Recruiting Lessons From The Super Bowl

Examining how Super Bowl teams recruit will provide corporate leaders with valuable lessons on how to improve their recruiting. The first is avoiding candidate generalizations. Yes, many of the candidate generalizations routinely made by hiring managers covering age, experience, and college backgrounds would be laughed at by NFL recruiters. For example, a corporate recruit with the age and years of experience background of Tom Brady would likely never make it onto a candidate slate. He would likely be quickly rejected because he had so many negative factors like his advanced age, the fact that another firm recently terminated him, and that his degree in general studies wasn’t in any way related to the job that he was seeking. Fortunately, under the sports recruiting model, a candidate’s capabilities and performance (i.e., six Super Bowl rings) clearly outweigh any typical, “but he’s too old” generalizations and stereotypes. 

Most in HR instantly reject sports analogies, but that is a huge mistake in this case. First of all, executives love them. In addition, there are multiple easy to see lessons that corporate recruiters can learn from the 2021 Super Bowl teams. These top lessons are highlighted below in descending order. And in bullet point format for an easy and quick scan.

Lessons That Corporate Recruiters Can Learn From The Super Bowl

  • Avoid using age to screen out candidates – even in a profession that emphasizes youth’s athletic ability. It’s a mistake to reject a candidate because of their age too quickly. Obviously, in the corporate world, Tom Brady’s “equivalent age” would likely be rejected as “over the hill” because he would be well beyond the typical employee retirement age. Shifting to the Chiefs, the other quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, at 25 years old, when assessed in the corporate world, he wouldn’t likely even be considered for a team’s #1 leadership position because of his youth (incidentally, their backup quarterback is on the other end of the age spectrum at 35). Age is also often used in the corporate world when selecting managers. However, too much age is not a negative factor when it comes to head coaches because both teams’ coaches fall among the top five oldest ones in the league. And Bruce Arians, the Tampa Bay coach, is eager to return next season even though he is 68. The corporate recruiting lesson to be learned here is to think twice before generalizing and setting any older and younger limits on the acceptable age for any position.
  • Don’t restrict your recruiting to only “the best colleges” – although corporate college hiring managers love to focus on “the top 10 schools.” That narrow recruiting approach would miss quarterback Patrick Mahomes’s who didn’t attend a football powerhouse school (Texas Tech). There was something wrong with the league’s assessment processes because six teams passed over him before selected in the draft. And the other quarterback, Tom Brady, was passed over by literally every team (including the Patriots) at least five times until he finally went as number 199 in the 6th round. Examining the rosters from this year’s Super Bowl teams reveals that they include players from numerous schools that you would never initially consider as schools to target. Those no-name schools include James Madison, North Carolina Central, Colorado State Pueblo, Hobart, Missouri S &T, Middle Tennessee State, Wagner, and even Harvard. The lesson to be learned by corporate talent leaders is that, of course, it’s okay to recruit at “top schools.” However, it’s a big mistake not to also look for talent among the many second-tier schools. Next, realize that just like Nestlé Purina Petcare did. You can successfully use a “remote college recruiting approach” utilizing social media and the Internet to find talent at schools that you never visit easily. And finally, also realize that the best college hires don’t always have the right academic credentials, like a top-ranked school, a major that’s relevant to this job, and top grades. This year, if you did maintain those requirements, you would miss out on both starting quarterbacks (note: it appears that Patrick Mahomes has yet to graduate).
  • Don’t always grow your own managers – it’s common for corporations to grow their own leadership and managers internally. However, when it comes to succession planning for your next head coach. It is clear that both teams this year have avoided the “grow your own approach.” Instead, both teams have hired head coaches that never before served in their new team’s organization. They were hired after they were both unceremoniously dumped by their previous teams. Andy Reid, in particular, has a questionable pedigree. Including the fact that he once sold hot dogs to help support the team, he coached (incidentally, this happened at my university, San Francisco State). Next, don’t assume that the best performing players (i.e., employees) make the best managers. Neither of these coaches has ever been NFL players. And finally, don’t assess manager candidates based on their physical appearance because both of this year’s coaches are, to put it politely, chunky. When the topic is management hiring, the NFL itself could learn some valuable lessons from the corporate world in the areas of diversity and gender recruiting. 
  • Don’t reject a candidate just because they were released – many in the corporate world will not consider cast-off candidates released by another company, especially a poor performing firm. Tom Brady was still valued even though he was let go by the Patriots. It’s also true that Super Bowl rosters are full of “the rejects of others” every year. For example, Tampa’s star running back Leonard Fournette was released by one of the NFL’s worst team, the Jaguars. He was released because not a single team would trade for him. But the Tampa team looked past those flaws and recruited him anyway. Every year, the rosters also include players who were recruited despite their “bad boy reputations.” For example, this year, that includes Antonio Brown, suspended for an off-field altercation, and La’Vone Bell, who was so toxic that he was dumped midseason by the Jets after they couldn’t find a single team to trade for him. 
  • Direct poaching from a competitor pays off – many in the corporate world are reluctant to directly poach from another team, even after the target candidate has chosen to move on. Under the NFL’s unique roles, you can only recruit free agents that left a team. So obviously, you can count Tom Brady and Leonard Fournette as key poaching acquisitions this year. Tampa even made the exceptional move of plucking Rob Gronkowski from the ranks of the retired. Both teams also made it a habit of poaching from their subsidiary (the team’s practice squad). More corporate recruiters would actively poach if they realized that they were getting three benefits in addition to adding much-needed talent. You gained an opportunity to learn about your competitor’s best practices while simultaneously reducing your competitor’s skills and capabilities.
  • Don’t forget the importance of retention – recruiting is critical if you expect to win. However, it’s almost impossible to repeat a Super Bowl appearance without retaining your best players. And retention is more difficult the year after winning the Super Bowl because their players are now much more visible and desirable to recruiters in the league. In this case, the Chiefs excelled after winning last year by retaining their star quarterback, wide receivers (Godwin and Evans), and their best pass rushers (Pierre-Paul, Suh, and Barrett). Corporations must also realize that they need to proactively retain the talent that they recruit. Corporate retention should start with identifying all key “regrettable employees” that are at risk of leaving. And then proactively protect them using your most effective data-driven retention tools.
  • Maximize your impact by prioritizing key positions and players – unfortunately, it’s rare for corporations to prioritize their positions as effectively as NFL teams do. Even outsiders can tell which positions are “mission-critical” on an NFL team. By identifying the positions that they draft first, the average amount they pay for that position, and the number of backups for that position they carry on their roster. This prioritization allows NFL teams to focus their recruiting in areas that have the most impact. As a result of prioritization, most NFL teams focus their recruiting and development efforts on key positions, including quarterbacks, pass rushers, receivers, and running backs. Corporations should also begin to prioritize their recruitment efforts and resources on 20% of mission-critical positions and that have the highest business impacts.
  • Quickly release low performers and the obsolete – in sports, recent and future performance are much more important than loyalty and seniority. So, even after a sports team wins a championship, their average roster turnover approaches 20 percent during the next year. Some of this is purposeful. Because even when you’re the best team, you still need to continually change your players because most players lose skills and reduce performance levels over time. HR needs to learn from sports how to terminate your lower-performing employees quickly, and those are no longer needed because their skills have become obsolete. Do this without delay for the benefit of your employees so that they can continue winning. 
  • You must be metrics-driven to be a champion every team in the NFL now closely monitors performance using analytics to “grade” each player with a quantifiable score on every play. So over time, most sports teams in every league now pay close attention to performance analytics to make better decisions. In the NFL, Andy Reid (relying on Mike Frazier) was one of the first in the league to adopt this approach. Also, at least one NFL head coach (Mike McCarthy) was fired for not moving quickly enough to an analytic driven decision-making model. In the corporate world, the lesson to be learned by HR is that executives now expect analytics, predictive, and prescriptive metrics, “big data,” and widely distributed performance metrics because they dramatically improve workforce productivity and business results. 

Final Thoughts

Decades ago, I was asked to outline “The Future of Talent Management” in a talk at Google headquarters. Then as now, I predicted that the future of recruiting would follow the “professional sports model.” The results of which were major reasons why these two teams got into this Sunday’s Super Bowl. Unfortunately, many in HR carelessly make the mistake of instantly dismissing “sports analogies” as irrelevant in the corporate world. However, those individuals are failing to understand that the NFL is part of the corporate world. And that its teams are multibillion-dollar businesses with the same economic “bottom line” driven mentality and the same need to dominate their competitors. So, why not, for fun, and to gain some “street creds.” Tell your boss that you will be watching the Super Bowl, not just for enjoyment but also to learn and apply some extremely valuable and transferable recruiting and talent management lessons. 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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