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5 Football Analogies That Will Resonate With 80% of Hiring Managers

by Nov 12, 2009, 5:05 am ET

Picture 4I have officially lost control of the remote on Sundays, Saturdays, and Mondays. In 15 years of love and marriage with a football fanatic, I haven’t learned a whole lot about the whole pastime, but I have learned that most men know a lot about football and care about it a lot more than recruiting. I also have noticed that most men use football to talk to each other on holidays, campouts, and soccer games. I would imagine it accounts for about 70% of all guy small talk. So I started thinking about using football as a metaphor for getting managers to do what I want, which is help me sell the company, the candidate, and get me hires. I didn’t come up with this idea, and it isn’t very original, but by golly, it works. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Instead of going to a career fair to find your next top tier hire, get your manager to realize that great people have to be recruited. “If you needed another QB like Tom Brady, would he stand in line at a career fair, or answer a want ad online, in the paper, or on your website? No, you have to call his agent who gets him interested and to the table to talk. I’m that agent.”
  2. When a hiring manager and HR want to make a lowball offer because the recession has made everyone more desperate, but your candidate is employed, here’s what you say to get them to reconsider low-balling. “When a kid is getting ready to go out high in the draft, do you think about what the lowest package is that he will consider? No, you make him the best offer you can afford to make or you pass on the pick. No one who is good is going to be happy or accept a low-ball offer.”
  3. When a manager wants to look around at all resumes and candidates on the planet even though the very best candidate just interviewed and wants the job: “It’s kind of like picking a starter instead of second string. When you see someone who is going to be the key to your bench, you don’t hesitate to look around in case someone else might be better; you add them to the team in the first string. Just because he is first doesn’t mean he isn’t the best.”
  4. When a manager wants to change the position or add unrealistic job functions to a new role: “It’s not like there aren’t people like Deion Sanders who can play offense and defense and the entire length of the game. It is just extremely rare to find someone who will do both. It would be better to find a great cornerback than an average cornerback who can also return a kick.”
  5. Instead of letting a team do too many jobs for too long and asking them to double that for the “good of the company,” consider this: “Even the best players need to feel like they have back up, have time to recover, and like to play one position very well. Do you think that you may risk losing your best players if you play them too long?”

I know a lot of people who will think it is very funny that I would ever remotely write about football because I don’t give a hoot about it. And I also know that managers don’t want to be talked down to or reduced to silly analogies. But there is some truth to the fact that language and cultural barriers account for the majority of miscommunications. Finding the common ground in what interests them may be the entry point toward showing them what you got.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • http://drjohnsullivan.com Dr John Sullivan

    Allison

    I couldn’t agree more. The best learn for a variety of sources and approaches. I contributed a similar article on lessons recruiters could learn from the Superbowl a while back at

    http://www.ere.net/2009/02/02/10-recruiting-lessons-that-you-can-learn-from-the-super-bowl/

    John

  • Robert Dromgoole

    This is fantastic! Just last month one of our COOs said to me, “I don’t want someone who wants to win the most yards rushing award, I want someone who wants to win the Super Bowl!!!!” I find using sports works well in some cases. Nice read.

  • Howard Adamsky

    Great article. Real world metaphors we all can use!

    I want to play football on Allison’s team!

  • http://www.sanfordrose.com/norcross Don Patrick

    For someone who claims to be a novice, you threw a “bomb” on this one. Great applications…

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Allison. I like sports analogies. I think the football analogy is particularly appropriate for a couple of reasons:

    1)Professional football team franchises are highly mercenary in their dealings with their host communities, often requiring substantial subsidies through the construction of new stadiums with partial public funding which *may not often show overall economic benefits to the host communities. I think this is a valuable lesson for employees/vendors when we have the upper hand (again).

    2) As previously mentioned in a comment, there are a few hundred professional NFL players and they get very well paid, and I think (most of them) are worth it. If you are quite good but not NFL quality, you can not expect to make $50-$100k/yr playing non-NFL football in the US. If you do world-class sourcing/recruiting, you are performing a very high-level service and are “entitled” by the market to a world-class compensation. If you are not in that class or do not have something special to offer, you will be competing with folks who get much less for the quality work they do. IMHO, recruiting will become the realm of a relatively small number of highly-compensated elite recruiters, who will have “sticky” skills that can’t be easily eliminated, automated, or outsourced. I do not see much future for mid-level Western recruiters and sourcers who do quality work for a decent, middle-class income.

    Also, it’s particularly timely, since there are so many recruiters “on the bench”.

    Finally, as Despair.com says:

    GOALS
    It’s best to avoid standing directly between a competitive jerk and his goals.

    Cheers,

    Keith Halperin
    keithsrj@sbcglobal.net 415.586.8265

    * News and Features

    10 Recruiting Lessons That You Can Learn From the Super Bowl
    by
    Dr. John Sullivan
    Feb 2, 2009, 7:00 am ET

    To most people, the Super Bowl is a fun event to watch. However, because the game is highly competitive and because only the very best teams make it to the event, there are some critical lessons that corporate managers and recruiters can learn from competitive sports and the Super Bowl:

    Lesson #1 -“Minor colleges” produce some of the best players on Super Bowl teams.

    It’s clear from examining the player rosters that most Super Bowl players don’t come from powerhouse football colleges. Some examples include:

    * The Star Players. The four most notable star players in the game all come from non-football powers. For Arizona, star quarterback Kurt Warner came from Northern Iowa – Burlington and star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald came from the University of Pittsburgh. For Pittsburgh, starting quarterback Ben Rothlisberger came from Miami of Ohio and running back Willie Parker came from North Carolina. Not a single one of these players former university teams made it into the Associated Press Top 25 rankings this year.
    * The Remaining Players. Of the 112 active players on the final rosters of the combined teams, only four came from this year’s top college teams that are perennial powerhouses (i.e. Florida, Oklahoma, and USC).
    * The Arizona Cardinals roster successfully recruited players from non-powerhouse teams like Louisiana-Lafayette, Kansas State, Richmond, Northern Iowa, Hawaii, Brown, Delaware, Fresno State, Tennessee State, Trinity University, UC Davis, Northern Iowa, and of course, Clarion!
    * The world champion Pittsburgh Steelers roster includes players from such non-powerhouse university teams like Hofstra, Clemson, Kent State, Marshall, Tulane, Southern Mississippi, TCU, Northern Colorado, Syracuse, Rutgers, Indiana (of Pa.), La.-Lafayette, and perennial powerhouse…Tiffin.

    Lesson #2 –“Experience” isn’t required to become a Super Bowl head coach.

    At least this year, previous experience as a successful head coach isn’t a requirement for getting your team to the Super Bowl.

    The best head coaches aren’t always the most experienced. You can’t say the coaches of either team this year are experienced, veteran head coaches. Neither has been a head coach at a Super Bowl before. Both would have to be considered as “inexperienced” head coaches (both are only in their second year of being a head coach anywhere in the NFL), and both are relatively young.

    Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh, the NFL Coach of the year, is only 36 years old (the youngest Super Bowl coach ever) and Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt is only 44.

    Lesson #3 – “Recruiting/draft systems” still need continuous improvement.

    No organization puts more resources into recruiting than an NFL team, yet even their vaunted efforts can produce some major errors and omissions. There are numerous stories of how number one overall draft picks failed to excel in the NFL but there are also major omissions in the recruiting process where top performers went “undrafted.”

    Even the best recruiting and screening systems can be improved upon in order to find a “non-obvious” talent.

    For example, Pittsburgh’s star running back Willie Parker, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and his teammate James Harrison, the 2008 NFL defensive player of the year, were both undrafted. On Arizona’s team, Pro bowl quarterback Kurt Warner and his center, Lyle Sendlein, were both undrafted.

    Lesson #4 – It takes organization-wide excellence to make the Super Bowl.

    The teams with the most star players don’t automatically make it all the way to the Super Bowl.

    It takes more than star players to win championships. The team with the most star players (those selected for the Pro Bowl), the New York Jets, led all teams with seven selections but they didn’t even make the playoffs.

    Three teams (the Giants, the Vikings, and the Titans) each had six star players selected to the Pro Bowl. Having six stars certainly helped each team to get into the playoffs. But you won’t see them in the Super Bowl, because it takes excellence throughout their entire organization and great coaching, in addition to great players, to win it all in your conference.

    Lesson #5 – Don’t stereotype top performers.

    It’s easy to reject candidates “out of hand” because they don’t fit our mental stereotypes of what top performer should look like. Always use “on-the-job” performance to select top talent instead of broad stereotypes.

    Be careful who you write off as being “over the hill.” Even though everyone knows pro football is a young man’s game, there are certainly enough exceptions to that rule to make you think twice before generalizing about age limits on star talent.

    For example, Kurt Warner is both a Super Bowl and a Pro bowl starting quarterback and he accomplished both feats at the ripe old age of 37. Incidentally, he clearly beat out Arizona’s other well-known quarterback Matt Leinart, the much younger third-year phonon from USC.

    Other Pro Bowl “senior citizen stars” selected this year include 39-year-old Jets quarterback Brett Favre, 44-year-old John Carney (the oldest Pro Bowler ever), and 42-year-old Jeff Feagles both from the Giants.

    Clearly, top talent comes in a variety of ages.

    Lesson #6 – Consider corporate alumni for rehiring.

    It’s easy to overlook talent that we’ve previously rejected.

    Keep in touch with your former employees. Pittsburgh Steelers long-snapper Jared Retkofsky was fired (cut from the team) by the Pittsburgh organization three different times. Recently, he was working as a furniture mover before being rehired by the team to fill a sudden need. This success story demonstrates that organizations should keep an eye on their former employees and then to consider them for re-hiring as a “boomerang.”

    Lesson #7 – Prioritize your positions and business units.

    NFL teams excel at prioritizing both individual positions and units.

    It has been proven statistically that “defense wins super Bowls,” so most teams that are serious about getting to the Super Bowl prioritize their recruiting to ensure that they have the strongest defense. This year’s likely Super Bowl winner, Pittsburgh, has both the #1 ranked rushing and passing defense. Likewise, businesses also need to learn that not all functions, departments, and business units have the same impact on winning and profits.

    Not a single corporation that I’m aware of prioritizes positions as effectively as NFL teams. You can clearly tell what positions are “mission-critical” on an NFL team by identifying the positions that they draft first, the average amount that they pay for that position, and the number of backups for that position that they carry on their roster.

    Most teams focused their recruiting and development efforts on four key positions, quarterbacks, pass rushers, receivers, and running backs. Other positions are rated as low impact.

    For example, an average punter might make $200,000 a year, they would never be drafted in the first round and the team would only carry one punter (with no backup).

    In direct contrast, the high-priority position of quarterback will be paid millions, the position would be a top draft target, and there would be two or even three backups kept on the roster to fill in for injuries and to allow time for development.

    Corporations need to also prioritize their recruitment and development efforts and resources on the 20% of the positions that are mission-critical and thus they make the most impact on innovation, competitive advantage, revenue, and profit.

    Lesson #8 – “The ability to handle pressure” is critical to make it to and win a Super Bowl.

    Everyone knows that it takes a combination of both “A” and “B” players in order to win championships, but not everyone accurately defines what an “A” player really looks like.

    Define excellence to include the ability to handle pressure. The NFL provides numerous great examples of how players that perform well during the regular season suddenly “unravel” under the pressure of the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Teams that fail to win the Super Bowl one year proactively go out and recruit individual players who not only can compete head-to-head against last year’s Super Bowl winners but who have also demonstrated that they can handle the “pressure of “big games.”

    For example, running back Efrain James for Arizona was a mediocre player during the regular season but in the playoffs he was given the starting assignment. He has excelled during the playoffs as a result of his extensive playoff experience. Other players like Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald have clearly demonstrated their ability to “step up” and move to the “next level” under playoff pressure.

    Corporations need to also develop mechanisms for recruiting and assessing their employees to see which ones best handle the pressure and thus can perform at the “next level” when the corporation needs extraordinary performance.

    Lesson # 9 – It takes a competitive analysis to win championships.

    Many in HR and recruiting look at their firms’ needs in relative isolation. In the NFL, however, recruiting and game plans are developed after analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team.

    Recruit and organize to develop a competitive advantage. During the regular season, but especially during the playoffs, team managers conduct “side-by-side” analysis in order to identify and develop matchups, which provide their team with a winning edge.

    Recruiting and player selection in key positions is done in such a manner as to provide “an edge” over competitors. The “plays” of competitors are also analyzed to a painful degree in order to identify weaknesses that your team can exploit.

    Every team develops and modifies its plays in order to take advantage of the head-to-head player matchups where you have a higher probability of coming out with a big play. Teams consciously avoid trading or losing key players to teams that they frequently compete against because that could lessen their chances of winning against that competition.

    Corporate recruiting managers need to develop the same competitive advantage mentality and periodically “chart” areas where recruiting can give your firm a significant competitive advantage over your direct competitors.

    Lesson #10 – It takes a performance culture to win consistently.

    Some sports teams win consistently over the years, even though their players change at a rate of 20% or more per year. For example, the LA Lakers have dominated their opponents for years, while the LA Clippers, who play in the same city and building and recruit from the same sources, are perennial losers.

    Build a performance culture. The best teams in sports are laser focused on becoming and staying number one. In order to do that, they develop a “performance culture” that makes winning everything.

    As Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything…it’s the only thing!”

    A performance culture in any environment focuses on recruiting, retaining, developing, differentiating rewards, and making assignments based on performance data and results. Because everyone throughout the organization has the expectation of winning, performance permeates every management aspect of the firm.

    In the NFL, teams like the Steelers, the Cowboys, the Colts, the Giants, and Patriots consistently excel during the regular season and later win championships because they have all developed performance cultures.

    The players leave their current team at nearly 20% per year, the coaches change also but the performance culture approach is a constant. Unfortunately, many HR and recruiting departments are more focused on equal treatment and avoiding criticism.

    Establishing and maintaining a performance culture is hard work and it certainly gathers criticism. As a result, few in HR are willing to take the heat and the risk to their own job security that comes with transparency and basing everything on performance.
    Final Thoughts

    By the time you read this, the Super Bowl will be over and its importance will begin to wane.

    However, if you’re smart, you’ll avoid the criticism that invariably comes from HR people (i.e., “I hate sports analogies.”)

    Instead, study the most competitive of all endeavors outside of war (the Super Bowl) in order to learn many valuable lessons about people management. It is my contention that the recent catastrophic failures of mortgage firms, Wall Street financial institutions, and other corporations could never have occurred under the glaring criticism, transparency, metrics, and the performance cultures that are necessary in order to get teams to the Super Bowl. The NFL model is a good one to study and copy.
    tags: assessments, sourcing, talentmanagement

    > Follow ERE on Twitter for all the latest recruiting news.

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    This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.
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    1.
    Martin Snyder Feb 2, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Nice article John- lots of nuggets in there.

    However, for the rest of the year, when you try to bring up practices of major-sports as models for business, you are dismissed out of hand.

    I blogged last week about Tuesday Morning Quarterback’s picks for the Unwanted best players,

    http://www.ere.net/blogs/Martin_Snyders_Passing_Scene/6072E641772B4ABBAC31474912788702.asp

    and previously about TMQ’s observation that Pittsburgh does better than any team at making the best of its draft picks and talent development.

    http://www.ere.net/blogs/Martin_Snyders_Passing_Scene/DEFAULT.ASP?LISTINGID={7CDC6A1C-0227-4346-98DC-22B7F3B72A00}
    2.
    Joshua Letourneau Feb 2, 2009 at 11:31 am

    John, this is your best work I’ve seen in a very, very, long time. I say that for one big reason: Your article here focuses on questioning traditional conventions.

    So many Talent Acquisition Pros simply ‘follow the sheep’, blindly adhering to mindsets and practices that worked during the Industrial Revolution, however are meaningless today.

    The only additions I’d make to the list are the following:

    1. It’s never too late to turn performance around. The Cardinals were 9-7 coming into the playoffs . . . and only got in because they were Division Winners of the weakest Division in the NFL. Several teams with better records did not get in because they did not win their division and didn’t have a good enough record to earn a wildcard birth.

    2. The Arizona Cardinals now can justify a ‘performance culture’ because they got to the Big Dance. The Cardinals were 9-7 this year, 8-8 in 2007, 5-11 in 2006, and 5-11 in 2005. That’s a record of 27-37, hardly a ‘performance culture’ . . . but the playoffs this year was a defining moment. It’s never too late to turn the culture around and leverage espirit de corps.

    3. Know your strengths . . . and stick to them. The Superbowl is not the time to change your corporate identity.
    3.
    Patrice Funderburg Feb 2, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Love this! Great article, John!
    4.
    Matt Salome Feb 2, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Good analogy to the game of football, but I must interject as I saw a glaring error in the opening of the article that must be corrected. “Not a single one of these players former university teams made it into the Associated Press Top 25 rankings this year.” If you mean end of year, then that is correct but both Pittsburgh and North Carolina were ranked for a majority of the year (maybe not in the final poll at the end of the year), and the school’s although not known to those outside football, are large schools who generally have strong football recruiting classes. The reason for the difference between those who are strong in college and those in the NFL, is because they are essentially very different games (this can further be compared to basketball, where many top players in college don’t translate well into the NBA; as they are different games and look for some different characteristics in their players). Being an HR professional I actually do enjoy the parallels between sports and recruiting. Also, the player that was cited as “Efrain James” and who was cited as “having a mediocre season” did not actually get a chance during the year to shine, getting very few reps all year until the end of the year. His correct name is actually Edgerrin James and he is a future hall of fame towards the end of his career. A challenge we sometimes face (like the NFL) is that they (Hiring teams) don’t give people a shot who may go to other teams and situations and become superstars. It’s tough for people to produce and shine without at least given an opportunity. So many times a hiring manager will say “They don’t have this or that” and that is the end of that candidate (internal or external) being considered. I feel sometimes their are great candidates who are not given a shot because they may have done x and y but don’t have z.
    5.
    Martin Snyder Feb 2, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Josh Letourneau turned me on to a very interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell dealing with the differences between the NFL and the College game with the main focus on hiring and selection issues:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/15/081215fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all
    6.
    Mary Lorenz Feb 2, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Agreed that this is a great article – I think the Super Bowl analogy works from a management/employee retention perspective as well. In fact, I recently wrote a similar post about what we can learn from Super Bowl coaches Tomlin and Whisenhunt: http://thehiringsite.careerbuilder.com/2009/01/21/management-lessons-from-super-bowl-contenders/ Would love hear your thoughts.
    7.
    Chad Pinkston Feb 2, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    John, enjoyed the article. Not only is there much to be learned from the Super Bowl teams but much that can be learned from athletes in general(exclude pac man jones:). As someone who works with both collegiate & professional athletes as they make the transition into life after sports I have (as have numerous organizations) found that the skills & attributes acquired during the course of athletic competition are directly transferable to the workforce & these former athletes create a positive impact on their “new team”. Follow the link below for these athlete attributes:

    http://www.thecorporateplaybook.com/why_athletes.php

    Best,

    Chad
    8.
    Keith Halperin Feb 2, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    A variety of comments:

    First of all, I like sports analogies. I think the football analogy is particularly appropriate for a couple of reasons:

    1)Professional football team franchises are highly mercenary in their dealings with their host communities, often requiring substantial subsidies through the construction of new stadiums with partial public funding which *may not often show overall economic benefits to the host communities. I think this is a valuable lesson for employees/vendors when we have the upper hand.

    2) As previously mentioned in a comment, there are a few hundred professional NFL players and they get very well paid, and I think (most of them) are worth it. If you are quite good but not NFL quality, you can not expect to make $100k/yr playing non-NFL football in the US. If you do world-class sourcing/recruiting, you are performing a very high-level service and are “entitled” by the market to a world-class compensation. If you are not in that class or do not have something special to offer, you will be competing with folks who get much less for the quality work they do. IMHO, recruiting will become the realm of a relatively small number of highly-compensated elite recruiters, who will have “sticky” skills that can’t be easily eliminated, automated, or outsourced. I do not see much future for mid-level Western recruiters and sourcers who do quality work for a decent, middle-class income.

    As Martin S. said: I also recommend the Gladwell article. Gladwell is interesting and an easy read. I also like him because he seems to be making very substantial speaking fees telling “fat cat” types that some of their traditional wisdom is wrong. Finally, before he got famous, he actually answered one of my emails! (And “No”- he didn’t say “cease and desist,” either….)

    Cheers,

    Keith Halperin
    keithsrj@sbcglobal.net

    *http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/04/nyregion/04stadiums.html
    http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/june97/game1.html
    http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv23n2/coates.pdf.

  • http://www.hughesvaladez.com John Hughes

    This article is a good example of the “art of recruiting.” It is critical to learn how to connect and influence your hiring managers through the process.

  • http://twitter.com/tonydblake Tony Blake

    Touchdown! Great color commentary, Allison. You obviously play “offense” when many recruiters just play “defense.”

  • Chad Pinkston

    Allison, excellent post! Another great example of what we can learn through sports.

    …”But there is some truth to the fact that language and cultural barriers account for the majority of miscommunications. Finding the common ground in what interests them may be the entry point toward showing them what you got”… Such a true statement!

    Best,

    Chad Pinkston
    http://www.TheCorporatePlaybook.com
    The Leading Job Board for Athletes!

  • Danny DeCiryan

    Using analogies / stories to make a point has always been a best practice to build rapport and creditiblity you just hit a three bagger with the bases loaded that was last week OOPS returned a kick from the 20 to score…

    Best regards

    Danny DeCiryan

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