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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

What Michael Jordan can teach government contractors

Michael Jordan turns 50 this weekend, and the sports channels, particularly ESPN, are filled with highlights from his basketball career.

Arguably the greatest player of all time, Jordan has had a less than stellar career as a basketball executive.

And therein lies the lesson.

One of the interesting phenomenons that I’ve witnessed while covering the government market is how often a high-ranking government executive joins the private sector, but bounces from job to job. They’ll stay at the first place for six months or a year, then move on, and then move on again.

It seems to take a while for them to find their way outside of government. It doesn’t mean they don’t have skills or knowledge, or aren’t capable. It just means that the skills that made them successful inside government aren’t always the same ones that will make them successful as a contractor. And it takes time to figure that out.

Jordan was unsuccessful as a basketball executive with the Washington Wizards. His departure was ugly, to say the least. Now, he is struggling as the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. It’s a tough transition for someone who is used to taking the ball into his own hands, and making things happen. As an executive, there is too much out of his control.

Once a senior official leaves government, they enter a new world where success is measured by wins and profits and losses. It’s a tough transition.

Of course, there are many examples of success, most notably Renny DiPentima, who retired from the Social Security Administration after a very successful career, and then joined SRA International, where he eventually became CEO, before retiring again.

SRA, in fact, seems to have developed a reputation as a good landing spot for former feds, training and mentoring them to make the most of their skills.

I think the key to success has two parts. First, the person has to understand that there is a change in status. When you retire as a two-star general and move to a position of a government contractor, your staff doesn’t move with you. You literally have to get your own coffee. Intellectually, you know that’s the case, but the reality is often a rude awakening.

Second, the new employer has to manage their own expectations of what a fed can bring to their company. What that is can vary greatly from individual to individual.

I guess both parts of the success formula are about managing expectations.

A path should be established to get the former fed to where he or she wants to go, and where the company ultimately wants them to be. It’s important that both sides understand what that goal is.

It would be a mistake to expect the person to deliver that result from day one.

So, the third part of the formula is patience.

Now that Michael Jordan owns his own team, the patience would seem limitless. He loves basketball, and as a fan, I hope he turns it around. I hope he makes the right decisions, and builds the Charlotte Bobcats into a successful franchise.

As a taxpayer, I have the same hope for former feds. I don’t doubt their dedication to the mission of government, and finding the right fit can bring success and profits to a contractor, as well as allowing them to serve the mission they love. We all win when that happens.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Feb 12, 2013 at 9:48 AM

Reader Comments

Thu, Feb 14, 2013 Charlotte, NC

Nick: You've hit the nail on the head with this comment, "A path should be established to get the former fed to where he or she wants to go, and where the company ultimately wants them to be. It’s important that both sides understand what that goal is. It would be a mistake to expect the person to deliver that result from day one." From our experience (30+ years), hires like you described require a a well-thought out "on-boarding" process to include training and development for the new individual in whatever role they are supposed to do. For example, if Business Development, then give them the best education in what this role entails. A number of responsibilities like BD are not intuitive and professional training and development are required.

Wed, Feb 13, 2013

Michael Jordan was ruthless and arrogant with unshakeable self confidence which is part of why he was so great as individual player and he drove his team relentlessly. He doesn't have real management skills nor does he know how to assess talent (critical to success). His front office is filled with "yes" men rather than folks who know how to run basketball operations. Unfortunately, this is very analogous to many government executives who move to the private sector and are utterly unprepared for the concepts of Return on Investment, Solution Architecture and the like.

Wed, Feb 13, 2013 Bowman Olds

One quote I recall attributed to Michael Jordan goes something like this:"I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Never underestimate what he can do.

Wed, Feb 13, 2013

Other challenges: 1. Private sector management jobs require business skills and knowledge, like how to manage a P&L, read an income statement, etc. Government experience doesn't prepare you for that and it's a frequent stumbling point. Some career government execs just never get things like pipeline management, cost and pricing, etc. 2. Private industry hires senior government officials for their contacts. As those contacts grow stale, your utility declines. 3. Using a fomer government official to open doors and message to the current leaders of that organization is fraught with peril to the relationship. Few things tick off the current general in charge more than a contractor who rolls in the former general in charge to lecture current leadership and show the contractor's "commitment to the mission."

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