“Let’s be clear,” he said. “I’m not a savior. Neither is Coach Ron Rivera. There’s no silver bullet for turning around an organization.”
But it is almost as if team owner Daniel Snyder has brought him in to do exactly that. The hiring of the 38-year-old Wright, a former NFL running back who rose fast in the business world after getting an MBA at the University of Chicago, comes at a tumultuous time for a franchise that was once one of the league’s strongest.
The team has had eight losing seasons in the last 11 years; it recently dropped its 87-year-old name, which is considered a racial slur, under pressure from sponsors; it has commissioned an investigation of its corporate culture after The Washington Post published a story detailing allegations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse; and Snyder’s three minority partners want to sell their roughly 40 percent stake in the team.
Yet Wright, who has lived in the Washington area since 2013, said he understands what waits for him when he takes over the team’s business operations next week.
“A lot of the high-stakes stuff that you see in and around the club at this time is something that I’m quite familiar with,” he said. “Hopefully, having not grown up in [Washington’s] front office allows me to bring some catalytic thinking. It’s the same reason organizations bring in people externally — to push the thinking, to have new, creative ways of thinking about things [and] maybe be a bit disruptive.”
Wright is an interesting choice to lead a team that has been without a top executive since Snyder fired longtime team president Bruce Allen on Dec. 30. In many ways, Wright — who also is the league’s youngest team president — is the opposite of Allen. The son of a former Black Panther, Wright, whose middle name, Gomillion, is in honor of his great-uncle, an activist professor at the Tuskegee Institute, sprinkles his sentences with words such as “inclusion” and “transparency” and talks about making business decisions using analytics. Allen, the son of former Washington coach George Allen, ran a top-down culture that many former employees described as stagnant and often confrontational.
Even though Wright was not someone who was frequently mentioned as a potential candidate to become an executive for an NFL team, his hire was celebrated by many around the league. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, a diversity group that works closely with the NFL on its hiring practices, released a statement calling the move “a historic event” and said, “We hope that it signifies a true change for the manner in which leadership is chosen in the NFL.” Randy Mueller, a former general manager of two NFL teams, described Wright as “the kind of guy who could go a long way towards healing wounds.” Two people inside the organization raved about Wright, with one saying he is “an incredibly smart hire.”
“I don’t know who is making these moves, but it isn’t the old Dan crowd,” said one person familiar with the team’s decision-making in recent years, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide a frank assessment. The person was referring not only to Wright’s hire but the addition last month of Julie Donaldson, the first woman to have a full-time role for an NFL team’s game day radio broadcast, who was also named the team’s senior vice president for media.
“Fresh blood with fresh thinking — kind of refreshing, actually,” the person added. “Maybe this is a signal that they are really going to operate differently.”
Wright said he was not looking to leave McKinsey but became intrigued when he was “connected” with Snyder and Snyder’s wife, Tanya, within the last few weeks. That led to a meeting and conversations with not only the Snyders but also Rivera, whom several of Wright’s former teammates and his football agent know well.
Through these conversations, Wright, Rivera and the Snyders came up with a power structure that will have Wright and Rivera reporting to ownership but will also be what Wright called “a three-headed leadership construct where we together are shaping a new culture.” He added that he believes the Snyders are committed to changing what many have described as a toxic atmosphere around the franchise.
“I’m not someone who goes off of rhetoric. I’m a former consultant; I know how BS can be spun and make people say something is going to happen that’s not,” Wright said. “What I saw from them in the hiring of Coach Rivera and in bringing in [attorney Beth Wilkinson to investigate the franchise’s culture] and some of the other decisions that may or may not be public are a real commitment to taking things in a different direction.”
He said the team, despite its often poor reputation in recent years, has “always had pockets of excellence waiting to go to the next level,” and he has a plan for helping turn it around.
Wright said he wants to focus first on navigating the inevitable “curveballs” that will come as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. He described his second-biggest task as trying to repair the culture, focusing particularly on the franchise’s diversity and creating a better environment for women and non-White employees.
“When you have women, minorities, different backgrounds, different disciplines, different educational backgrounds weighing in on decisions that are meaningful for the club … the data says we actually get better outcomes, you make better decisions,” he said. “So it is an absolute moral imperative to get everything right, but it is also a business imperative, which should give everybody even more confidence that this will be a sustained shift.”
Wright, who will be the franchise’s lead executive in its efforts to build a new stadium, also said he sees an opportunity to better what many fans consider a bleak experience during afternoons at FedEx Field. He wants to use the next several months to not only come up with a new team name but to use it “to be a good citizen in the DMV area.”
“This is pretty much the ideal situation to jump into,” Wright said. “I didn’t want to leave my firm. I loved it; I was doing fantastic, exciting work. But this was the challenge I just had to take on at this moment.”
Sam Fortier, Nicki Jhabvala and Mark Maske contributed to this report.
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