Randy Sexton was part of the founding
team which brought the NHL back to the city of Ottawa in
1992. Over a four year period he served in capacities including
President and General Manager of the hockey team. Randy
left the Ottawa Senators during the 1995-96 season and
subsequently worked for three software companies in senior
sales and general management roles. He then became General
Manager of the Bell Sensplex Arena in Ottawa before being
appointed Assistant General Manager of the Florida Panthers
in January 2007. Randy’s
responsibilities include day-to-day hockey operations, negotiating
player contracts, assisting on scouting, and working with
the team's director of hockey operations on matters related
to the team's AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.
Partner Bob Hebert sat down with Randy Sexton to discuss
major career transitions and lessons learned from both
the hockey and high technology sectors.
When you first left the Ottawa Senators you
were a hockey executive in a high- technology town. Can
you talk a little about the challenges you had in finding
your next role?
When I first left the Senators, I started making calls and
was pleased that almost everyone that I contacted agreed
to take a meeting with me. I figured this transition stuff
was going to be a breeze.
But as I soon found out, while many met
with me because of who I was in the hockey community, few
knew what to do with me. Some just wanted to talk hockey
with me while others promised that if they ever moved into
the hockey software business that I would be the first
person they called. Then I had a meeting with a prominent
member of the technology community who told me that the
sector needed ‘good
leaders’ just like me and that he and several other
senior executives were working on a plan to help outsiders
transition into the tech community. I was so excited until
I learned that his plan was to sponsor me in a four year
engineering program. As a married guy with three kids and
a couple of business/finance degrees, that simply wasn’t
going to happen.
After scores of meetings I started to realize that not only
was I unlikely to enter the technology sector as a senior
executive, I was going to have to work incredibly hard just
to get in the door. One day a friend called who worked for
a supply chain software company in town. He told me that
his firm was creating a new role for someone to establish
channel partners. I immediately called the president and
was given a meeting. While the interview went well, I could
see that my lack of related experience had him scratching
his head. So I suggested that he put me through some sort
of test that would prove to him that I could do this job.
After thinking about this a little, he suggested that I come
back in and make a sales presentation to the management team
as though I was their channel manager selling to a potential
Over the next week I put myself through a crash course on
the company, its industry and products. I read and studied
what I could and even had someone do a demo for me. My friend
helped me tremendously in preparing. I knew almost zero about
software but the firm took pride in the ease of use of their
product and after some preparation I thought I knew enough
to pass the test. Anyways, I did the presentation and at
the end they asked if I could also do a demo. Fortunately
I could, though with absolutely no follow-up questions from
the audience, and low and behold they hired me on the spot.
And that is how my technology sector career started. I am
pleased to say it went very well from there and I soon I
was promoted from the channel sales role to the VP Sales.
What advice would you have for others trying
to make such a dramatic career change?
I would say a few things. First, be prepared to pay a price
to make a big change. I went from General Manager of an NHL
hockey team to essentially a salesman. But I did what I had
to do to get in the door and it worked. Second, believe in
yourself. A lot of people will question you and try to dissuade
you but you have to believe in yourself. I knew that if someone
gave me an opportunity that I would be successful. And I
never wavered from that conviction. Third, be prepared to
work hard because you will have to prove yourself all over
again. And finally, do not be too proud or afraid to ask
for help. I got a lot of help along the way, but I had to
ask for it.
What surprised you most about the tech sector?
There were a number of things that surprised me, some big
and some small. For example, just walking into my new employer
I was surprised to see the diversity of people and cultures
all working together. This was a difference for sure as the
hockey community at the time was only beginning to embrace
players from around the world.
Another difference that struck me is
that my new employer had relatively little market visibility.
While this is not that unusual for a small company it was
a liability in that many of our potential customers did
not know us. For me it was strangely a wonderful thing
as I had just come from an organization which was arguably
too visible. I had
just spent years where I was under a microscope all of the
time. Every single decision I made, every action I took was
scrutinized to the point that even my kids were affected
by it at school. Moving to this small software company, I
could actually do my job without having to read about how
I did the very next day. In a way it was wonderful.
Related to this last point, at the start-up company we worked
with a business plan against which we were measured annually
by our board of directors. I was very comfortable with this
as I could plan my work and work the plan as it were. By
way of contrast, in hockey we were measured every night.
Did you win or lose? Are you making the playoffs or not?
What are you doing about the two losses in a row? It is difficult
to keep a longer term perspective with the kind of scrutiny
you get in an NHL team. You might recall that we came into
the league at the same time as the Tampa Bay Lightning. They
elected to position their team to be competitive immediately
while we committed to a longer term building formula. We
knew that this would not be a popular strategy for fans who
wanted to win now and have all of the problems fixed now.
And the pressure to act can be so intense that you end up
doing things for short term gain which are only guaranteed
to create longer term pain.
Lastly, I found tech refreshing in that I finally did not
have to have all of the answers. I could go to clients with
a pre-sales person or an engineer and at a certain point
turn the discussion over to that person. I could never do
that in hockey. When someone asked why I made a trade or
drafted someone I could not tell them I did not know the
answer to that question and turn them over to someone else.
I had to have all of the answers, all of the time. Ironically,
my hockey experience did lead me to think that having all
of these pre-sales types was inefficient, and I did make
a point of hiring sales people with a stronger technical
pedigree that would reduce the need for a whole team to make
What was the hardest part of the transition?
Undoubtedly learning the technology was
hardest. I was a real neophyte and there was a lot to learn.
It was like mastering a new language as an adult, and it
was embarrassing at times. I would ask people basic questions
an operating system’ and they would roll their eyes.
But I was coming from a different world and I had a lot to
The other thing, for me personally, was stepping back and
parking my ego. I am a pretty self-confident person and I
had run a business. As I transitioned into a new world, I
had to listen and learn and resist the temptation to speak
up and take control all of the time. It was a good lesson
for me personally.
Both hockey and the tech
sector depend on talent – how
would you describe the differences in approach to managing
talent between the two businesses?
At the end of the day, both are people businesses in which
their primary assets walk out the office or rink every day.
Thus, hiring, organizing, motivating, and retaining people
are keys to both. It is all the same.
The challenges of motivating hockey players
are no different than those of motivating tech sector workers.
It requires understanding the needs and drivers of the
individuals you are dealing with. For some it is recognition,
respect, learning, money, and/or simply winning. I also
believe that the stage of a person’s career has a
bearing. In hockey, a young player can sometimes be motivated
through more ice time while a seasoned, grizzled veteran
may have only one or two key goals left in his career.
It really is the same in the business world. That sales
person that works for you has needs and wants and you need
to learn how best to support him or her to be successful.
Another thing that is common is that you build a team around
certain core people. These are people who share your values,
who exhibit behaviors you value and who model them for others.
They are your core and you build your team around those individuals.
In hockey you sign those players to long term deals and in
the tech sector you sign them to attractive options packages.
Either way, you build around your core.
How is drafting a player different than hiring
someone in the tech sector? And what have you learned
The biggest difference is that in the tech sector, you can
hire someone with a track record. If you are hiring a sales
professional, you interview a number of people who have some
sort of track record that you can compare. You examine what
kind of results they have had, how they achieved those results
and how well this will fit into your organization and its
In hockey you are drafting 17-18 year
old kids whose lives are still being formed. These are
young people who have lived somewhat sheltered lives in
a hockey bubble. It is tempting in hockey to rely on statistics – how many goals did
the player score or prevent. But you are also trying
to gauge how they will develop over the next five to ten
years, both physically, and emotionally. This is very difficult
because it involves a large number of factors.
If I recall, when you were with the Senators
you were among the first to really think about character
when you drafted players. Can you talk about this and
how the issue has evolved since your days with the Senators?
This is interesting because we did think a lot about character
when I was with the Senators and even though we were young,
inexperienced guys we actually did some outside-the-box stuff
I have come to learn that while talent
does matter, and don’t get me wrong it matters a
great deal, with few exceptions the differences between
most players relates to character. NHL hockey players have
reached the pinnacle of their profession because they are
talented. The difference between a player that lifts a
team and one that brings it down comes down to attitude
and character. It is qualities such as perseverance; how
the players deal with adversity; their sense of integrity
and honor; how selfless or selfish they are; whether they
can be counted upon; how they behave with their teammates.
These are not just leadership issues they are about being
a good human being.
As I have come back to the NHL, I am
more convinced than ever that high tech and sports are
exactly the same in the importance of character players.
I would say that the difference between the two though
is that professional sports, with so many teams in each
league, tends to get seduced by talent and can overlook
character. Look at the Cincinatti Bengals with nine players
arrested last year. I have read that the team management
believed that players who behaved poorly in college would
somehow change when they rose to the professional levels.
But for every such reclamation project that works out well
there are likely twenty where the player becomes more of
a negative than a positive force. The opposite is true
as well. Look at the Toronto Raptors this past year. Brian
Colangelo engineered a major turnaround of that team in
one year. If you read interviews with him, he attributes
some of that success to selectively bringing in individuals
he called ‘character types’.
Though character is important in both sports and business,
sports is a very public business so character also becomes
an issue in how our players interact with fans, and the community
in which they play. Though their performance is measured
on the ice, their value to their organization includes how
they perform off it as well and the best players do both
So we spend more time now considering
character in all of our player decisions. For example,
when we draft players we not only talk to his coaches and
teammates but we talk to the player’s teachers and parents. We talk to their
billets when they live away from home – did they clean
their room, were they helpful around the house, did they
do what they said they would do, did they get along with
other household members? What are their habits? What is important
to them? While that player will mature and change over time,
we can predict a lot about how that future unfolds by looking
We are fortunate to have hired recently retired Joe Nieuwendyk
to assist us in Florida. Joe spent 20 years in the NHL and
was one of the most respected players in the league in large
part because of the quality of person he is. Among his responsibilities
is to advise us on the character of players throughout the
What would you say is the single biggest learning
from the tech sector that you have tried to apply in
your role at the Florida Panthers?
Probably the single biggest learning I got from the tech
sector was the importance of metrics. In the tech sector
we had a whole set of KPIs (key performance indicators) by
which we managed the business. I had not seen that before.
That is not to say that we were unsophisticated in the NHL,
just that the tech sector was more rigorous in focusing organizations
on certain things that were agreed to be most important for
I have really taken those lessons to heart and am trying
to apply them in our organization. Take scouting for example.
In hockey, you draft someone at a young age and it could
be 4-5 years before you start to see whether they have a
real future in the NHL. It is difficult to even remember
who the scout was sometimes by the time the player realizes
or fails to realize his potential. We are trying different
things now. We are setting scouting goals around the number
of draft picks who become NHL players, we are introducing
new metrics by which to evaluate and keep track of players,
and we are looking at how we organize, compensate and deploy
our scouts so as to maximize our overall effectiveness. And
we will do this across all parts of our organization.
Corporate culture is the other thing.
Hockey is often reduced to winning and losing and whether
you make the playoffs, but good teams have a culture, one
that players thrive in and long to play for. In one of
the tech firms I worked for, the CEO constantly reinforced
a culture which valued hard work, innovation, fun, and
work/life balance. We are doing the same kind of things
in Florida. We want innovation and are constantly evaluating
the manner in which we do things. For example we are looking
at how we train and condition our players, how we reward
them, how we build team spirit, the criteria we use to
draft players, and even how we interact with our fans. We are embarking on some very innovative
leadership development programs this year which will not
only have the effect of building team spirit, which can be
difficult with so much movement in the league, but also the
players as individuals and future leaders. There are no shortages
of opportunities to innovate in our business and innovation
has to be everyone’s job.
Balance is probably the most difficult aspect of our culture
as we have such an intensive, high travel business. But it
is important and we are working on a number of initiatives
involving family that try to recognize that the player on
the ice is more than just an athlete, he is a husband, a
father and a son and we have to make room for all of those
responsibilities. If we are going to tell our players that
character matters, we have to live that at a team level as
Would you return to the technology sector?
I really enjoyed the technology sector. I was given wonderful
opportunities there and had the chance to work with some superb
people, some of whom will be my friends for the rest of my
life. But hockey is in my blood and for me there is no place
else I would rather be.