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9 Things Businesses Can Learn from the NFL

Posted by Patrick Ball on 30 Jan 2015

What your business can learn from the NFL Football is America's most popular sport, and the NFL is the pinnacle of the professionalization of the game.  

What’s that got to do with HR? Well, nothing. And everything. Because there’s not an employer out there right now with a higher profile than the National Football League -- especially during Super Bowl week.

That’s right – employer. The NFL is more than the pre-eminent purveyor of America’s most popular sport. It’s also a high-profile organization with a multicultural, multigenerational workforce spread across the league’s corporate HQ and 32 franchises nationwide.

The league experiences many of the same highs and lows of any large organization, often more publicly. With that in mind, here are 8 lessons HR and business leaders can learn from the NFL.

  1. You Go Only as Far as Your Leadership Takes You
    What do the Patriots and Seahawks have in common? Coaches and quarterbacks. That’s right, the two franchises that faced off in Super Bowl XLIX are solid, stable and talented at the top – where it matters most. #Deflategate jokes aside, there are a couple of reasons the Patriots played in their sixth Super Bowl since 2001 (and won their fourth), and their names are Bill Belichick and Tom Brady – the coach and the quarterback.

    The same applies in business. An organization that’s solid, stable and talented at the top, is an organization set up for success. Dynamic leaders are able to make everyone around them better, and this quality pays off in productive, high performing teams willing to give their all to achieve a common goal.

  2. Employee Engagement Can Mask Talent Deficiencies
    They say there’s no “I” in team, and every so often a team will rise up and personify this adage. The 2007 New York Giants and 2012 Baltimore Ravens, two teams that finished the regular season with 10-6 records only to topple “more talented” teams in the Super Bowl, stand out as recent examples. In each case, the teams rallied around a common goal, the whole became more than the sum of its parts -- and they overachieved.

    This can happen in business, too. Talent is a key building block to success, but engagement and employee satisfaction are also tied to organizational health. A collaborative, engaged workforce that executes well as a team can outperform a talented, yet dysfunctional unit.

  3. Banking on a ‘Hometown Discount’ is No Way to Retain Talent  
    There’s this thing in sports, commonly referred to as the ‘hometown discount,’ in which a player is expected to accept less than fair market value to remain with his current team or the team he grew up supporting.  Often, this ends badly for the organization and the player ends up signing a more lucrative contract to play elsewhere. We see it every year during free agency, as organizations race to sign the top players looking for new contracts.

    We have hometown discounts in business, too. You might see organizations using high salaries to reel in new hires -- yet expect their current talent to accept less than market-value. The moral of the story is: In football as in life, reward quality talent with commensurate salaries.

  1. Your Talent Can Be Your Best Recruiters
    Believe it or not, the words “Come play with Tom Brady” are enough to make New England more attractive than Miami in the eyes of a twentysomething wide receiver.

    Why wouldn’t the same work in business? In-house talent can be an organization’s best recruiters. Not only is tapping into your talent’s professional networks an effective way to expand your recruiting reach, but employee referrals can be first line of defense against cultural misfits and bad reviews on job boards.

  1. Gambling On Talent Shouldn't Trump Cultural Fit
    Every year in free agency, at least a few teams are willing to gamble on talented players with "character issues," reputations of being uncoachable "me-first" guys, and track records of finding trouble on the field or off of it. Every year you hear about teams valuing that talent over cultural fit. And every year, you hear about the subsequent locker room issues and how those gambles didn't pay off.

    You see the same happen in any business, when prized recruits come in and upset the apple cart because their impressive skills cause hiring managers to overlook the fact that they might not fit the company culture. 

    Learn more about Hiring for Cultural Fit
  2. High Turnover Ratios are Killers
    Protecting the most important asset (the ball) and capitalizing when others do not is a reliable predictor of success in the NFL.  In fact the Patriots and Seahawks – were in the top four in turnover differential for the 2014 season. 

    And as organizations compete to attract and retain top talent, minimizing turnover as essential to an organization’s long-term success. In business, turnover is costly in a couple of ways – including the loss of talent and institutional knowledge, as well as the high cost of replacing lost employees.

  3. Being Disruptive Is Not Enough 
    Quarterback remains the single most important position on the football field. Over the past decade or so, there have been attempts at disrupting the model. The Wildcat and read-option offenses are a few notable examples. While disruptive models and gimmicks have had some success, game plans built around flashy running quarterbacks have fallen short of supplanting more traditional passers with proper mechanics and solid foundations.

    That’s not to say disruptors can’t win. In fact, in the business world, being disruptive is often a good thing. But in business – as in football – the key to success is coupling disruption with a solid foundation. To co-opt a business analogy: Russell Wilson is the Uber of NFL Quarterbacks.

  4. Your Brand is Important, But Product is King
    The National Football League is a megabrand. It’s practically printing money though its merchandising, sponsorships and TV deals. As a brand, the NFL is the pinnacle of American sport. But, at the end of the day, the product is the game.  And the NFL does a fantastic job of making its product accessible to a wider audience. Games are played (and televised) on Sundays, Monday and Thursday nights throughout the season, and the NFL Network offers expanded packages, like Sunday Ticket and RedZone, catering to diehards and fantasy footballers.

    The key to it all, though, is the product must maintain its quality. The NFL has experienced a bit of criticism in recent years over concerns that the overexposure of the NFL brand -- through Thursday night games, proposals to expand the season and the referee lockout -- has hurt the quality of the product. Businesses also need to strike this balance. Before expanding, it’s critical to ensure that your enterprise scales without reducing the quality of your product.

  5. Everybody Has Personnel Problems. It’s How You Handle Them 
    The NFL has had some wildly public personnel issues in recent years, including the ugly domestic violence episode involving former Ravens running back Ray Rice and his now-wife; the child abuse case of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and the arrest and multiple murder charges of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.

    Faced with information their tight end could be implicated in a murder, the Patriots immediately cut ties with Hernandez, a budding star. The team, and the league, have largely been able to move on. The Rice episode, however, was not handled quite so smoothly, and many – NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell included – would say the reputations of the team and league suffered as a result.  In business, as in football, organizations are bound to experience personnel issues; it’s how they’re handled that matters.

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