The pressure of objectivity

Striving for objective indicators of performance

Mark McCormack was well-known to many in Northeast Ohio, in part because his career began at the law firm Arter & Hadden — but perhaps more notably as the founder, chairman and CEO of sports and entertainment conglomerate IMG and author of several books, including “What They Don’t Teach you At Harvard Business School.”

Not long before he died, McCormack spoke in Cleveland and focused his comments on what he called “the pressure of objectivity,” a phrase he used to describe the immediacy of the many measurements applied to an athlete’s performance. These metrics include not just the overall success or failure of a team but also the moment-to-moment, second-by-second individual metrics that define so many sports statistics.

Fans as well as team managers today gauge an athlete’s performance with an array of statistics that grow finer and more numerous each year, thereby increasing the pressure of objectivity. And some managers, such as the legendary Billy Beane of “Money Ball” fame, have used the metrics of individuals when seeking to optimize the aggregate talent for a team, as he did at the Oakland A’s.

But when McCormack spoke that day, he was addressing an audience of business and corporate executives. He asked them whether on any given day, anyone — including themselves — actually knew how well they had done their job. The answer, of course, was that almost always it is only the individual professional who might have a sense of how well he or she has performed, and even then, personal assessments are often exaggerated and favorably rationalized.

In other words, he wanted them to understand how rare it is for any single professional, outside of sports, to have moment-to-moment, detailed information about his or her performance, let alone to actually feel the pressure of objectivity.

Indeed, the pressure of objectivity is largely missing in most professional endeavors. That is why we jokingly hear that doctors can bury their mistakes and architects can hide theirs by covering them with ivy.

Business is no exception, and few corporate professionals are as disciplined as the late Harold Geneen. As CEO of ITT, Geneen was known for meticulous attention to the details of financial performance and for calling them to the attention of his executives worldwide, day or night, exerting his own version of the pressure of objectivity. Today, some have suggested that Tim Cook at Apple is made of similar stuff.

Although the pressure of objectivity has eluded most other professions, we can learn from Mark McCormack, Harold Geneen, Tim Cook and other CEOs who strive for meaningful, real-time, objective indicators of individual and organizational performance. Will you be the Billy Beane for your profession?

Luis M. Proenza is president Emeritus at The University of Akron