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Lessons the NFL Draft Can Teach Executives About Strategy, Talent, & Leadership

Lessons the NFL Draft Can Teach Executives About Strategy, Talent, & Leadership

April 2023


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The NFL draft is a momentous springtime event for sports fans.

Football fans joyously armchair quarterback their team’s selections as some of the wealthiest, most highfalutin sports organizations in the world vie for the top athletic talent coming out of America’s premiere universities. It’s an off-season event that, for some, is as special as the Super Bowl.

For those of you who know me, you’re well aware that I think the value of the draft doesn’t stop at entertainment, either. At a 10,000-foot level, every team’s drafting goal is the same: to set themselves up to win. When you zoom in, though, the nuances between each team’s draft focus are fascinating — and they offer some uniquely applicable lessons for leaders in the business world, too.

Here are a few key takeaways that every executive can learn from the NFL draft.

KYP and Finding Your Weakest Link

Unless the league is launching a new team, the draft is never a time when GMs completely overhaul their rosters. On the contrary, in most cases, they add a handful of select blue-chip players to their rosters in the hopes of taking things up a level.

To do that effectively, teams must know who they have on their roster in the first place. Where are their team’s strengths? Where are their weaknesses?

Identifying both of these—especially a team’s weak links—is a key starting point for talent acquisition, both on the field and in the office. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to build on your strengths or complement them by shoring up your weakest points. You need to invest in KYP (know your personnel) if you want to draft new talent well.

Sound Strategy Matters

Drafting isn’t the same as picking your best friends to win a game of pick-up soccer. You’re not playing favorites. You’re looking for key personnel with the skills and attributes that can fill talent gaps on your team.

That means you need more than a hunch or a preference to guide you. You need a game plan.

For instance, consider the question of draft versus free agency. Every year, football teams have a chance to fill openings in their rosters by either

  • Drafting affordable, untested talent straight out of college.
  • Hiring highly-experienced veterans at premium prices.

This contrast of experience versus potential is a huge factor that impacts a team’s overall strategy. Are they trying to win now? In that case, they may not have time to draft a player and cultivate their talent over several years. Are they in the midst of a rebuild? Then it might be time to spend some higher draft capital on key positions.

The concept applies in the workplace, too. If you want to nail talent acquisition, you need to consider all of your talent pipelines and create a hiring strategy before making any decisions. If, for example, you’re still in the startup phase, you may want to lean on fresh, young talent as part of your long-term team. However, if you already have a product offering that you’re trying to bring to market, you may want to plug an experienced CSO in place to immediately supercharge your efforts.

Whatever the time or need, it’s important to have a strategy before you start drafting your key team players.

Autocracy Is Unacceptable

The draft should never be a one-man show. Sure, we’re all used to seeing Bill Belichick (or his dog) sitting alone on draft night. But the best drafting decisions come from a collaborative effort. Smart GMs and coaches lean on the counsel of others using a framework I like to call CARE: collaborate, assess, research, and evaluate.

For the NFL, this includes talent scouts who provide loads of key information and should be consulted throughout the evaluation process. But it shouldn’t stop there. What does a team’s QB coach have to say about a potential quarterback that might fall to them in the draft? Does the training staff have an opinion on a college player’s past injuries?

Smart leaders communicate with other leaders around them. They use the perspectives of others to create a 360-degree view of the situation. This helps them see where to focus. It enables them to thoroughly define critical elements, like success and production, too, and it helps them identify current challenges.

The same collaborative effort is required to effectively staff a company. C-suite leaders must work together to identify the best recruits for each position. And when it comes to hiring their own executive peers, that’s where an outside solution like Stanton Chase South Central can provide critical support. A third-party executive recruiter can help assess the situation, beef up talent networks, and use the right tools to evaluate candidates.

Whether hiring a CEO or plugging a role in a football team’s defense, drafting talent should never be an autocratic process.

LEADing Your New Talent

As a final note, remember that talent acquisition doesn’t end with a hire. When a team drafts a player, they’ve just completed the first step in a long process. At that point, coaches should already have post-talent-acquisition plans in place to develop the new member of their staff in 30, 60, and 90-day increments and beyond.

This is where I like to use yet another excellent draft-appropriate acronym: LEAD: learn, empower, align, deliver. As your new employee enters the fold—either as a college athlete or a new member of your corporation—you need to lay out clear expectations. Help them learn your organization’s playbook. Get them oriented in their new environment so that they feel empowered to deliver on the often sky-high expectations you have for them.

It doesn’t matter if you’re picking your next franchise QB on a rookie contract or filling a six-figure position in the C-suite. Everybody wants to win at the talent acquisition game. From KYP and sound strategies to collaboration and talent integration, make sure you’re ready to nail your hiring needs every time. That way, you can rest in the fact that you’re avoiding the need to pick first in next year’s draft.

About the Author

As a former professional athlete, Al Smith Jr. is fueled by creating winning strategies in the teams that he builds, the execution techniques he deploys, and the trusted partnerships that he creates. With an extensive background in talent acquisition across multiple industries including healthcare, finance, aerospace, and manufacturing, Al’s expertise enables him to be a multifaceted leadership partner, aiding his clients in their most important decisions: selecting and retaining superior executive leadership talent.

In his role as Director at Stanton Chase, Al primarily conducts executive search within the industrial, consumer products, government, and technology sectors. He works with Fortune 500 corporations as well as small to midsize organizations who benefit from his ability to intersect passion and purpose through relationships at the highest levels of leadership.

Click here to learn more about Al.

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