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"Building a Championship Team" Attitude over Aptitude: The Raven’s Way

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Building Championship Teams and Winning in Hyper-Competitive Markets

What does an NFL franchise and a multinational corporation have in common? For one thing, they both want to achieve the highest level of success possible while confronting ever increasing levels of competition. To do so, they both require a unique, unifying culture and an innovative approach to hiring talented people who can develop and coalesce into winning teams and achieve this breakthrough performance goal.

That was the message that Eric DeCosta, Assistant General Manager of the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens, delivered at the Stanton Chase (SC) 25th anniversary celebration. DeCosta, in charge of talent scouting and personnel hiring and management, has been extremely successful in building championship teams in the highly competitive environment that is the National Football League. Since he joined the Ravens in 1996, the team has won the Super Bowl twice, made the playoffs 10 times including 7 of the last 8 years, and recruited dozens of Pro Bowlers and marquee players.

Looking into the future
In listening to Mr. DeCosta, Mickey Matthews, International Chairman of Stanton Chase notes: “The keys to building a successful football team do not differ from those of a corporation, and successful talent management strategies are among the highest priorities.”

When it comes to identifying and recruiting NFL players, doing things “the old way” — scouting players based only on performance ability (how fast they can run, how high they can jump, how well they throw and catch, etc.) — can lead to mediocre results, or worse, said DeCosta. In a short season — with just 16 games to play — a team can’t afford many losses if it wants to reach the post-season, very similar to the intensive analyst and investor quarter by quarter spotlight CEO’s and C-suite executives live with. Therefore, having the right talent, in the right places, is critical for success.

The same lessons can and should be applied to the business world. Making the wrong hiring decisions can devastate any organization’s hopes for future success. Leading companies competing in a hyper-competitive environment can no longer rest on their laurels, relying on a legacy model and process for talent acquisition. For example, organizations recruiting for aptitude only — job title, qualifications, track record — find this is a recipe for poor performance. Or worse.

Self-discovery is key
When they relocated to Baltimore from Cleveland in the 1990s, DeCosta said, the Ravens organization started over. They hired new staff, brought in new players, created a new brand, wrote a new playbook, and even built a new stadium. In doing so, they were able to define their identity — who they wanted to be as an organization — and to establish a culture that was unique to their city and unifying to the players, staff, and fans. Since day one, they have been defining and redefining what it means to be a Baltimore Raven. Going through that self-discovery process and being true to that identity has been one of the most important factors for the Ravens success, said DeCosta.

At Stanton Chase, we fully understand the value of establishing a culture — having the wherewithal to “know thyself,” as it were, and stay true to who you are — for ourselves and for our clients. Maintaining a thorough knowledge of each client’s business, markets, and culture is critical to our ability to find and recommend the right leader for the right position.

And, as the Ravens discovered, the word “right” trumps all others here. By establishing and promoting an identifiable culture, especially one that produces success, and assessing players who align into that culture as much as for performance ability or skills, management executives like DeCosta are able to seek people who make the best fit for the organization. In other words, it became easier to figure out which players would “fit in our locker room,” as he said, and which ones did not.

The right mindset
Maintaining a corporate culture also can help a company grow and change. Up until about 10 years ago, DeCosta said, the Ravens spent a vast majority of their recruitment efforts watching film and analyzing the on-field skills of the new and incoming players. They were identifying and drafting players based almost exclusively on their abilities — fitness, speed, agility, game-day IQ, and so on. But some of those players did not succeed as well as the others, over the course of a season or two. And after team officials performed some analysis, what jumped out was that the on-field skills of an elite athlete were not enough to generate positive, sustainable results.

In other words, DeCosta said, the Ravens started to figure out that the players who were the most successful team members weren’t always the most talented. Instead, the truly talented possessed strong skills and the right character and personality traits — the right mindset, intelligence, and work ethic — to fit the Ravens culture.

At Stanton Chase, we know that the most important leadership behaviors necessary for success may not be the most obvious ones. Titles held in prior employment situations, for instance, or salaries earned or awards won may not always indicate an ability to overcome competition, engage a multinational team and perform critical leadership strategies. All necessary requirements in today’s hyper-competitive business climate.

Go deeper than the ‘measurables’
As a strategic partner, focused on long-term leadership solutions, we recommend that clients dig deeper than talent to find personality traits that will lock in continued success. Matthews comments that “leading companies focus on character, mindset, intelligence, flexibility, upside potential, and work ethic — not just the technical skills and past performance — to select candidates.” Translation? You need to identify the most important behaviors for success, and involve senior management executives, the talent management team, and others in the search process. Establish priorities and goals early, using appropriate assessment techniques and strategies along with metrics, big data and analytics, to find the right match for your organization’s culture.

Recruiting the best leaders is mission critical to an organization’s future. Our experience has shown that strong leadership within a mediocre company will ultimately out-perform mediocre leadership of a ‘highly rated’ company every time. Just as the Ravens look for players who fit “the locker room” — their company culture — we seek to understand each client’s corporate culture and match it with proper leadership qualities of recommended candidates.

Maintaining and matching a culture also breeds continuity and consistency, both integral for continued success. Promoting a solid, palpable culture has helped the Ravens foster loyalty and a low turnover rate among players and staff. DeCosta considers himself a “great example” of such a trend — a graduate of the “20/20 Club,” or members of the team’s personnel staff who started with the Ravens, DeCosta has turned down many opportunities to join other teams.

As in football, where the best offense is often a good defense, employee retention is a core recruitment strategy for success. According to an article in Forbes, savvy C-suite executives bolster their recruitment strategies with a solid retention strategy: “Otherwise, you are flushing time and resources down the drain.”

Attitude over aptitude
It’s also important to be innovative when thinking about recruitment and personnel line-up. The Ravens are known for mixing up their playbook with some unconventional plays — using first-string quarterback Joe Flacco as a receiver, for example, or having the placekicker fake a field goal and throw a touchdown pass.

Such unconventional role-reversals can be orchestrated in the C-suite and the board room, too. Of course, success depends on the talent you’ve recruited and the culture you’ve created. As we tell our clients, when you hire for attitude first and aptitude second, you can fill your roster with multitalented people. For instance, consider promoting a high-functioning, people-first HR executive to become CEO, or shifting finance executives with an aptitude for metrics and mindset for operations to becoming COO. Aligning human capital and leadership qualities with your business strategy while being creative can be very powerful.

As DeCosta stated, establishing and solidifying their culture early on — their traditions, core values, and beliefs — and being true to those has contributed to much of the Ravens’ success over the years, on and off the field. This was especially true as the team modified and reengineered their talent acquisition and assessment strategies to include outbound tactics, and becoming innovative “networkers” for talent, as he said. Rather than wait for the talent to come to them, the Ravens staff visited college campuses to meet players, built up their list of contacts to open an “information pipeline,” and took steps to stand out, including sending handwritten notes to prospective players who might be “below the radar” from their competition based just on the measurables.

The goal: the perfect talent fit
They also made a more determined effort to gather in-depth data on each player. Early on, DeCosta said, the Ravens collected enough information to create a 2-3 page report on each player; nowadays they regularly generate a 15-page report for each potential candidate, comprised of a variety of detailed background data well beyond the traditional football skill metrics.

Similar to the Ravens, Matthews said that “for their clients Stanton Chase takes full advantage of broad-based, in-depth data analysis to recruit talent for our clients. By using our market knowledge, executive access, and our established, wide and extensive network and database, we can help clients get “behind the measurables” and, through a multi-pronged analytics program and assessment tools, help produce the perfect talent fit focusing on attitudes.”

Combining an awareness of your unique identity and culture with in-depth data on candidates will let you unleash the power of newer technology, such as social media and online assessment tools, to bolster leadership capture efforts. For example, a recent study showed that companies that target prospects using social media saw a 33% improvement in time to hire, 43% improvement in candidate quantity, and 50% improvement in candidate quality.

Once you have established your identity, and aligned your recruiting and assessment activities to that identity, convincing others — employees, customers, stakeholders, and everyone else — to believe in it becomes second nature.

These days it’s no longer enough to find the best candidates for a job opening; the key is finding the right candidates to win in today’s hypercompetitive markets. As Eric DeCosta of the Baltimore Ravens and other successful organizations have learned, it’s critical to take an innovative approach to hiring to create winning teams and reach breakthrough performance. No longer just checking boxes when they evaluate people to hire, leading companies take a deeper dive to explore candidates on multiple levels — character, “upside potential,” emotional intelligence, mindset, and culture fit — to find leadership talent with not just the aptitude but, more importantly, the attitude to drive sustainable success.

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