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Job Hopping is good for you: Career Lessons from Lane Kiffin

January 22nd, 2010 · 3 Comments

I’m going against the conventional wisdom. Job hopping is good for you if you can plan your moves strategically,

Since I’m neither a USC Trojan fan nor a Tennessee Volunteer fan, I’m fairly indifferent about Lane Kiffin’s move from Tennessee to USC. From an ethical standpoint, I didn’t like how Lane Kiffin made empty promises to the Tennessee community and then bailed on them.

But, I have been fascinated by Lane Kiffin’s career moves. At the young age of 34, he is coaching a top college football program with an annual salary of $2 million. Two years ago, at age 32, he became the youngest head coach ever in the National Football League (NFL). In the past four years, he had switched jobs three times:

  • In 2007, he quitted the offensive coordinator position at USC and became the head coach at Oakland Raiders. He had 5 wins and 15 losses as the head coach of Oakland Raiders in a little bit over a year.
  • In 2008, after he was fired by Oakland Raiders, he became the head coach of Tennessee Volunteers, a major college football program. He finished his first season at Tennessee with a modest record of 7 wins and 5 losses.
  • In 2010, after only one year at Tennessee, he quitted his job again and became the head coach of USC Trojans, one of the most high-profile coaching jobs in college football.

Lane Kiffin is a job hopper. He hasn’t won anything as a head coach. But, he kept getting high profile jobs with excellent pay.

I took a close look at Lane Kiffin’s career moves. Like him or not, I have to say that Lane Kiffin is very strategic in making career moves while managing the down-side risks. Let me share with you a few lessons I learned.

First, Lane Kiffin made bold moves with limited risks. When he was hired by Oakland Raiders, a lot of people were saying that he was doomed to fail. He had never been a head coach before. He had never coached in the NFL. All his previous experience was in college. He was hired by one of the most difficult, and hated owners in professional football, Al Davis.

I think Lane Kiffin was very smart in making this move. He knew what he was getting himself into. The chance for him to succeed in Oakland was low. But, this moved significantly raised his profile in the public. A 32-year old college offensive coordinator without any prior head coaching experience were hired by Al Davis? He must be really good. Although Al Davis was very controversial, he had a history of giving young coaches a chance. For example, he hired the legendary John Madden when he was young and unproven. John Madden led the Raiders to a super bowl.

Although Lane Kiffin was unproven as a head coach, there was a PERCEPTION that he was really good. The hiring by Al Davis further "validated" that perception in public eyes.

On the other hand, because Al Davis had reputation for being difficult and frequently firing head coaches, Lane Kiffin had low risk. If he was fired, the public would be very sympathetic to him. The press would put a lot of blame on Al Davis. That’s exactly what happened two years ago. Under Lane Kiffin, the Oakland Raiders had some improvements, but still had a bad losing record. He lasted for a little bit over one season.

But, the firing didn’t damage the Lane Kiffin brand much. He was soon hired by Tennessee. Some people bought into the perception that he was a great young coach. And they blamed Al Davis for Lane Kiffin’s failures.

Second, Lane Kiffin has surrounded himself with a very experienced team to put him in a position to win. When Lane Kiffin was hired by Tennessee, he was under a lot of pressure to deliver. Tennessee was part of Southeastern Conference (SEC), which is the most competitive conference with several college football powerhouses such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia, etc. As a young coach with little head coaching experience, Lane Kiffin knew that he needed help. He hired his Dad, Monte Kiffin, as the defensive coordinator for his team. Monte Kiffin was widely regarded as one of the greatest defensive coordinators in NFL history.

When Lane Kiffin made the move to USC, he brought with him Monte Kiffin, and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron. Ed was known as a power recruiter, who was the National Recruiter of the Year in 2004. So, Lane Kiffin essentially hired two superstar assistants when he took the job. He put himself in a very good position to win.

Third, Lane Kiffin increased his odd to succeed by moving into a less competitive environment. The Tennessee Volunteers is part of the SEC conference. That means Lane Kiffin will need to beat Florida and Alabama each year to just win the SEC before his team even gets a chance to compete for national championship. That’s going to be extremely difficult. The PAC 10 is also a competitive conference. But, USC is a notch above everyone else in the conference. It’s much easier for Lane Kiffin to lead USC to win the PAC 10, and then play for the national championship, as opposed to try to win the SEC every single year.

In summary, there are five lessons we can all borrow from Lane Kiffin’s job hopping play book:

  • In the short term, perception is reality. Try to cultivate a public image that you’re the smart guy with enormous potential. Someone will offer you big job with big salary.
  • Make bold moves, but protect your downside. 
  • Surround yourself with smart and experienced people who will compensate for your weaknesses and help you succeed.
  • Put yourself into the most conducive environment for wining.
  • Experience is overrated. Perception will tramp lack of experience.

Am I being too cynical in writing this post? Well, I think one day Lane Kiffin will have to prove himself as a successful head coach. I do think he is in a pretty good position to do so. Only time will tell.

Let me finish this post with a quote from Benjamin Graham, the legendary author of The Intelligent Investor:

"In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run it’s a weighing machine".

The same applies to the job market: in the short term, the market is a voting machine based on perception of your potential. In the long run, the job market is a weighing machine that will count what you have done.

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Tags: Career Fast Track · Corporate Ladder · Recruiting & Job Hunting

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jack // Jan 23, 2010 at 11:31 am

    A friend shared this article in Google Reader. It made me laugh. You somehow glossed over the fact that Kiffin has burned numerous bridges, become the most hated football coach in college football, and become the most hated man in the state of Tennessee.

    One could argue he only left the SEC because everyone in the conference had lost respect for him and the conference had tagged him with so many secondary recruiting violations that he became too frustrated, unable to adapt. Great role model.

    I guess climbing rungs on the career ladder is worth burning all those bridges.

  • 2 GeekMBA360 // Jan 25, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Jack.

    I agree with you that Lane Kiffin burned some bridges with Tennessee and the SEC. However, I think the bridge-burning is not as devastating as people think.

    Let's say that in the next few years, Lane Kiffin has a great run at USC, winning multiple Pac 10 championships, and maybe 1 or two national championships. If he calls one of the SEC teams and say that he would like to become their head coach, I think the school will talk to him. In college football (or in other industries), people care more about winning than anything else. As long you can win (or make a lot of money for the company), you'll be able to get another job. Personally, I don't like this culture, but it's reality that we have to deal with. :-)

    By no means I agree with what Lane Kiffin did; he showed a lack of loyalty and class. But, at least in the short term, he had put himself into a very good position career-wise for himself. :-)

  • 3 lvgoto // Jan 28, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    From an ethical standpoint, I didn’t like how Lane Kiffin made empty promises to the Tennessee community and then bailed on them.

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