Monday, October 29, 2012

Palace Coup or Sacking of an Uncooperative Dictator?

When the official news broke on Sunday and the rage began to pour over the Firing of Randy Bernard as IndyCar CEO, I was there with the mob - Angry and disappointed.  In large part I still feel that way today, another day, another opportunity for IndyCar to look the buffoon.  But as I have begun to reflect and try to understand motives, things just don’t add up for me.  The complete lack of a plan here is really problematic.  It’s not like Bernard went all Hudsucker on us and took a leap out of a 200 story building, necessitating a mad scramble.  If you PLAN to sack your CEO, typically you have a strategy as to what comes next.  But not IndyCar.

The only answer that seems logical is that they may never have meant to let him go…

Please understand, I base this on NOTHING, I am only reading tea leaves.  I can conjure two potential narratives for how this went down, and in the end, whichever is closest to the truth will color my opinion of Sunday’s news strongly.

The popular opinion runs this way. 
Seeds of contempt and betrayal were planted within the board.  Low ratings, angry team owners broke from parts invoices and a negative windfall from a Chinese disappearing act were fertilizer waiting for the seeds to germinate.  Evil schemers watered the flowerbed and created a leadership crisis that threshed Randy Bernard from the role of CEO.  With both an unexpected void in leadership and a void in vision, the board would be more receptive to the idea of selling the series as opposed to conducting a job search and reinventing a vision.  In comes Tony George and his posse of deep pocketed cronies with a “plan” for the future and reserves to fund it.  Selling the series then becomes the easy way out, even though the crisis may have been generated by those offering an unsolicited solution to solve it.
But consider this alternative narrative…
The board is generally supportive of Randy.  However, with most employees, there’s room for improvement.  For all the fans that were engaged and all the ideas that were tried, not all the ideas succeeded and television ratings suggest that only some fans were wooed to the point of being dreamy eyed.  Two Years ago I proposed goals for Randy, they were certainly aggressive, but in the optimism of the time they seemed achievable.  Certainly the time since has been challenging, but looking back, it would appear only one of these may have been met.  Accolades for success go hand in hand with accountability for shortcomings.  If you have ever given a performance review, you know that even good employees need to be challenged to get better.  So lets imagine Jeff Belkus tells Randy, "We are generally pleased with your work, but the ratings numbers are a disappointment and the financials for teams and the league are a challenge, so we want to get some additional advice on how we should be moving forward.  We hired Boston Consulting to help us with that."  At that point, Randy who has been managing and leading largely by what I would describe as a “Cult of Personality” or a “Primacy of Editorial Judgment” style is offended that he should have to heed his decision making process to an unsolicited, outside voice, becomes upset.  The relationship sours, blossoming into an unexpected parting of the ways, leaving IndyCar devoid of a plan for ascendency.
Again – I base this on nothing. 
But if were to ever know the truth, and it seemed to mirror the former, we should all be outraged and move on.  But if it mirrored the latter, that would be more like “one of them racin deals”.  A situation where personalities and managerial styles clashed , ending with an unpopular outcome.  A situation where a flow of vitriol towards the IMS board may not be warranted in the amounts it has been given (other than the PR cluster that ensued as a result)
I don’t know the truth, I don’t know what I really feel because I don’t know the truth.  I doubt anyone will come out and tell us either. 
I suspect we might be able to glean hints about truth from some things that may or may not happen in the future:
  • Does TG reacquire the series – motives become clear and understood in that scenario
  • What happens to Randy’s hires in Race control and Competition:  Beaux Barfield and Will Phillips?  If this was indeed a witch hunt to remove Randy’s fingerprints from the product, these two are sure to go.  If they remain in March, then I think we will have a better guess that a clash of personalities unexpectedly escalated. 
For what it is worth, that being - NOTHING.  If I were Jeff Belskus, here’s what I would do.
Retain Beaux and Will.  Their handywork resulted in the best on track product in years.  Reward them for that achievement because it is the right thing to do and it sends a clear message to your hard core fans that a break with the Bernard vision is not at hand.
Hire a CEO that is on better terms with the Team Owners, less caustic (but equally effective) with networks, more knowledgeable about the sport in general BUT someone who has also learned from Randy the lessons of transparency and fan engagement. 
In my book that would be Doug Boles.  He would need a strong marketing lieutenant under him and Beaux and Will handling competition, but in his time as the face of IMS proper, he seems to get it - Fans want to be and should be respected and engaged.  Likewise, as a former owner of a midsized team he would be sensitive to their needs as well. 
As Monica Hilton suggested today, we don’t know what is coming next, perhaps it could be better.  I hope it is, because frankly I don’t want to bail on the Drivers, team members and local promoters who do their best despite the shit storm that always seems to be swirling above them.


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