Build Your Company like a Winning NFL Team

If you are founding a company and want to learn to hire people, look no further than your favorite NFL team to learn how to (or how NOT to) build a winning team. Unfortunately for me, only one in 32 teams will build the best team and get the exit they want– a Super Bowl victory. Unfortunately for you, the odds of attaining your goals are likely much worse. However, companies have multiple options for “success”: from IPO to being bought by a large Silicon Valley powerhouse to building a successful, privately held company (despite what your VC’s tell you, those actually do exist).

Each season for an NFL team is like starting another business in the same field. Your non-compete has run out and you prepare to forge a new start-up company. You will try to bring the best and brightest with you from your previous team, but some have other agendas. Other companies/teams will offer them better pay. Some teams will offer them more responsibility/playing time, flexibility, autonomy, etc.

Before you can even think about building out a successful team though, there has to be a foundation for growth. You want to build your house on rock, not sand. So who/what do you grow your team/company around?

1. Intrinsically motivated people. No rah-rah speeches needed here. These players are willing to work individually for their success and for the success of the team. There is nothing worse than a selfish teammate. “A rising tide lifts all ships” is a common coach-ism. Translated, it means that success for the team will mean success for the individuals on the team, regardless of their place in the pecking order.

2. Clearly stated goals. “Getting better traction” and “Increase conversion rates” are not specific enough. You need to define success during the process, even if it’s only a stepping stone to something bigger. Your team will need feedback on these goals. More importantly, hold people accountable to the process required to achieve the goals, not the goals themselves. There are other variables that will impact the outcome of whether or not a goal is attained, but the process of getting to that goal can be coached and improved.

(Note for #3: Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that there is a free market for NFL labor.)

3. Now you must do your best to acquire talent. You can do this through the draft (hire someone fresh out of college), or you can hire away from other teams. No matter what your offer entails, realize that your history as an employer will have a huge impact on how excited people are to come work there. Assume prospective employees talk to current/past employees. They can be a huge boon in bringing in their talented friends with positive statements about their job OR they can turn people off instantly.

So where do you start? What’s the most important position in your company? If you answered “Tight End”, you’re funny and awesome, but I’m betting your company is struggling.

The Quarterback/Founder is the most important player on a team’s offense. Why? It’s not because he gets all the endorsements and fancy commercials, or because he gets to call the plays (He doesn’t. For the most part–that’s the offensive coordinator). It’s because he handles the ball on EVERY. SINGLE. PLAY. Like most founders trying to navigate their way through the twists and turns of building something, QB’s must too become adept at making competent, quick decisions, and moving on to the next play regardless of the outcome.

Founders, you are expected to be the leader. Force yourself to do it, even if you aren’t comfortable with it yet. Andrew Luck’s freshman year, he had to control a huddle filled with guys older and more experienced than he was, but he forced himself to get comfortable leading that group. Because of the position you are in, you will be looked to for leadership.

Teams without a good quarterback struggle. Even the _______ people in the media (I’ll let you fill in the blank) can figure that out (I wouldn’t put too much stock into anything else they say). As a company grows, a founder usually grows into the role of Head Coach, simply because he or she can’t make every decision. Delegating to competent assistant coaches becomes crucial. We’ll save management hires for another post.

Bringing in the right people is probably the most difficult task faced by NFL teams and growing companies. Using these basic concepts, you can help propel your team in the right direction.