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Of Goldman Sachs, the Yankees, and Level Playing Fields

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Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online

Have you noticed that the two most successful teams in New York City both engender passionately mixed emotions of admiration and contempt?

One team is the New York Yankees, the storied baseball franchise that just won its 27th World Series title -- when no other team has won more than 10 times. The Yankees have the largest revenue stream thanks to their own cable television network, a new billion-dollar ballpark, and owners who can afford the highest-paid players in baseball. (These players, in turn, generate yet more revenue.)

The other team is Goldman Sachs, the legendary investment banking and securities organization that generates record profits almost every year, even in the midst of a global-financial downturn. To put its record in perspective, consider that the average profit margin for financial services organizations from 2000 to 2008 was 19 percent. Goldman's was 29 percent. And the current year's performance will undoubtedly widen the gap. Goldman also holds the top ranking in many of the lead tables that customers use as a comparative measure of investment banks. And, similar to the Yankees, Goldman has the highest-paid performers in the industry -- with aggregate bonuses that this year will probably top $20 billion, far more than any other institution.

With performances like these, it is understandable that both the Yankees and Goldman Sachs are widely admired as the best of the best, and that top free agents -- whether they be pitchers, position players, traders, or deal-makers -- want to work for them. But side by side with the admiration, both also are viewed by many with anger, cynicism and even contempt. This has prompted defensive responses from the executives of both organizations. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman responded to criticism by saying, "Call us anything you want -- You're also going to have to call us world champions." And Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman's CEO, reacted to his critics by famously remarking that Goldman is really doing "God's work."

What Cashman and Blankfein don't realize, however, is that criticism of their organizations may have deeper roots, stemming from the perception that the game is not taking place on a level playing field. From this perspective, they are successful because the rules are skewed in their favor. For the Yankees, the fact that baseball has no salary cap allows the teams with the most revenue in the biggest markets to have a distinct advantage in recruiting and retaining the best players. And to add insult to injury, the city of New York provided public financing for its new stadium which provided even more revenue at minimal cost to the team.

Goldman, too, is perceived to benefit from a financial system that tilts its way. When other institutions were melting down, the architect of the rescue plan, the U.S. Treasury Secretary was none other than Goldman's former chairman. While Lehman was allowed to fail, AIG -- whose failure would have been disastrous to Goldman -- was bailed out. Furthermore, the requirement that all investment banks become bank holding companies ended up providing Goldman with access to the Fed "window" and cheap funds (in addition to the bailout funds) without causing Goldman to act like a real bank and actually lend money. The perceived result was that Goldman made incredible profits from its trading activity and will payout enormous bonuses -- perhaps over some shareholders' objections -- with the security of knowing that the government will not let it fail.

Most people admire individuals and organizations that are wildly successful. But admiration turns to anger and cynicism when that success seems to come not just from skill and hard work, but also from luck and connections. The New York Yankees and Goldman Sachs both play within the rules of the system -- but until the system is perceived to be more equitable, the criticism will continue.

Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Robert H. Schaffer & Associates a Stamford, Connecticut consulting firm and the author of the forthcoming book Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done