Essays March 2010

Fired for Performance! Lessons from the Medvedev Management Model

Neil Seeman


What do you when your star performers underwhelm and your organization gets romped? First, sack everyone in senior management and humiliate them publicly. This is the Dmitry Medvedev management model.

The Russian President recently told his country's top sports officials to resign or get fired after their worst-ever showing in the Winter Olympics. Mr. Medvedev has a leadership style that is rare but beautiful in its simplicity. He is old school. For Mr. Medvedev, there is no time to indulge in "root-cause analysis" or "crisis management".

He issued his ultimatum the day after the closing Olympic ceremonies. Standing before leaders of the ruling United Russia party, he pledged to take aim at the Russian Olympic Committee, the eight federations governing winter sports, reserving special vitriol for "fat cat" federation officials. He promised that "heads will roll." The Olympic Committee's chief spokesman said Leonid Tyagachyov had already resigned as president of the Committee.

"They must have the courage to submit their resignation. And if they do not have this resolve, we will help them," Mr. Medvedev told his fellow citizens. A feeling of dread now permeates the Russian sports world.

Before the President's address, Russia's ski jumping federation announced it had fired Wolfgang Staiert, the German who had coached its team for six years and finished the Vancouver Games with no medals.

With 15 medals, the Russians placed sixth in the world, their lowest Olympics ranking ever; and they snagged just three golds. Their men's iconic ice hockey team, always a favorite to win, was the first from Russia or the Soviet Union that failed to make the semifinals; the country's figure skaters failed for the first time since 1964 to win gold.

"Let's put up a bunch of guillotines and gallows," said Vyacheslav Bykov, Russia's hockey coach, responding to a reporter's suggestion that the hockey team might not have been adequately prepared. "We have 35 people on the hockey team. Let's go to Red Square and dispatch with them all."

In a snub aimed at his disgraced comrades, Medvedev was a no-show at the closing ceremonies, where he was to accept the Olympic flag on behalf of Russia as host of the XXII Winter Olympic Games in 2014, to be held in Sochi.

Medvedev as a Case Study in Performance Management

Medvedev's reaction offers a case study on how things can go awry when evaluating performance data. Consider the popular explanations for Russia's poor performance and what I call "Medvedev Management Lessons."

1. Russian officials said they spent about $25 million a year to prepare athletes for the Vancouver games, roughly as much as Canada, which won 26 medals. Yet Russian athletes complained of poor training facilities; Russian lugers, for example, cited problems with the freezing equipment at their training stadium.

Medvedev Management Lesson: Especially in an era of scarce resources, set return-on-investment metrics, not simple targets like medal counts. Mr. Medvedev, I suspect, would not have been nearly so piqued had the country invested more wisely. "Colossal money was invested" in Olympic sports, Mr. Medvedev said, yet the money, he alleges, didn't trickle down to the athletes but was instead wasted on top-heavy bureaucracies. A Canadian business leaders' group, B2ten, which sponsored a select group of Canadian Olympic hopefuls with special financial assistance, took an ROI approach. Among the 206 Canadian Olympians in Vancouver, 18 (including 7 percent of "starting athletes") were funded by B2ten, a nonprofit. B2ten spent just $1 million a year, with zero dollars for administrative costs.

2. Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who had predicted up to 30 medals, went on record to say that new sports, such as freestyle skiing that "no one takes seriously" in Russia, allowed other countries to best his country.

Medvedev Management Lesson: Identify goals of significance to your mission. If hockey and figure skating are your key measures of value, then don't be shy to put a radar lock on them and shoot. The competitive system in which you play (the Olympics, the Oscars, any industry) will inevitably depart in its values from those you treasure. For example, the Olympics and the Oscars have commercial interests in appealing to a broad and growing fan base, hence the desire of these organizations to expand the number of sporting events, or films up for best picture, respectively. One key to success in performance management is keeping your head fixed on your strategy, not that of others.

3. Gennady Shvets, the spokesman for the Russian Olympics committee, denied that it was responsible, blaming the disintegration of Russia's athletic infrastructure, which began after the Soviet collapse, for the country's performance.

Medvedev Management Lesson: Make sure you know who enjoys most control over performance outcomes. If you fire - or reward - the wrong people, then you will nurture fear and disillusionment among all. "If we make a list of all those who should be held responsible, then it would be half the population of the country because, unfortunately, many took part in the destruction of athletics or passively looked on," Mr. Shvets said. "In the 1990s, everything was destroyed. When stadiums were turned into markets and pools into V.I.P. saunas, athletics collapsed."

The Courage to Assert your own Values

The Olympics signifies different things to different people: excellence, courage, nationalism, ceremony, world harmony. But if someone from another universe were to visit Earth and observe the Games for the first time, he would notice first the values of rank and status. Gold, silver and bronze medalists are the belles of the banquet.

Mr. Medvedev could have used his own podium to assert new values for a new Russian era. He could have looked at the medal count and properly concluded: "Our country has seen much upheaval, economic and political. We are a country in a period of re-growth and self-reflection, mindful of a troubled past. Looking toward the Games at Sochi, we will carefully examine how we train and support our greatest athletes and their families. We will re-examine how we measure greatness in this turbulent but spectacular new age. We live in the most exciting of times."

About the Author

Neil Seeman is a writer, and Director and Primary Investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College in the University of Toronto.



Robert Pental wrote:

Posted 2013/08/16 at 12:41 PM EDT

Well written and informative piece, to which I add, if our fellow world citizens, the Russians, think they had a recent harsh winter games wait till they meet up with the next year's frigid test of endurance. Donning the old school approach to the rights of those with differing sexual orientations not only shows similar hurried thinking, it lacks fortitude to envision a new future. In the end the actions may cost the Russians more than just the pinning of some of its citizens but a wallet full of shame from the world.
On the bright side, Mr Seeman could have ample material for any forthcoming management insights he may decide to share.


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