Tuesday, March 4, 2014

You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

A prominent Melbourne sports journalist made a pronouncement a few weeks ago on radio. He said he could virtually guarantee that either suspended Essendon senior coach James Hird, or CEO of the AFL Andrew Demetriou would not still be in their roles by the end of the year.

Well the journo proved to be a prophet when, at a packed media conference at AFL House yesterday, journalists learnt that Demetriou would be stepping down at the end of 2014. He has insisted this is not to do with the ASADA investigation into drugs in sport and that this is simply the right time to step aside for a "fresh pair of eyes".

Why do some struggle to believe him?

The best leaders are continually self-reflective, put talented would-be successors in place and may seek to depart knowing they leave the place in good shape. The game has expanded and is truly a national game. The money spent by broadcasters for footy rights is breathtaking. The media coverage on Foxtel is second to none and footy ratings for big games are healthy. Importantly also, footy has withstood the potential onslaught of soccer in the context of the Socceroos and our World Cup cameos; something that was on the AFL's strategic radar a full ten years ago. 

For those of us who love our sport, we can recall countless examples of players who "hung on too long". My opinion on this has always been if they're good enough to be picked for the senior side on the way they play now, they should have earned the right to decide when they want to go. It is the choice of the high performer to go at the peak of their powers or to play on; knowing that the phenomenon we know as the "recency effect" means our view of their contribution will be coloured by what they're doing at this moment. Demetriou hopes the Essendon supplements scandal won't sour his legacy.

To change codes for a moment, people started grumbling about Michael Clarke's poor batting form for some months and others have stoically watched and waited, arguing he "was due". Well he wasn't axed, didn't drop himself and scored a cool 161 thank you very much this week in South Africa. Now the decision to "bat on" seems inspired.

Demetriou has done such a good job for our beloved footy that he deserved to choose his own exit date as long as he is still acting in the service of the game and achieving his strategic objectives. Many said he mis-stepped badly last year in the wake of the Essendon saga and that hubris got in the way. Prime Ministers have had to call the removalists on that same hubris. It can be very costly.

I don't believe a conspiracy has to be the reason why a powerful CEO who used the role to push a racial tolerance agenda whilst navigating a brilliant game strategy to shore up footy against all comers decides to give his number to another player. And it's right that he doesn't choose his successor.

No doubt column inches will now be devoted to an assessment of the likely candidates. Either way, whoever it is, they land on the crest of a wave and that is the ultimate legacy of any good CEO.