One of the most commonly cited critiques that the management of the Edmonton Oilers (at this site and elsewhere) is the perception of it as an old boys’ club. In some ways that’s fair, in others it ignores NHL reality.
Around the NHL
The simple fact is that pretty much every general manager in the game makes use of his personal connections to some extent in hiring people to work under him.
Steve Tambellini certainly did when he joined the Oilers, bringing in a number of individuals with whom he had familiarity – people he knew from Vancouver or Hockey Canada or his playing career.
This isn’t unique to managers on bad teams, either. To pick one example, Detroit’s Ken Holland currently employs Chris Chelios, Kris Draper and Jiri Fischer in senior management roles. Kirk Maltby is a professional scout; Chris Osgood is the team’s goaltending coach. Another ex-Red Wing, Steve Yzerman, came up through Detroit management until he eventually ended up running the show in Tampa Bay.
Given a choice between strangers and trusted associates, most managers lean on their network and bring in people who they know and can count on. In that regard, to criticize Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish (who share much the same network) for doing what everyone else does is misguided.
“Relentless” has been one of the favoured buzzwords in Edmonton the last few years. Owner Daryl Katz has described his commitment to being “absolutely relentless” in turning the Oilers into an elite team. General manager Craig MacTavish has used the term, too, most recently in reference to the messaging from head coach Dallas Eakins.
To be relentless means to be unyieldingly severe, strict or harsh. It doesn’t just mean never quitting; it implies total commitment to a goal unchecked by other considerations.
It’s a necessary quality in a manager overseeing people with whom he has a personal connection.
There exists a fine line between hiring trusted people and cronyism. For me, the line can be summed up in one word: merit.
There is nothing wrong with hiring a friend to a position he’s adequately qualified for, or in the case of an entry-level hiring if he will excel in the role with a little training. A problem develops when a subpar candidate is hired because of his personal connections, but at least that’s a correctable choice. The biggest problem is when a subpar candidate is not only hired, but maintained in his position even once his failings in that role have become obvious.
No amount of personal ties should excuse incompetence. It takes a relentless manager, someone with a streak of ruthlessness, to fire a friend who isn’t getting the job done, but sometimes it can be necessary. Job performance, rather than personal connection, has to be the basis for maintaining employees in their positions.
Another area where a relentless commitment is necessary is in management of communications.
Looking at the Oilers, as an example, the team’s president and general manager both have history with people much lower on the organizational depth chart – individual scouts (both pro and amateur) and of course the assistant coaches. This isn’t an uncommon situation in an NHL organization; we could say the same thing about Detroit and countless other teams.
For the team to work, though, people in the middle – scouting directors, head coaches – need to be able to function without being undercut by those close ties. For that to happen, three points are essential:
- The lower-level employee needs to respect proper channels, refusing to use his personal connections to undermine his direct superior.
- The person caught between personal connections needs to make his position clear. He has to be direct with both his subordinate and superior that his role can only be effectively filled if there isn’t a back-channel undermining his authority.
- The decision-maker at the top of the organization chart has to be relentlessly professional. In social situations, he can’t be asking his lower-level friends about their bosses, and if the conversation moves in that direction it is his job to shut it down.
The Short Version
To recap, the unifying element in all of this is that in the workplace personal relationships need to be subordinate to performance.
There is nothing wrong with bringing in trusted people who can do the job; having mutual trust and respect makes for a more harmonious organization. Problems only arise when personal ties supplant professional merit.
Subpar candidates with personal ties should not be hired. Underperforming employees with personal ties should not be maintained. Personal ties should never be used to undermine proper channels.
Organizations that sacrifice merit at the altar of friendship fail.
From the outside it isn’t clear that the Oilers’ failings are a result of cronyism. What is clear is that the Oilers have plenty of failings, and that there has been no shortage of opportunity for cronyism.