What Recruiters Can Learn From the National Football League

Quick! The annual NFL draft is approaching and your entire career hinges on choosing the right players for your pro team. Choose correctly and your team will make millions and be remembered as champions. Choose poorly and your team will be just another bunch of “wanna-be”s who go down the tube of history. No fear. You draw on your extensive experience as a professional recruiter. You don’t need Monster because all the candidates are active. And, you don’t use competencies because you believe they seldom work. All you need is the list of open positions: quarterback, halfback, and backstop (or at least that’s what you thought the coach said). No matter. You carefully review each player’s resume and invite him to attend a probing interview. You “nailed” each candidate with insightful questions, such as: What was your greatest accomplishment? Would you rather be a coniferous tree or a seasonal shrubbery? How would your friends and neighbors describe your favorite Jell-O flavor? Yes, you dazzled the candidates with your insight and professionalism. You could tell by the look on their faces. You probably find this example to be silly and wrong-headed. You say that this is no way to hire an NFL professional; that it doesn’t even begin to evaluate athletic skills. That’s the point.

What Are You Looking At?

Just as each position in an NFL team needs clear-cut competency definitions, so does each job in an organization. While some unskilled or learn-on-the-job positions are interchangeable, many others need specialized skills such as technical knowledge, persuasion, complex problem-solving, or detailed planning. A recruiter who does not understand the requirements (e.g., basic job competencies) must rely on his or her own personal set of definitions. It’s the same for a coach or manager. Unclear expectations often lead to star basketball players wanting to become baseball players and discovering the bitter taste of mediocrity. In the same way, star technicians become bad supervisors, star salespeople become poor sales managers, and star performers in one company become mediocre ones at another. Titles may sound alike, but when jobs require significant change, few people are able to make the shift successfully. When I was in business school, the professors treated employees as “building blocks” that could be maneuvered, assigned, and directed into whatever direction management desired. Although the professors had abundant book knowledge of finance, accounting, or management, they seemed to take job requirements and employee skills for granted. ‘I’m sure that if the professors collectively owned sports franchises, they would have hired Tiger Woods as a quarterback, sent him to tennis camp, and coached him to bowl.

Bad Management Can Screw Up the Best-Planned Picnic

A bad manager can undermine and destroy the effectiveness of a highly qualified employee. That goes without saying. The real question is, can a good baseball coach turn Michael Jackson (sorry, Michael Jordan) into a star baseball player? Only in the movies. The rest of us can certainly become “better” but, like it or not, people are happier and more satisfied when they finally realize there are limitations to everything. One of our favorite images in the movies is the coach who takes full credit for his players’ skills. Viewers are led to believe that these wunderkind were formed out of mud (think of orcs in Lord of the Rings) and turned them into super athletes. This is the height of ego-centricity. All a good coach can do is develop existing talent. As an example, think about the athlete who trained all year for the Boston Marathon, only to lose to a skinny guy from Africa who started life by sprinting out of the womb. Half of the top 14 leaders in the 2006 Boston Marathon were Kenyan; 13 of the last 16 Boston marathons were won by Kenyans. I’m sure it is due to the excellent coaching provided by the Kenyan government.

You Can Learn a Lot by Watching

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Let’s go back to the locker room. In one corner the NFL scouts and coaches are watching reruns. No. Not Desperate Housewives. They’re watching reruns of each potential draft-pick actually playing the game. In another corner, they are reviewing each candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and injuries. In yet another, they are evaluating their own team’s strengths and weaknesses. Why are they doing this? First, these experts need to know exactly what positions they need to fill and required skills (competencies). Second, they want to meticulously examine examples of each candidate’s athletic skills. Finally, they’re determining a strategy for acquiring the players they need. Did anyone notice they seldom use interviews? But, clarifying and observing athletic skills is one thing; clarifying and observing on-the-job skills is more difficult. For example, this statement has been used as a “competency”:

Is able to achieve talent development, including orientation, succession planning and preparation, prevention and management of employee relations issues, and performance management that further employee engagement, stability and productivity.

I agree this is something we all certainly want a manager to accomplish, but it contains too many activities – talent development, succession planning, employee relations, engagement, and so forth. It takes years to accomplish – succession planning often takes years to evaluate. It’s highly subjective (what is “prevention of employee relations issues”). And it requires super-human expectations (e.g., “further” employee “engagement”). Business-related competencies must be simple and easy to evaluate. Complex competency definitions are doomed to fail, as are the well-meaning folks who convinced management to adopt them. What then can be evaluated fairly and accurately in a reasonably short period of time? Well, we have mental horsepower, planning and organizing skills, coaching, persuasion, conflict resolution, and job motivations, to name a few. Time after time, these basic factors emerge when serious job studies are conducted. Think of them as the building blocks of job performance. Using our example, above:

  • talent development = analysis, coaching, and planning
  • orientation = planning and teamwork
  • succession planning and preparation = analysis and planning
  • prevention and management of employee relations issues = analysis, coaching, and planning
  • performance management = planning and coaching

So, rather than getting bogged down in double-speak, recruiting becomes much easier when we focus on being able to evaluate a few building blocks. Will this completely eliminate employee performance problems? Of course not. But it will minimize the number of dull, disorganized, offensive, and unmotivated ones. Imagine what organizations would be like of they followed the NFL format? Or, let your imagination run wild and envision what the NFL would be like if coaches, owners, and scouts used the same techniques as most organizations.

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1 Comment on “What Recruiters Can Learn From the National Football League

  1. Brilliant analogy! Even more telling given the lengths NFL teams go in evaluating candidates (and still make poor choices) compared with the precious little information recruiters and hiring managers often have to make talent decisions.

    The only point I would add is that in draft-related discussions I’ve seen from sports publications, one telling factor they note as critical — but is often overlooked — is the coach. There are countless stories of great players who went flat in their first NFL seasons only to suddenly flourish when traded to another team and coach.

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