvy college graduates will know about it and they will choose more fertile environments.

The future went from bright to murky for the Denver Nuggets after they made such dramatic changes.

Consistent Leadership

What is the best parallel you’ve seen in the business world?

Yahoo! comes to mind, and I also wonder how patient Apple will be with Tim Cook as he tries to follow the legendary Steve Jobs.

What do you think? Is an organization best served with continuity or a carousel?

Photo Credit: Suggestion box by Hash Milhan, on Flickr

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About Brian Vickery

Brian Vickery loves his Vickery girls and sports (yes, in that order). He is also grateful for his job as a principal and executive vice president of the Rocky Mountain Region for Mantis Technology Group. When he is not promoting Pulse Analytics social media monitoring and sentiment analysis, and the awesome Mantis business intelligence and software development services, he’s probably watching a football or basketball game…or trying to find a good tennis match.

  • Congrats on your inaugural Spin Sucks post Brian! Excellent story- not a basketball fan, so did not know this particular analogy. There’s the old adage of “people don’t quit jobs, they quit people”, which in my experience, is true. When we changed leaders earlier this year, I was concerned and considered a change myself. I decided to give it a shot first, and can’t say enough good things about my new director and our relationship. Sometimes, change can be good, but sometimes…I did quit my last professional role after a leadership change. It wasn’t that my new manager was not a capable and lovely person, but her style was vastly different, and we were given ZERO support around the change. One day, a hands-off manager who I spoke to once every two months- the next day, one that required multiple daily check ins without ever making clear to me that expectations had switched. As you say, not every style works for every team. I am sharing this with Boss Man…so great to hear your voice here Brian!

    • RebeccaTodd Thanks, Rebecca. And sometimes organizations need a “shock to the system” with a change in management style. If they become complacent, or they are consistently under-delivering, then it is often easier for leadership to change vs go the “3 Letters” route (that I did a vlog for awhile back).
      It wasn’t just George Karl – 6 NBA Playoff coaches were fired after the season. Some had to deal with injuries to star players, yet they still got into the playoffs and either met a superior team (on paper and on the court), or they ran into an unconventional team that changed their style because of the loss of a key player.
      That happened with the Nuggets, and they could not adjust in time…while missing their 2nd leading scorer who happens to be their most versatile player.

      • dbvickery RebeccaTodd I was told he dictated this post using sign language to Jack Bauer in a Google Hangout. That is why there are so many punctuation errors.

        • Howie Goldfarb RebeccaTodd Wow, how do I reply to that…knock my king over and say “check mate”?
          I got nothin’

  • Tough call; I see some who stay too long and become stale. Their message is still good but maybe if you had that shooting star that would give you a good 5-7 years and then move on it would have been better for the organization. Always have someone new, fresh and trained waiting to take the reins.
    I’ve been on boards where we have had both; longevity and a burst of energy in their 3 yr stint; both have pluses and minuses. 
    Like you said both can work but it’s a management art making it work effectively and having the right people in the right seats with the right culture to make it happen. 
    I think Denver made a mistake, similar to the Bucs getting rid of Dungy. Yes, the Bucs got their Super Bowl but sold their soul to do it and have been digging out of a hole ever since. 
    They had me here once, but I was going by DannyBrown then; maybe you’ve’ heard of me?

    • bdorman264 DannyBrown Great example with Dungy. Yet I will put Lovie Smith and Andy Reid in the category of consistent great performances…that always fell short. After a period of time, their message “gets stale” with both the players and the fan base. It is then time for a change.
      I think Karl should have gotten the free pass because he was Coach of the Year – the NBA recognized he got this young team to over-deliver, and then they went into the playoffs without their most versatile player (Gallo). The argument against Karl was that he had a 9-year run and only got out of the 1st round once. It doesn’t matter that injuries to key players, cancer, and trade of star player impacted those playoff results.
      Would you fire a business leader when they lose their most versatile star? And if you have a leader with a “teaching” style…and a young team…why would you break that up?

      • dbvickery bdorman264 DannyBrown I think the ‘stale’ coach phenomena happens often. Good coaches that just stay around too long and are playing the old school games. Look at Phil Fulmar of the Vols for example, he didn’t make bad coaching calls per say, but near the end he simply was playing a conference that was alive a decade ago, not the one of today. Same often happens with CEO’s of companies, they get stuck in a box of ‘what worked’, some are able to innovate and move out of that, some aren’t. Those that aren’t prevent the organization from moving forward.
        But in Karl’s case it was different, he was ‘innovating’ per say and it is an odd and interesting move that makes you wonder where the owners place their priorities. What was the sentiment of the Denver fans? Did they like him? I”ve often seen fans push fine coaches out because they want instant gratification and owners want to give them that because they are often ego-centric wusses that don’t have a clear sense of building and vision for a team (again, I’ve seen this same situation with BOD, who push CEO’s out because they either don’t understand the vision or the process…and/or they put their egos above the longer range goals)

        • LauraPetrolino dbvickery bdorman264 DannyBrown coaches never stay too long! Just ask Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden.
          Actually in college succession is an issue PSU/FSU crashed in Football. UNC in Basketball. I am sure many other examples.

        • Howie Goldfarb LauraPetrolino bdorman264 DannyBrown I think another good example might be at my alma mater right now: University of Texas. Mack Brown has had extraordinary success – a consistent winning record (9 consecutive 10-win seasons), one national championship, the most profitable athletics program in the NCAAs, and lots of NFL draft picks.
          But he always manages to miss that one win that gets him into the national championship…and eventually the fans get tired of being bridesmaids.
          Does a coach like that have a “job for life”, or does he need a succession plan or external hire to revitalize a team and get it over the hump. The last few years would have been the time because they’ve had “subpar” seasons.
          Think of mutual funds – do you keep a fund manager or management team that is consistently in the top 25% of their sector…maybe a 4-star rating? Or, do you want to be in Money and Kiplingers w/a 5-star rating?
          Our own covetous nature demands we be better than the next guy, and in sports and business we do not show the patience. I was still shocked that Mike Brown only got 1 season and 5 games to try and put “his stamp” on a team that had been led by Phil Jackson…winner of 11 championships!

        • Howie Goldfarb LauraPetrolino dbvickery But FSU would have been nothing w/out Bowden; that was a tough and messy call…

        • dbvickery Howie Goldfarb LauraPetrolino bdorman264 DannyBrown So interestingly enough I’m doing alot of work right now specifically focused on company culture and the leaders that are able to facilitate the right culture to help an organization reach it’s goals. I brought this blog up in a meeting today to discuss what the priorities were when choosing leaders for the organization. 
          -Did they focus on choosing people who would ‘lead’ and really help develop those under them to excel (both in their personal and organizational goals)
          -Did they promote people into management that were simply subject matter experts, but didn’t necessarily have the skills or the training to lead those below them.
          There isn’t really a *right* way to go, but one choice leads you to certain goals and outcomes and the other a different set. You need to decide which you want when choosing your leader.

        • LauraPetrolino Howie Goldfarb bdorman264 DannyBrown That’s another interesting side topic – promoting people with the demonstrated capability of leading…or promoting them because they are star performers in their current role and deserve a “promotion”.
          The second scenario can be disastrous. You are taking the resource away from what they do best – being the subject matter expert – and are now putting them in charge of PEOPLE. And they may NOT be “people” persons. So now the whole organization is frustrated and disenchanted.
          I do like organizations like ours (and engineering companies are similar) that can support two career paths: management and technical lead. A person could go from a junior software developer, to a senior developer, to a team lead or architect. Will that person bump up to the management team…probably not, unless they have people skills or the ability to guide the vision and strategy of a company. To do that, they need to get training/education, and then step out of their “technical” comfort zone and into a leadership role.

  • Sports is particularly harsh on coaches, it seems, where you can be fired for success.
    The “carousel” approach must have a real vision and a real reason behind it, but far too often it is a mask for other issues in the company – problems with the board, the front office, senior management or something else.
    There is some reason George Karl was dismissed, and we’ll very likely never know the “real truth.”

    Sometimes there is a perfectly good reason.

    My first management position in newspapers was for a small chain of community newspapers. The owner took a bit of a military approach – you moved every three or four years. He felt that at about 3ish years, the managers would start to stagnate, and he reinvigorated them with new challenges.You don’t have to agree with his reasons, but at least he had a reason HE believed in.
    I think it is an individual management decision.

    • ClayMorgan I think, depending upon the organization, that moving every few years does invigorate the organization and lets employees/managers get a better view of the “bigger picture”. They can even develop empathy for other orgs/geos.
      As you stated, a lot of the problems stem from differences of opinion – and egos – versus performance. And that has happened everywhere that Karl has coached. He sticks to his guns, and in this case he refused to start McGee at center – a man that Denver Nuggets brass spent a LOT on. However, Karl doesn’t look at the $$$ – he looks at both the individual performance as well as the team plus/minus for every combination of players. The numbers showed that Faried/McGee had the worst plus/minus of any Nuggets pairing…and Faried was the starting power forward.
      So an insightful leader got derailed by management ego…and unrealistic and perhaps “ignorant” expectations from fans. Hmm, does that ever happen in business??

  • First imagine being a Knicks fan. Where there has been horrible ownership and leadership for thelast 10 years. I mean LeBron turned down NY that says something!

    Great post duder! I think this is a double sided questions. The one thing the stock markt looks for is 1] can a company survive without its founding dictator like Apple? It didn’t the first time. Second time a charm? time will tell. They like companies like GE that consistently have a succession plan and groom to management to have a deep pool of options when the time comes. This is why you see very few Aple Execs take CEO jobs elsewhere, yet tons of Senior GE Execs run companies.
    Long term the second will last longer but maybe be outperformed by the first short term.
    The Nugget’s PR issue is running deep after Melo forced them to trade him. As a fan I would be hurt that our star doesn’t want to stay but what if it is more because the Owners refuse to pay him? And did the trade pay off? If it did you get credibility. If not you lose it. 
    If the Nuggets had a long history of making the right moves and always competing (Lakers, Yankees) the fans will have trust. But right now for the Nuggets….good luck.

    • Howie Goldfarb I was so happy when we got rid of Melo. It was almost like the Hershel Walker trade. Here, you take one guy…and we will take a bunch of role players and draft pics. You saw what happened with the Cowboys winning 3 Super Bowls…and you saw what happened to Minnesota.
      The key is that the Cowboys *DID* change coaches, and Jimmy Johnson installed his brand of basketball. However, egos got in the way again because egotistical owner Jerry Jones was whining that Johnson was getting all of the credit. He runs Johnson out of town, hires Switzer, the Cowboys win one more Super Bowl with “Johnson’s team”…and they’ve never sniffed at another one.
      Great point with GE…I’m really curious about the patience Apple will have.
      As for the Lakers/Yankees, they always had deep pockets and played outside the financial lines w/a willingness to pay luxury taxes/etc. They always went after superstars, and they had the markets to support the stars egos w/bright lights and marketing opps. The Nuggets – with George Karl – built a team-first mentality w/role players and budding stars. As a fan, I LOVED it…but other fans whined that they didn’t have a star. I’m like “were you watching the same games I was with Melo…the black hole. Throw him the ball, and it’s NEVER coming back to you”.
      Bears – Jay Cutler – ’nuff said. Heard he is going for a $15M/yr contract.

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