The Dallas Cowboys: A Family Business Executing A Very Deliberate Transition Plan

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Mar 26, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett speaks to reporters at the NFL Annual Meetings. Mandatory Credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

Well, if you close out the sports page and head over to forbes.com, or some other trusted business source, you’ll find that a sound family business tranistion plan is supposed to be gradual. Slowly, over the course of many years, the older generation gives more and more responsibility and accountability to the next generation, so that members of the organization hardly notice the change. The actual hand off should be as seamless as passing a baton in a relay race. Executed correctly, when the business formally announces the son is now CEO, people say, “Really? That’s strange. I thought he was CEO.”

So says small business and personal finance commentator Dave Ramsey, who has spoken and written extensively about the challenges of transitioning power in a family business from one generation to the next. Stephen Jones appeared to handle the Melton signing very capably, landing the team’s top priority free agent without over-paying him. How much Jerry was involved is hard to say, but both are adamant that Jerry still runs the show. A recent Ramsey blog post seemed particularly relevant to these Cowboys:

“The hardest transition emotionally is the first generational transition because the founder is a hardhead. I’m a founder. I’m a hardhead… Yet the paradox for those of us who are founders is if we really love the business we’ve built, to not systematically, predictably transition it is to guarantee the death of the thing we love.”

While no NFL franchise can be confused with a typical family business, look at what Mark Davis has done in Oakland since his dad Al died in 2011. Al Davis was very famously in charge of his beloved Raiders to the bitter end, and his successor seems ill prepared to execute the responsibilities of ownership.

A well-thought out, deliberately executed succession plan is just smart business, no matter how big and successful and secure the company may be. Whatever else is said of Jerry Jones, few question the man’s business acumen. Is he still in charge at Valley Ranch? Absolutely. Is he preparing his successor like a smart business owner should? I think so.

Son Stephen has been more and more out front of the football operations in recent years. That’s completely natural as the Executive Vice President and COO of the team. Up to this point, though, he’s been out front and standing shoulder to shoulder with his dad. Jerry’s absence during the Melton signing was unusual, if not unprecedented, and perhaps another gradual step in what might be a very deliberate process.

And it’s a process in which Garrett appears to enjoy a central role. At the NFL owners meeting this week, Garrett calmly spoke to a media machine that smells blood in the water about the challenges of building a program with an eye to the future. Garrett’s in the final year of his contract with three straight 8-8 campaigns in his rear view mirror, and in years past a four-year playoff drought would have Jerry brandishing his hook.

But Garrett’s not talking about short-term help to make a 2014 run. He’s not sweating the loss of Ware and Hatcher. He’s not talking like this season it’s playoffs or bust. Neither is Jerry. Nor is Stephen, for that matter. They all seem to be pulling in the same direction – building through the draft, using free agency sparingly, and establishing some organizational continuity.

That’s how perennial contenders in the NFL are built and sustained. That’s not how Jerry has run things – at least not until he turned 70. Jerry will be 72 this year, and it could be he’s gradually giving a hand-picked successor more and more responsibility so the team will be in capable hands when he retires to his owner’s box. Perhaps at some point in the next decade or so, Jerry will formally step down and hire himself a competent GM. If he does it right, no one will even notice.

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