What Hiring Committees Can Learn from the NFL
How important are intangibles such as character, organizational citizenship and team building skills in predicting the bottom-line performance of a potential employee? If they are important, how do you assess them when looking at potential hires? And does it make sense to heavily weigh such qualities when considering a proven high performer? These are questions that torment leaders in an era when ever more work is done in teams and performance is increasingly contextual.
They were also questions that intrigued Steven Whiting, professor of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida, and Timothy Maynes, a former doctoral student at UCF who now teaches at the University of Buffalo’s School of Management. The two academics were looking for a work environment in which to test their hypothesis: that organizational citizenship, of which teamwork is a component, statistically correlates with high performance and so should be taken into account when considering job applicants. They wanted to see if potential employers who took such criteria into account reaped the benefits.
As sports fans, they hit on a novel idea. Why not study how a particular group of enterprises that work in teams-- the NFL franchises-- evaluates entry-level talent? Why not study how professional football’s general managers and coaches conduct their annual draft?
The NFL draft turned out to be an almost perfect subject, in part because the data it produces is both robust and transparent, and in part because draft rankings clearly demonstrate what teams value most in potential players. And while sportswriters, analysts and professional prognosticators focus obsessively on statistics like tackles and 40-yard-dash times when trying to predict how college players will come out in the draft rankings, those who do the actual hiring–– the NFL’s general managers, coaches and scouts–– value character and team-building skills as much as on-field performance.
In their subsequent paper, Whiting and Maynes found that positive team-building behaviors not only move players up at least one spot in the draft; these players also earned more. In fact on average, draftees who displayed team-oriented behaviors on their in college ball team– taking time to help a freshman player, bucking up fellow teammates, volunteering for thankless tasks– increased their own starting salaries in the NFL by an average of $143,000 for linebackers and $105,00 for wide receivers.
Why is this? In any given draft, there are plenty of players with professional-level physical abilities. It is therefore a player’s mental attributes that often provide an edge. Managers, coaches and scouts know from experience that good team players bring trust and cohesion to their teams, which helps produce improved team performance. That’s why these qualities help predict pro ball success.
What’s more, the impact of these characteristics can be measured in the comparative standings of teams that hire “good citizens.” Such teams also experience reduced internal strife, which frees coaches to put their focus where it belongs, on preparing and executing a winning game plan.
But how do those charged with hiring players assess intangibles like character and team building? It turns out that NFL teams have many tools at their disposal. Each spring, the league holds a week-long Scouting Combine that takes place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where the best college players showcase their talents in preparation for the draft. But prospects aren’t simply tested on sprint times, endurance and balance. They’re also put through an exacting battery of mental and psychological tests as well. And the scores on these exams can be as revealing and informative as the results of a vertical leap test.
NFL teams prepare for the draft by combing through every detail of participating players’ college careers. Scouts interview the coaching support staff at players’ colleges– “everyone down to the janitors,” Whiting said in an interview. Scouts also speak to fellow teammates and students who have socialized with players. When they do, they’re not looking for people who just say nice things. Rather, they seek specific examples of players behaving in ways that support common efforts. And when the scouts watch videos of team practice, they are looking for players who help struggling teammates.
Whiting and Maynes’s study offers a clear example of how contextual performance and good team skills might inform hiring decisions, while also providing clues about how other organizations can benefit from this approach.
Of course, most companies don’t have the time or the budgets that NFL scouts have to devote to assembling a comprehensive picture of a potential hire’s character (much less access to videos of them interacting in team situations). So how might we apply their research to other organizations? Simply asking targeted questions is not the answer. Given the eagerness of job applicants to present themselves in the best possible light, few would consider answering the question “Is being a team player important to you?” with anything other than a resounding “Yes!”.
Recognizing the key role of data in demonstrating the advantages of team skills in pro football, organizational leaders might start by building a better way to assess how such skills might make a difference to their own specific business outcomes. In the NFL, the consequences of poor organizational citizenship are immediately apparent on the field and reflected in pitiless statistics on team performance. By contrast, many organizations talk piously about the value of teamwork but their behavior shows that they remain deeply wedded to the belief that individual high performance is the key to corporate success and to assessing employee value. Internal data testing this assumption could be useful.
It also helps to observe candidate behavior in a variety of settings–– and to pay attention to what this may suggest. I recall interviewing a senior support staff leader at a high-profile law firm who lamented her partners’ determination to hire only “cream of the crop” prospects bearing gold-plated resumes– the very top graduates from very top-ranked schools. This determination was so all-consuming that the firm routinely ignored obvious character flaws such as rudeness, arrogance and even bullying in what they considered top-tier prospects— behaviors this staff member routinely tried to bring to their attention. She made little progress, however, as the partners would not budge from their steadfast belief that only great-on-paper hires could attract good clients. The result was a toxic team environment that began to undermine client satisfaction.
Learning more about the bottom-line impact of good team behavior might give organizations like this law firm more incentive to consider a broader mix of potential hires.
Steven Whiting notes that organizations often judge performance solely on how individuals fulfill specific tasks related to the delivery of goods and services. By doing so, they undervalue the role of those who provide the essential support and relationship-building that underpin strong cultures and keep people motivated. Rethinking how to define star performance would be a good place to start as we try to accommodate the reality of team-based organizations. That would be a whole new ball game.