Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

"With the 1st pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns select..."

Thirty years ago, the NFL draft was a backwater type of event barely registering on any news network. From these humble roots, the NFL draft has morphed into a red-carpet affair resembling more Mardi Gras than a Human Resource event where new teammates are selected for the upcoming season. Just several days ago, the city of Philadelphia was overrun by rabid NFL fans who wanted to see, firsthand, the selection of new players that would, hopefully, contribute to a Super Bowl win. Indeed, there are teams such as the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers that built a dynasty almost entirely through well-executed draft picks.

If you can strip away the Hollywood fanfare, though, there are some incredibly relevant themes as it relates to building a team to win for the long term. More than most consulting firms—and borrowing from some vintage Philadelphia language—we hold this truth self-evident: it is downright impossible to perform at a high level with a poor team. In all of social science research, there is no stronger correlation. The stronger the team, the stronger the organization, and the stronger the performance. Allow us, then, to launch into three themes that emerged from watching this year’s 2017 NFL draft.

Theme 1: Work the Plan.

The very best NFL teams know way in advance what their focus areas will be for the Draft. It may be offense, or it could be defense. Often, the best teams get absurdly specific such as the left side of the defensive line or skill positions like wide receivers, kick returners, or running backs. The Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers are known for their purposeful, coherent, and focused drafts. The worst teams of the last three decades, of which the Cleveland Browns are one, are noted for the opposite—a haphazard and apparently random effort to build their teams.

Let’s dissect this just a touch more. To know whom to recruit and select, these organizations need to know their pain points and their weak spots. They also need to know organizational strengths on which to build or emphasize. This, of course, requires leadership and, in many instances, the HR department, to understand with great nuance their organizational capabilities and deficiencies. This begs the question, "How well do you know your organization?" Or rather, "When is the last time you led or orchestrated a 'deep dive' organizational analysis to best determine strengths/weaknesses?"

Let’s not stop here. It will never cease to amaze us how many organizations, including some of our nation’s best and largest, fail to develop and document a succession plan. Let’s return to the very best NFL franchises. Top performing NFL teams aren’t just drafting for 2017, they are looking two to three years out. To be sure, most of the young college players just drafted won’t even see the professional gridiron this coming season. Rather, they will grow into starting roles—often in two or so years. The lesson here is once you understand your organizational strengths and weaknesses; you need to develop a succession plan. This will inform almost all recruiting and selection decisions. Those organizations that fail to do so, will hire quickly—often in response to a crisis—and badly. With a succession plan, building a team is a purposeful and proactive process. Without it, we have a knee jerk hiring process. How do you know where you fit? The litmus test is asking yourself this question: How often do you feel that you are scrambling and rushing and maybe, even, cutting corners to hire somebody?

Theme 2: Be Explicit About Risk to the Team and the Organization.

Be forewarned, this video is disturbing. Just watch the first 30 seconds and, again, proceed with caution: CLICK HERE

This act of violence was committed by Joe Mixon, a phenomenal athlete considered one of the better running backs ever to come out of the University of Oklahoma—a place known for producing superb running backs. Indeed, of all high school running backs in the nation, he was ranked number 1 and received, incredulously, 47 scholarship offers before deciding to go to Oklahoma. That talent appeared wasted as he would receive a one-year deferred sentence for his actions along with a mandated 100 hours of community service. What would once seem as a sure fire, first-round pick was now in deep jeopardy. Who, in their right mind, would draft and invite an individual like this onto their team? The Cincinnati Bengals.

Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals with the 48th pick in the 2017 NFL draft chose Joe Mixon. Clearly, his violent behavior was wrong, and, quite honestly, if we were advising the Cincinnati Bengals, we’d advise against this hire. Robert Kraft, the owner of the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots probably put it best:

      While I believe in second chances and giving players an opportunity for redemption, I also believe that playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right. For me, personally, I believe that privilege is lost for men who have a history of abusing women.

We do know of one high potential pharma sales rep who earned a reputation of “blowing out his numbers” but always skirted ethical lines along with organizational policy; risky behaviors that eventually led to his firing or removal. He had been a journeyman at some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms. He was given a fourth chance. This time it was a bit different. Instead of waiting for this accomplished, but renegade, salesman to screw up, the Regional Manager was explicit with the individual and the entire organization about the risks, legal and otherwise. Furthermore, he put in place some lines in the sand that, if crossed, would spell certain ruin. This once high-performing, but deeply flawed, salesperson has been with this Fortune 500 firm for 9 years. Year in and year out, he’s in the top 2% of their pharma salesforce.

Before we close this point, we do want to throw one last Hail Mary. Bringing in incredibly talented, but deeply flawed, individuals has one other side effect. In particular, it can sow the seeds of organizational hypocrisy. As we type these sentences, the NFL is abuzz with exactly this sentiment. Several years ago, Ray Rice, a running back was involved in a similar incident. He’s been out of the league and, essentially, blackballed from the entire NFL. Why is the case different for Joe Mixon? When hiring individuals with this type of track record, leaders should be prepared to answer these questions. If leaders can’t or won’t answer these concerns, they probably should avoid the hire.

Theme 3: Celebrate the Hire!

Some may think this corny; we think it quite special and step number ONE to great onboarding. One of the great things that all NFL teams do is celebrate their hires! A good portion of the time, they give the incoming player a jersey and a hat to thunderous applause. There are celebratory calls from all levels of the organization welcoming the new players. Are they overplaying their hand? Is it making a big deal about nothing—after all, it is just another hire and NFL teams hire and fire all the time. We think not. Or, at the very least, we like the spirit of the gesture. Not only does it make the individual feel good, it represents the organization in a good light.

Not every new hire, we know, can get a jersey and a hat with flashbulbs popping. But we know of one large retailer that had an interesting practice that they implemented in at least one of their distribution centers. First, on the electronic message board outside the distribution center, they welcomed the new hire. Second, the security guard at the front of the center would welcome the incoming employee with a hearty handshake before escorting for badging. Next, the individual would meet the Director of HR for a 5 minute welcome. Finally, the site Vice President would personally welcome all new hires (exempt and non-exempt employees) with an individual 5-minute office call. He would strive to do this within the first 72 hours of entry into his organization. There were over 700 employees at his distribution center and he estimated that he spent 1 hour of every week welcoming and greeting newcomers. For a job that was often dangerous and taxing (heavy lifting), we were always amazed at the low turnover. We think that the low turnover has much to do with how individuals were welcomed into the organization.

So, follow the NFL lead here and make a big deal about your new hires. We’d suggest putting this all together to build a better team. To be sure, ELP is here to help along the way. Reach out to Robin Bichy to learn more at