Talent Management Lessons From the Super Bowl for Corporate Leaders

Feb 3, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 10.43.50 AMA couple years back I was asked to outline “the future of talent management” in a talk at Google headquarters. Then as now, I predicted the future of talent management will follow the “professional sports model,” which many of you undoubtedly witnessed during yesterday’s Super Bowl.

Some in HR carelessly make the mistake of instantly dismissing sports analogies as irrelevant, but those individuals fail to understand that the NFL and its teams are multibillion-dollar businesses with the same economic bottom line and the need to dominate competitors as any other corporate businesses. So if you want some talent creds, tell your boss that you watched the Super Bowl not just for enjoyment, but also in order to learn some valuable talent management lessons. My top eight talent management takeaways from the Super Bowl are listed below.

The Top 8 Talent Management Takeaways From the Super Bowl

  1. Poach top talent from your competitors if you expect to win — clearly the Denver Broncos would have never gotten to the Super Bowl without Peyton Manning, who they successfully poached away from the Indianapolis Colts, and star receiver Wes Welker, who was poached from New England. Marshawn Lynch, who has dramatically contributed to Seattle’s success, was also recruited away from Buffalo. Recruiting talent away from competitors is essential in any competitive situation because it’s not always possible to develop talent slowly. So have a sophisticated recruiting function that has the capability of prying away top-performing experienced talent directly from your competitors. As an added benefit, recruiting talent away from a direct competitor strengthens your organization, while simultaneously weakening theirs.
  2. The best college hires don’t always have the best credentials — Russell Wilson, the Seattle star quarterback, was a third-round draft pick who played for the University of Wisconsin, hardly a football powerhouse school. Of the 11 quarterbacks picked in 2012, he was only the No. 6 selection (because he wasn’t considered to be tall enough). Recruiting players from “top schools” is a common practice, but many Super Bowl players come from what have to be classified as “little-known schools.” The Seahawks roster includes players from barely known colleges including Alabama State, Cornell, FIU, Fort Valley State, Holy Cross, Memphis, Northwestern State, Regina, Rice, Southern Illinois, and Weber State. The Broncos also have players from schools that can’t be considered as football powerhouses including Delaware, Fordham, Miami (Ohio), North Dakota, Portland State, Richmond, San Jose State, Southern Miss, Temple, and Western Kentucky. I won’t get into the college grades of football players, but just as research from Google has indicated for regular hires, college grades are simply not a good predictor of on-the-job performance. The lesson to be learned for corporate talent leaders is that the best talent can be found in many second-tier schools and a “remote college recruiting approach” using social media and the Internet can help you find them.
  3. Be careful who you write off as being too old or too young  even though everyone knows that 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, Peyton Manning is both a Super Bowl and a Pro bowl starting quarterback and he accomplished both feats at the ripe old age of 37. Incidentally, the Seattle team, in sharp contrast, is the second youngest in Super Bowl history. The lesson for corporate leaders is not to stereotype but instead to closely assess the current capabilities of every candidate, including the very young and the very old.
  4. Positions and players must be prioritized — it is unfortunately rare for corporations to prioritize their 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 key positions, quarterbacks, pass rushers, receivers, and running backs. Corporations need to also prioritize their recruitment and development efforts and resources on the 20 percent of the positions that are mission-critical and thus they make the most impact on innovation, competitive advantage, revenue, and profit. Corporations also need to identify key employees to protect them with strong targeted retention efforts.
  5. You must be metrics driven to be a champion — not just the Super Bowl teams, but every team in the NFL closely monitors performance by “grading” each player with a quantifiable score on each and every play. Peyton Manning in particular is famous for fanatically studying the statistical tendencies and the approaches deployed by his competitors. Being metrics driven resulted in measurably superior results because during the season this metric-driven focus allowed Seattle to yield the fewest points and yards in the NFL, and Denver scored the most points ever by an NFL team. In the corporate world, the lesson to be learned is that analytics, predictive metrics, and “big data” approaches can dramatically improve workforce productivity and business success.
  6. Team leaders have a major impact even though they don’t always have formal titles — on championship teams, it’s obvious that a few players, without having a formal leadership title, are clearly on- and off-the-field leaders who make a significant contribution to the team’s success. Corporations can learn a lesson here by appreciating and developing informal leaders who don’t have or want a formal management title because you simply can’t expect managers (or coaches) to do it all.
  7. The best players don’t make the best managers — despite their recent stellar coaching successes, neither of the head coaches for the Super Bowl ever played professional football. This is because the skill sets between a player and a manager are so different. Corporations should learn the same lesson in that it’s not always wise to promote the best-performing employee into a management job, because once again, the skill sets are so dramatically different between someone who “can do” and someone who can lead.
  8. Manage talent to develop a competitive advantage  rather than just looking at your own internal needs, you must counter the talent at your primary competitors if you expect to develop a competitive advantage. For example, Seattle recruited talent specifically in order to counter the strength areas of other teams that it would have to beat to get to the Super Bowl. Notably defensive back Richard Sherman and others were in part selected specifically to help counter the powerful offense of its chief competition, the San Francisco 49ers. Marshawn Lynch was hired to keep competitor teams from overly focusing on the passing game. 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 over their competitor’s. 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 result. 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 talent management actions can give a firm a significant competitive advantage over your direct competitors. Unfortunately, hiring and developing talent on a head-to-head basis to counter the talent at your competitors is a practice that has yet to be adopted by most corporations.

Final Thoughts

If you work in talent management and you are uncomfortable with sports analogies, let me point out that almost every CEO that I’ve ever encountered loves and uses sports analogies. CEOs seem to see little difference between the intense competition of the corporate world and sports, the military, and the entertainment industry. In each of these highly competitive areas, all employees and positions are not equal and everyone knows it. The second-tier players and the support personnel are all taught early on to appreciate the large performance differential and the higher impact that top performers in key positions have.

In the corporate world, that means that rather than automatically treating everyone equally, you need to let every employee know that top performers in critical positions and on critical projects will be paid significantly more and will be treated differently than others. And if you want that special treatment, you will have to develop those unique skills and move into those high-impact positions. There are some differences between the NFL and the corporate world. One is that the NFL has many contract restrictions that prevent the free flow of talent between teams. Fortunately, as a result of recent court decisions, in the corporate world firms can no longer legally enter into non-recruit agreements.