NHLPA and SAG – What do actors and hockey players have in common? Union trouble

images-11In one of those funny coincidences in life, a few months after I withdrew as lead candidate for the National Executive Director position at the Screen Actors Guild in 2006, I was contacted by a search firm hired by the National Hockey League Players Association about their search for an Executive Director.

At the time it was largely personal reasons that led me to decline the invitation to throw my hat in the ring. But not without some regret. I grew up in the midwest and that meant I was a hockey fan and casual player. This was in the days of Bobby Hull and we used to hold our games on the frozen river behind my house. As they say, it was different then.

Nonetheless, I balked at one somewhat odd aspect of the NHLPA recruiter call. As an inducement at one point he dropped in this little tidbit – the gig paid $2 million a year. The argument was that the CEO of the Players is responsible for labor negotiations but also for commercial deals that are signed on behalf of players.

Fair enough, but that seemed absurd to me for a union staff director even though I have often argued that organized labor needs to ramp up salaries for top professional staff in order to get the skill sets they need to deal with today’s complex, global business environment.

I jokingly replied that I would only take a million!

As it turns out, my instincts were more right than I knew. The NHLPA actually is going through an internal governance crisis that is remarkably similar to the one SAG has been through in the last few years. Like SAG there is a record of hiring and then firing their CEO’s. Like SAG this ends up costing the membership millions in severance packages and legal fees. Like SAG the disarray internally hurts the image and leverage of the organization.

Various solutions attempted at SAG have also been tried, and apparently, failed at the NHLPA. The hockey players expanded their board to more than 30 members from a smaller number in order to get more player participation. They then tried, like SAG, to have two top executives – a CEO and a general counsel, with the latter answering directly to the board, as a means apparently, of controlling the CEO whom they did not trust from the get go based on past experience with other CEOs. SAG had proposed something similar which was one reason I withdrew from the process.

My assessment of the NHLPA is very similar to that of SAG: a union membership that is operating in a rapidly changing business environment needs a clear, transparent and accountable governance structure. Large boards do not help.

Instead, a smaller board that takes real responsibility must hire a CEO whom they vet thoroughly so that they understand clearly his or her value system and strategy. In the Players case, as at SAG, they need someone with business and labor savvy which is, of course, hard to come by. Then, they have to trust him to execute under their supervision and regular input. Set metrics and tie compensation to those metrics. Let a CEO be the CEO – meaning he hires his staff to execute the agreed upon strategy. Then see if the incentives work.

Unfortunately, right now the NHLPA seems engaged in the same kind of internal bickering that has consumed SAG over the last three years. Better to move on – get the right team in place and work hard for a successful contract round.

If today’s news out of Hollywood is any indication, dedication can produce results.