Assessing Talent is HARD—Ask the NFL

The National Football League (NFL) is holding its annual talent draft tonight (as I write this).  So, yes, you’re getting two sports related blog posts this week.  What’s fascinating about this is how the 32 teams evaluate a large pool of potential players and how wrong they are in the most critical evaluations.  If you’re familiar with the NFL draft, you can skip ahead past the bullets.  If not, here’s a quick primer:

  • Each year, the NFL forces the top players who have not yet played in the NFL (think of guys who played college football) to participate in a process where teams select which players that they want (the draft).  The order of the draft is determined by the teams’ records the year before, with the worst team (Jacksonville) going first and the team that won the championship (Tampa Bay) going last.  There are 7 rounds in the draft.
  • If a team wants a particular player, but thinks that he will be taken before it is their turn, they can trade players and/or their draft picks for a better pick.  This is called trading up and can be very expensive.
  • The most important employee (player) on an NFL team is the quarterback.  Teams that do not have an “elite” player at this position will do almost anything to draft one.  There are economic incentives for drafting a quarterback rather than trying to get an experienced one from another team.
  • Each team has an entire department of people whose sole job is to evaluate the skills and abilities of college players, determine the needs of the team, and recommend players to draft and in which order.  The NFL even sets up what are essentially job fairs where the teams can look at players up close, interview them, and they even give a league-wide cognitive ability test.  These players really get put under the microscope.

So, we have a situation where the skill and ability levels of the players are well known.  Given that, you would think that teams can select players, especially quarterbacks, with uncanny accuracy.  And you’d be wrong.

If we look at the quarterbacks drafted in the 1st round (63) since 2000, it’s pretty fair to say that (not including those who are too early in their career to judge):

  • 15 turned out to be very good (consistently led their team to a winning record and won playoff games)
  • 13 were/are good (there teams won more than they lost, but were nothing fabulous)
  • 30 were not good (losing record, didn’t stay with the team long, etc.). 

Those of you who are football fans may quibble with the categories where I put the players, but even if we move players around a bit between the categories, teams have about a 25% success rate and about a 50% miss rate.

In roughly the same time period, teams have “traded up” 25 times to draft a quarterback in the 1st round.  In other words, they paid a premium to “get their guy.”  14 of them were/are not very good, 3 were/are good, and 6 were/are very good.  Again, we see this 50% miss rate, though slightly higher hit rate.

How can this be?

Most obviously, football is a game where all of the players on the field need to do their job well for the team to be successful.  Like it or not, the quarterback gets outsized credit and blame for the team’s success and failures.  But, regardless of his skill level, he cannot control a lot of what goes on around him.  This makes for a very difficult selection situation.

There are also some confounding factors.  The first being that the worst teams pick before the good ones and they are more likely to choose a quarterback than good teams.  And, one of the reasons these teams are not very good is that they don’t judge talent well and do a poor job of developing and retaining the good players that they have.  Related to this, they often take a quarterback before they have good supporting players around him.  It’s entirely possible that several of the quarterbacks who were drafted early, but performed poorly, would have been successful with other teams.  And, a few of them, but not a lot, were after they changed teams.

To make the success rate seem even worse, teams choose to ignore players are other positions that are more likely (historically) to be successful in order to make the sexier, and riskier, play for a quarterback.  And I get that—there are enough examples of a highly drafted quarterback completely changing a team’s fortunes that teams are willing to miss 2 out of 3 times to get one.  Any team would be happy to draft 2 not so good quarterbacks to get to the one that leads them to a championship, even if it takes them several years to do it.

What we do know is that new quarterbacks tend to succeed where the team has a sustainable plan.  Often times, teams change their playing philosophy if they don’t have a successful year so they fail to implement one that fits the quarterback’s skills.  Successful quarterbacks rarely play for multiple head coaches (managers).  The lesson here is that good plan that senior management sticks with is more likely to be one where your most expensive talent can succeed.

It used to be that newly drafted quarterbacks would have a more experienced one ahead of him to learn from for a year or two before being elevated to leading the team.  There are many reasons why that is not the case anymore, but it does limit the opportunity for some drafted players to develop into good quarterbacks. Players drafted at other positions tend to have the luxury.  Organizations that realize which key players can contribute immediately and which ones need some seasoning are also more likely to get the most out of their talent.

The NFL (and other professional sports) draft is a unique selection system.  In some ways it allows talent evaluators to get a great deal of information, but in other ways there is a lot of mystery around what allows players to translate their college success into the pros.  And, in looking at success vs. failure of the quarterback, sports fans tend to ignore the organizational issues that allow some players to shine rather than flounder.  All good lessons to keep in mind as companies begin to hire recent college graduates.

And good luck to Trevor Lawrence.

Moving From Counting to Progress

As I settle in to watch the Los Angeles Lakers play tonight in the National Basketball Association (NBA), my biggest concern will be about LeBron James’ health.  I won’t give a second thought to who is officiating the game and as to whether one of the officials is a woman.  OK, for the sake of this blog post I did check, and one of the 5 female NBA referees is working the game.

The reason I bothered checking was this article about female officials in the NBA.  The league is seen as more progressive than its North American counterparts (football, baseball, hockey, and soccer) when it comes to employment and social justice issues.  I was curious what the league was doing to encourage more women to become NBA officials and how they supported them.

The first thing that struck me was that the league establishes multiple pipelines for attracting referees.  If you have been a ref in one of them, you can get a look from the NBA.  And the league is not concerned whether they had officiated men’s or women’s games.  As long as you put in the time and you were good, you have a chance.

Once in the NBA, both male and female officials work both the top level and development leagues (the latter known as the G League) in order to gain more experience.  A little less than half of the full time G League referees are women.

So, the NBA throws out a large recruiting net (colleges, international leagues, etc.) and provides ample opportunities for the new officials to hone their skills, even when working with the top players.  Of course, the publisher of the article is also a broadcaster of NBA and WNBA games, so I wasn’t expecting any hard hitting accusations.  But, the NBA’s reputation for inclusiveness seems to have paid off in terms of the smoothness of the transition to having more women officiate games played by men.  It also means that the league does not have to bring out the trumpets each time a woman is a game referee.

The lesson from the NBA is that proper planning and culture can lead to diversifying workforces.  Taking steps to ensure high quality development and performance can make the revolutionary turn into the ordinary.

Are We Entering the Age of the Employee?

As working age people have been getting their COVID vaccinations in the US, companies are moving from the theoretical regarding the “new” work life into putting new policies into place.  There are a few I want to point out because they may be indicators of companies moving towards policies that are messier, but more employee focused.

Regarding work from home schedules, or lack thereof, General Motors came out swinging with Work Appropriately.  As their CEO puts it, “This means that where the work permits, employees have the flexibility to work where they can have the greatest impact on achieving our goals.”  So, the policy is basically, “Be an adult.  If you would rather not commute and you get can your work done, do it at home.  If you are a social animal and feel you’re more productive at the office, we’ll see you in the morning.”  This policy places the responsibility, where it should be, on the employee to manage his/her/their performance and career as well as their work schedule.

Many companies struggle with people taking their paid time off (PTO).  Even during the pandemic when many were experiencing additional stress, PTO was not fully being used.  Sure, part of that was due to travel being restricted and there are cultural issues to be addressed if a large number of people are not using this benefit.  But, many people were working longer hours from home and taking less time off.  Organizations tend to believe that people are more productive and engaged when they take their PTO and are often frustrated when they do not.  And, typical of American culture, they responded by threatening punishments (you can only accumulate so much PTO, use it or lose it, etc.).  Now we are seeing the pendulum swing back as companies are beginning to offer incentives for taking PTO.  Full disclosure: my wife works for an organization which has always done this and it helps.  She would use less of her PTO without the incentive. And I think this is the case in organizations that have particularly competitive cultures.  Incenting people to take PTO will not by itself reduce burnout, but it can be helpful.

Lastly, I want to bring up Amazon’s declaration that “We are going to be Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”  Of course, this comes with the caveats that it came from an outgoing CEO and right after a bruising union fight.  However, that this additional employee focus, and not just for white-collar workers, was put on the table represents a sea change for an organization that is (proudly) customer-centric.

Now, this may just be a moment.  Senior managers, who felt the stress and disruption of the pandemic as much as their employees, may be viewing their “most valuable asset” differently now, but when the usual business pressures inevitably return, they may snap back to the status quo.  Or, employees will use these new tools to be productive and engaged enough so that they will stick.  We will soon see if we are entering the age, or the fad, of the employee.

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