Governance and the Horse Race

Whether it’s a grueling 4.5-mile Grand National race or a Kentucky Derby, horse racing is an exhilarating spectacle that draws spectators from around the world. But for the horses involved, the sport is a dangerous and often deadly enterprise. Bred for speed at the expense of endurance, the equine athletes are pushed far beyond their natural abilities in races that last only minutes and that require jumping over imposing obstacles that put enormous pressure on their slender front legs. It’s not uncommon for them to sustain debilitating injuries, including bleeding lungs and broken bones. And for many, the ultimate price is paid when they fail to win and are shipped off to an abattoir.

Likewise, the classic succession “horse race,” in which several senior executives compete to become the next CEO within a specific timeframe, has drawn criticism from governance experts and corporate leaders who are concerned about its negative impact on the company. The approach can cause disruptions to the business and alienate those whose hopes for the top job are dashed, particularly if the decision is made in haste. It also may erode a company’s ability to attract talent in the future, especially if strong leaders deeper in the organization have aligned with an unsuccessful candidate.

In contrast, proponents of the horse race say that it’s a powerful management tool that provides a clear path for high performers to ascend the corporate ladder. They argue that a competitive process gives the board confidence that it has made an informed choice for the company’s next leader. Moreover, having several candidates vying for the role indicates that the board is committed to its leadership development processes and that it has prepared its people for a demanding leadership challenge.

While it’s true that the horse race model can create unanticipated disruptions in the organization, there are ways to manage the risks of such a contest. To begin with, a board should be sure that it is suited to this type of contest and develop strategies for managing its duration and results. It should also ensure that it has the right resources in place to support the process, including a dedicated committee to oversee it.

Finally, it’s important for reporters to provide balanced coverage of the candidates and their positions on the issues. When they focus exclusively on who is winning or losing – a practice known as horse race journalism – voters, the political process and the news industry suffer, research suggests. The Poynter Institute and other journalism organizations, as well as industry critics such as New York Magazine columnist Ed Kilgore and pollster Mark Blumenthal, have suggested ways for news outlets to improve their horse race coverage. In the end, however, it’s up to each individual journalist to determine what’s best for their readers.