The pressure of objectivity

Will you be the ‘Billy Beane’ for your profession?

A year or two before he died, Mark McCormack spoke in Cleveland. He was well-known to many in Northeast Ohio, in part because his career began at the law firm Arter & Hadden But notably, too, he was founder, chairman and CEO of the sports and entertainment conglomerate IMG, and author of several books, “What They Don’t Teach you at Harvard Business School,” among them.

In his talk, McCormack focused 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 in Cleveland, he was addressing an audience of business and corporate executives. And so, he asked them whether, on any given day, anyone other than themselves knew how well they had done their job. The answer, of course, was that almost always it is only the individual professional who has even an inkling 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. Even among educators and academic institutions, performance indicators are rarely in real time and are often subjective.

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 all of the details of financial performance, and for calling them to the attention of his executives worldwide, day or night, thereby exerting his own version of the pressure of objectivity.

Although the pressure of objectivity has eluded most other professions, we can learn from McCormack, Geneen 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, president emeritus at The University of Akron, serves as a Distinguished Fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness and co-chairs the Innovation Policy Forum as a member of the Science, Technology and Economic Policy Board (STEP) of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.