Thursday, August 4, 2011

On mentors, trees, and progeny

I have a great interest in how individuals can influence the world. While I grant that macro conditions can also influence the world, it's more interesting to me to hear how particular people - Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Steve Jobs, John Lennon, whoever - can change the world around them.

But what happens when that factor is multiplied? What if a person not only changes the world him/herself, but also inspires others to change the world?

Let me give you an example. The late Bill Walsh certainly influenced the history of the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League, as well as the history of Stanford University. But as this infographic shows, his influence didn't stop there:

Of the NFL's 32 current [as of July 2007] head coaches, 22 can easily trace their lineage to Bill Walsh. He spawned seven NFL head coaches from his 49ers staffs, plus Paul Hackett, a longtime NFL assistant and one of many current or former NCAA Division I-A head coaches tied to Walsh.

The names that appear in the list, either first-level or subsequent-level connections, include famous coaches such as Dennis Green, Sam Wyche, Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, John Fox, Mike Shanahan, Pete Carroll, Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Tony Dungy, and many others.

Why do the resumes of these people matter? Because part of what was passed on to these people is a technique commonly known as "the West Coast Offense" (technically, the West Coast Offense v2.0, or the West Coast Offense that doesn't have to do with Don Coryell). According to Wikipedia:

Walsh's 49ers won three Super Bowls during this period, behind the passing abilities of legendary quarterback Joe Montana. As a result, Walsh's version has come to be known as the "West Coast Offense". Montana thrived for many years as the starting QB for the 49ers. He captured 4 Super Bowl titles, 3 Super Bowl MVP awards, and 2 AP NFL MVP titles while in San Francisco in the 1980s.

Several of Walsh's coordinators went on to successfully implement this system at other teams. George Seifert won two Super Bowls with the 49ers; once with Joe Montana at quarterback in 1989, and later with Steve Young in 1994. Mike Shanahan won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos in 1997 & 1998, utilising the leadership and passing skills of quarterback John Elway. Shanahan's run-heavy variation of the offense is also known for finding unheralded running backs, inclunding former NFL MVP Terrell Davis, and then turning them into league-leading rushers behind small yet powerful offensive lines. Mike Holmgren won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in 1996 behind the quarterbacking of 3-time NFL MVP Brett Favre. Holmgren also coached in two others; first with the Packers in the 1997 season, and then with the Seattle Seahawks in the 2005 season. One of Holmgren's assistants, Jon Gruden, went on to win a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2002 season.

So the relationships (immediate or tangential) between Walsh and these other coaches had important effects on the entire industry, and not just on Walsh's own employers.

Obviously the power of these relationships can be found outside of the sports world. Michael Koploy alerted me to a Software Advice post that traced Larry Ellison's influence throughout the tech industry. Names in this infographic included Charles Phillips, Marc Benioff, Sebastian Marotte, and a host of others.

And what did these people learn from Ellison?

Much of what we recognize in the software market today – hard-nosed determination, aggressive sales and marketing, personal rivalries – can be tied back to Larry Ellison’s personality and the experience many executives got at Oracle. Over the past four decades, Ellison’s personality and influence at Oracle has undoubtedly had an impact.

Not that mentors and pupils always agree:

Ellison, Oracle’s chief executive, used part of his opening keynote at his company’s annual conference Sunday to argue that that Salesforce’s Web-based business applications don’t meet Oracle’s definition of the trend. He defined the cloud as a platform for building software and a pool of virtual computing resources where customers only pay for what they use. Ellison made the comments while introducing Exalogic, Oracle’s new “cloud-in-a-box” system for setting up and managing such clouds. CEO Benioff, in his own presentation Wednesday to attendees of Oracle’s OpenWorld conference, took the software tycoon’s gibes in stride. He called Ellison’s remarks “very cute,” thanking him for the free publicity.

But in a subsequent luncheon with journalists and customers, Benioff questioned Ellison’s own grasp of cloud computing, which he defined as low-cost, user-friendly Web services that don’t require upgrades.

Oracle’s machine “is not lower cost,” and not easy to use, Mr. Benioff said. “It’s not cloud computing,” he added. “Clouds don’t go in boxes.”

Later in the day, Mr. Ellison shot back: “What does he think Salesforce runs on, if not on a box?”

Ellison added: “Actually, Salesforce runs on 1,500 Dell servers, which are boxes.” Benioff was really offended that the Exalogic box “was taller than he was,” Ellison said, responding to earlier comments from Benioff on the size of the machines.

But what if the pupil actually eclipses the mentor? Back in 1998, it was easy for this to happen:

The most talented go-getters often find older, wiser mentors to guide them early in the careers. But as more young managers ascend to the executive suite while still in their 20s and 30s, they are finding that they surpass their mentors in terms of pay or chain of command—and might even become their mentor’s boss.

If you rise fast enough, then you can accomplish more than your mentor ever dreamed for himself. That creates a delicate situation in which a mentor’s envy and jealousy can overtake his fond feelings for all your success. And you never want a mentor to turn against you.

Note that while Benioff has not eclipsed Ellison, he was still careful to acknowledge Ellison's importance to him, and to the beginnings of

And the relationship of Jon Gruden to Bill Walsh has had its ups and downs, primarily related to Gruden's success (or lack thereof) over the years.

In Gruden's first year, the Bucs destroyed San Francisco in their opening round of the playoffs and were well on their way to a Super Bowl trophy. Walsh made a point that day of visiting Tampa Bay's locker room and proudly congratulating his up-and-coming protege.

"He actually offered me a job," a smiling Walsh said of Gruden back then.

Several years later, Gruden's fortunes in Tampa Bay had declined, and his offense was called the "Worst Coast Offense."

But even the great Bill Walsh had losing seasons with the 49ers in 1979, 1980, and 1982 (one year after a Super Bowl victory), and also had losing seasons in two out of three years after his return to Stanford.

But the influence of Walsh, like the influence of Ellison, is unmistakable.
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