Biz side vs. performance side: Why the searches are so different
An executive search on the business side is far different from a search for a performance-side position such as team general manager or head coach.
Turnkey Sports & Entertainment has worked on a variety of searches over the last 16 months in Atlanta, ranging from the Hawks’ general manager and chief financial officer to the head of business for Atlanta United FC to the athletic director at Georgia Tech. Each search came with its own set of nuanced challenges, said Len Perna, Turnkey’s president and CEO, and highlighted the differences between the searches.
For the AD job at Georgia Tech, Turnkey vetted 30 potential candidates, which represented a large pool to start with. From there, references and backgrounds helped Turnkey whittle the list to 12 and ultimately the final five who interviewed with school officials.
The Yellow Jackets eventually hired Todd Stansbury from Oregon State, giving the school a sitting power-five AD who also graduated from Tech and played football for the school.
The Hawks’ GM job was drastically different. Simply finding qualified candidates was difficult for one of the most demanding jobs in pro sports.
“It’s super-competitive,” Perna said. “When you’re a GM, you’re playing a chess game against 29 other teams. It’s multiplayer chess. Most of the candidates we talked to did not have the skill set to be in a game of chess with 29 other players. They know basketball, they know players, they know the salary cap, but to compete with 29 other clubs, that’s a level of expertise that’s really hard to find, and it’s slim pickings, quite honestly.”
Travis Schlenk, who spent 12 years at Golden State and apprenticed under GM Bob Myers, rose to the top of the Hawks’ list — a short list of only five or six serious candidates.
That’s different from the club’s search for a CFO, which resulted in the hiring of sports executive Thad Sheely, who subsequently was promoted to chief operating officer.
“We literally started with hundreds,” Perna said. “There are a lot of financial executives out there to talk to.”
Speed in the performance side search is also a defining factor.
“A search on the business side can take an average of two months to three months in order to vet, present and close,” said Scott Carmichael, founder and chief executive officer of Prodigy Sports. “That would be a lifetime in the world of coaches or general managers. The performance types are very fast because they need to be.”
Confidentiality is also heightened among performance side searches given the speed of the hires as well as the smaller pool of talent within the coaching and general manager professions.
“One of the tactical differences is that head coaches’ and general managers’ searches are very intensive,” said Liz Boardman, senior client partner for global sports at Korn Ferry. “Business side searches are intense, but it is more of a process. With a head coach or a general manager search, you have to act extraordinarily fast. If confidentiality is blown, the whole search can go sideways.”
But with coaching salaries at both the professional and collegiate levels skyrocketing, the use of search firms is becoming more prevalent on the performance search side of the industry.