What the NFL can Teach Us About the Value of Executive Interviews 

This week, Americans will watch as their favorite football teams choose new talent for their rosters. For those who aren’t familiar, the NFL draft consists of seven rounds where each of the 32 NFL teams are allowed to choose from highly talented college players who have declared themselves eligible for the draft. You might be asking why an organizational consulting firm is addressing the NFL draft. It is an amazing microcosm of interviewing and selection that is highly public and the results are clearly laid bare for all to see. Essentially, the NFL teams are doing in one weekend what every employer has been doing for years – trying to choose the best employees/players from a sea of top talent, where differences are nuanced and focus more on how the person is successful rather than whether they are successful.  

During this weekend, NFL executives will be testing, observing, and evaluating players, trying to predict who will help them make it to the next Super Bowl. Likewise, employers are trying to evaluate candidates, trying to predict who will help their company grow and succeed in a competitive market. The NFL teams have quite a bit of data on these college players, much more than an average employer can have on a candidate. Even with all this data, the top draft picks are not always the most successful. Perhaps you are a fan of Giovanni Carmazzi or Tee Martin, both QBs drafted ahead of Tom Brady in 2000, but clearly there was a mistake made there in terms of who was the better pick. Similarly, the candidates with the most impressive resumes and who bring their A-game to the interviews aren’t always the person you should choose to draft into your organization. 

Why aren’t strong candidates always strong employees? First, alignment and specificity on what the organization needs in a new hire is often lacking. Job descriptions are often unclear and imprecise in their construction, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation when a hiring manager is presented with a candidate. What exactly do you need this employee to do? What does the timeframe look like? How will this be accomplished? It’s all up for debate and a general interview process doesn’t always get at the specificity needed for specific positions, particularly those at the C-Suite level. (Pro-tip: use a Cipher® to drive that clarity!) 

Second, we have unrealistic expectations that managers will simply be able to know good talent when they see it, without any training whatsoever! Especially with the Great Resignation, hiring managers are under a tremendous amount of pressure to find and hire candidates. They do not always have the capacity to fully prepare for an interview or to put effort into the interview process. What would your favorite team look like if they took that approach to the draft? Skimmed the combine results, glanced at a few college player stat books, had a brief unstructured call with the player, and gave it a go for the pick…. That’s not a team making it to the Super Bowl any time soon! Yet hiring managers are expected to predict a candidate’s fit and success at the company with a curated resume and a quick introduction to the candidate. Compound that with the ambiguity of the role discussed in the point above and it becomes an impossible task.  

Third, employers often focus on learning about the successes of a candidate, while ignoring the potential red flags of failures. How many times have you been asked “what is your greatest weakness?” in an interview? Did you provide an answer that could actually be interpreted as a strength? Many answer that question in that manner, and worse yet, hiring managers accept that blather. Answers like these highlight a potentially huge gap in the person’s self-awareness and shed zero light on their growth mindset and resiliency, all often noted as some of the most important leadership traits. Instead, hiring managers need to balance successes and failures of the candidate, and learn how to dig deeper to discover the growth of a candidate over time. 

Research from Massey and Thaler shows that the value of early draft choices is often inflated. Just a few short months ago, the LA Rams won the 2022 Super Bowl – in the last draft, they chose to give up early picks for more established players, ultimately leading to their triumph. Specifically, they stopped guessing at what players might be able to do and instead selected from a talent pool with more clear performance data. By creating a more specific understanding of what the candidate will be expected to accomplish, training hiring managers to tailor their structured interviews to the role, and seeking a more holistic picture of the candidate, employers can similarly avoid being dazzled by a quick performance and find candidates who can lead them to victory. 

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