Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hiring Lessons from the NFL

You are about to make a key hire.

Someone you hope will figure in your organizational plans for a long time.

After an exhaustive recruiting and evaluation process, two top-notch perfectly qualified candidates have emerged as finalists. Experts who know them both say you could flip a coin between them.

Doesn't matter if it lands on heads or tails, you still win.

This scenario is precisely what unfolded in 1998 when two quarterbacks were regarded as the cream of the crop in the NFL Draft. The Indiannapolis Colts, picking first, spent many months evaluating the choice between the two. The San Diego Chargers, picking second, felt no matter who the Colts took, they were still in great shape.

Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson of the New York Times said before the draft, "Someday these two [quarterbacks] might be what John Elway and Dan Marino are now--on the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame together after being drafted in 1983 together."

The Chargers GM at the time, Bobby Beathard was quoted as saying, "You can go five to ten years without getting a chance to draft a quarterback like this".

History will show the Colts selected Peyton Manning with the #1 choice while the Chargers gleefully welcomed Ryan Leaf to the team with a four-year contract worth $31.25 million that included an $11.25 million signing bonus.

At the time, this was the highest amount of money ever guaranteed to an NFL rookie.

History will also show that while Manning has fashioned a Hall of Fame career that includes one Super Bowl triumph, Leaf is widely regarded as the greatest draft bust ever. Not just one of the greatest. The biggest flop ever. Period.

It would be easy to blame scouts and management for what happened as the highly-touted Leaf seemd to self-destruct in San Diego. In his rookie year, his attitude was called into question as he nearly fought an angry fan, often screamed at reporters and faked an injury to leave practice to golf. After threee seasons, he was released by the hapless Chargers before bouncing through Tampa Bay, Dallas and Seattle. Once hailed as a better prospect with a stronger arm and more potential upside than Manning, Leaf was out of football after 5 years.

San Diego lost millions and face.

Indiannapolis became home to "Peyton's Place".

Leaf's legacy?

One of disgrace.

But, what does this story mean for your business and the way you recruit and hire talent?

For openers, it helps if you understand that each NFL team will invest millions of dollars and countless man-hours to professionally scout and evaluate talent. With the possible exception of the NASA screening process for astronauts, few organizations spend as much time, money and effort up front to try and make the right hire. The Manning-Leaf story illustrates how difficult ANY hiring process is when it comes to the UNPREDICTABLE nature of trying to predict human behaviour. This is an imperfect science at best. If the best recruiters and evaluators in the world can't get it right 100% of the time, does it make sense to expect whoever does the hiring in your organization to be flawless when it comes to picking the right people?

While convenient to point fingers at the person(s) doing the hiring, the role of the coach in any successful hire can't be discounted either. When Manning joined the Colts, the respected Jim Mora was in charge for his first three seaons followed as head coach by Hall-of-Famer Tony Dungy. It can be argued that while Manning enjoyed the benefit of stability and expertise from his head coaches, Leaf did not. In fact, San Diego went through thre different head coaches in each of Leaf's three seasons and neither Kevin Gilbride, June Jones or Mike Riley ever landed another NFL head coaching job. Nor will they ever be confused with coaching greats such as Lombardi, Walsh and Dungy.

It has been my experience as a business coach and consultant that hiring is but one aspect of the on-boarding process and more time, care and attention needs to be paid to how talent is nurtured and developed once when a person joins an organization. Could the track Ryan Leaf ultimately followed in the NFL have been changed if he had the opportunity to play for someone like Tony Dungy? In football and in business, the performance of any player can be impacted in a huge way by the coaching and leadership qualities of the person in charge. But far too often, narrow-minded owners and managers complain they "can't find any good people" without ever stopping to ask whether they are part of the problem in the first place.

These are the same owners and managers who frequently turn to HR consultants and headhunters promising their clients the world. Its as though the latest "behavioural-based interview techniques" or "effective screening programs" will be the magic bullets that achieve hiring results.

Few in the hiring and headhunting business will point out to their clients the many other factors that impact the development of talent. Coaching is but one of many, taking into account the role the deeper issues of culture and the brand itself plays in terms of who it attracts, who it repels and why that would even matter to certain candidates. In other words, you might have a computer programmer with superior skill sets who might shine at Microsoft, but bomb at Apple. Again, experience has shown the majority of companies advertising for top employees are doing so without fully understanding who they are in the first place and what would make a perfect match.

Beginning with knowing who you are as a brand is vital to the development of any successful recruiting and retention strategy. One of several NFL teams that has this core component down pat are the three-time Super Bowl champions out of New England.

The Patriots have been one the most dominant teams of the past decade. In an era where dynasties aren't supposed to happen, New England has been a dynasty team. And it all starts with the brand values that head coach Bill Belichick brings to the business of recruitment and retention.

When assessing talent, Belichick and the Patriots will place a higher value on intangible soft skills and whether an athlete is "right for our system"; selfless, self-motivated, with the humility to take direction and mesh well with others in the locker room. He and his scouts are less concerned with tangible, physical skills like those revealed in benchpress numbers, vertical leaps and time in the 40-yard dash. In other words, the Patriots are looking much deeper than what's on the resume or what they get fed in the first interview.

Belichik knows even the most talented player in the draft will fail without proper development while someone with less obvious physical skills can still shine in the right system. How else does one explain what happened when the Patriots selected future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady with the next to last pick (199th overall) in the 2000 NFL Draft? While Brady is a bona fide super star, he is not a prima donna. Despite three Super Bowl rings, he is still a willing student who listens to his coaching staff while leading is teammates with the grit of a grizzled war veteran.

How would Brady fare with another team?

Great question since Pats players tend to look great in New England, but seldom perform well after they've been released or traded. Perhaps, its because Belichick is drafting players that already fit the mold which makes them perform in his system.

While Ryan Leaf has been barbecued in the media for more than a decade, few will call the San Diego Chargers on the carpet for failing this talented individual on two fronts:

#1. Not having their own brand values set in stone to guide the way they recruit and develop talent.

#2. For not having their own coaching ducks in a row.

In business and in sports, you have to select players you can coach, but you also have to coach the players you draft.

If that isn't part of your hiring philosophy, failure is just a Ryan Leaf away.

"On a football team, it's not the strength of the individual players, but it is the strength of the unit and how they all function"


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