When It Comes to Leadership Hires, NFL Teams Keep Doing the Same Thing

And, as a study on GM (or similar positions) hires shows, expecting a better result when, instead, they should be looking to break the mold.
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As Mike Forde built out a sports performance company—consulting for championship-seeking teams like the NBA’s Spurs; the NFL’s Falcons, Rams and 49ers; along with Olympians and Tour de France winners, and serving as an exec at Chelsea FC—he developed a research arm. The goal: to examine hiring trends in various sports in order to better advise the executives and coaches they consult for. Sportsology is what Forde calls it.

He mentioned this on a separate call, for another story, as another NFL hiring cycle began to take shape starting with a rash of firings late into last season, four taking place before the calendar turned to December. His research arm reached back out after seven franchises decided on new leadership, and after their team had analyzed the data. It highlighted how little teams broke from recent trends—and how much the next batch of owners starting in new directions should consider both diversity in thinking and diversity overall.

The research group defined a new leadership role as a general manager hire or the equivalent level of organizational power. That placed seven NFL franchises—the Falcons, Panthers, Broncos, Lions, Texans, Jaguars and the Washington Football Team—into its study of the 2021 hiring cycle. In line with trends from the previous five seasons, six of those seven teams hired someone from a scouting background (the WFT did not, technically, as Martin Mayhew came from football operations but also held years of personnel experience), six of the seven hired from outside the organization (the Jags promoted Trent Baalke) and five out of seven hired someone who would take on that level of leadership for the first time (with Mayhew and Baalke the exceptions—and, the Sportsology folks note, both were hired in head-coach-centric power structures in which neither will have final say on roster decisions).

The seven hires ranged in age from 40 to 56 and in NFL experience from 18 to 22 seasons. There was more turnover (2.5 openings above the average), a far greater average time to hire (54 days, when the previous-five-season average was 13), and the number of external hires was greater than the same average by 24.1%. This appeared to speak mostly to the number of weaker teams who fired general managers (or the equivalent) before the season ended, leading to longer time before new hires could be made, given the NFL’s tampering rules. The Sportsology research folks—Marcus Jones, head of NFL research insights; Patrick Manhire, VP of executive search; and Chris Brady (yes, every pro football story somehow ties back to a Brady), director of research—do not see the longer time to hire as a trend.

The more relevant takeaway is that despite calls for more diversity, despite rules designed to correct long-held and implicit biases, despite the racial unrest of 2020 and despite Sportsology data that shows no appreciable win-loss benefit to hiring a GM with a background in scouting, NFL franchises continue to hire the same types of people. Through the same exact processes. To similar, if not underwhelming, results. In fact, of the last 19 leadership hires the group analyzed, only three had résumés that contained previous experience at the highest level of an organization. In other words—and this is Sports Illustrated’s conclusion, not the researchers’ opinion—NFL teams view the GM role as that of, first and foremost, a scout.

On many levels, that makes sense. GMs generally pick players and shape rosters, and a scouting background is not only helpful in those pursuits but necessary. And yet what seems obvious—that GMs with that particular experience would ultimately pick better players and shape better teams—is not the reality of recent NFL history. GMs with backgrounds in salary cap management, contract negotiations and football operations won at a slightly higher rate (59.2%) from 2015 to ’20 than teams that banked on leaders with scouting DNA (55.5%). The best win rate came from a sample size of one—a de facto GM with a coaching background, Bill Belichick.

For new leadership hires in that same time span, the cap/contract GMs won at a 50.3% rate (excluding Sashi Brown’s run in Cleveland, when the front office was tanking), while the scout types won at 49.1%. Of the scout backgrounders, only Chiefs GM Brett Veach can claim a Super Bowl title (LIV), and he was an internal candidate promoted to GM in 2017.

The question those numbers raise is: Why? Why not take a chance? Try a leader from a different background? Not make the same mistakes that other teams are making? The researchers do not know an exact answer to this. Surely, some of the trends stem from the NFL’s status as a copycat league, where teams see successful franchises—like Veach, a scout turned GM in Kansas City—and try to emulate what worked elsewhere. But why can’t a GM be in charge of more than players? Why can’t they be in charge of culture? Of process-building? Of how a team fits together once assembled, not just during the assembling? The numbers simply don’t support an argument to silo power and compartmentalize what happens in season and out.

If anything, the researchers argue for a more differentiated approach. There’s no one right answer, no one easy fix. It’s more like: Try something else, someone else, to reach a more desired result, rather than continuing down the same road and hoping for a different outcome.

That would start, Forde says, with any one franchise clearly defining what it wants from that type of leadership position. When Brady did similar research in the corporate world, they called that undertaking a functional analysis. Start with who reports to whom, how the power structure operates and, in the case of NFL franchises, why a general manager would be given such a hefty title but not the actual power that title would confer. Just taking part in this exercise would help teams better identify internal talent.

Franchises that lean toward the norm, that look to an external leadership hire from a scouting background, don’t follow the decision theory process that the researcher Brady believes all truly great organizations must undergo. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s get somebody in to shake things up,’ but the research shows that isn’t working,” Brady says. “My previous research shows me that doesn’t work. You might as well just toss a coin.”

What these teams need, the researchers all agree, is more diversity in thinking. They call this concept cognitive diversity, and building it starts by hiring people in leadership positions of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds. Naturally, a more diverse group would come at various issues and team-building exercises with more varied opinions, more solutions that veer from conventional thinking, less more of the same. The point isn’t to make diverse hires just for the sake of checking boxes, but rather to actually change the way organizations think and solve problems. “The time for paying lip service to the diversity debate has passed and real action is required,” the same research team wrote in another paper, The Ethical and Performance Imperatives of Diversity for Front Offices.

In that analysis, the researchers cite many typical and troubling themes: that the 2018 Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards showed 80% of the positions filled by white people, with 60% filled by white men; that organizations with diverse senior management teams were up to 33% “more likely to financially outperform their competitors” (McKinsey study); and that the difference between nondiverse and diverse orgs was 12% in revenue from 2018 to now (Gartner report).

Given those types of numbers, it’s both not surprising and deeply disheartening that organizations in particular industries, like the NFL, continue to hire the same types of people—mostly people with backgrounds in scouting, which means white men, because people with backgrounds in scouting are typically white men. The pipeline itself isn’t diverse, limiting the applicant pool for jobs in which woman and minority candidates already face longer odds to land. That’s where it gets cyclical. With fewer applicants and fewer openings, front offices remain homogenous, without changing the number of candidates or their opportunities. Which leads right back to the same place: fewer candidates, more ready-made excuses. And, to the point that Sportsology is making, a more homogenous front office tends to think in a more homogenous way. Which is why nothing ever seems to change in regard to NFL leadership hirings.

“Cognitive diversity can be a quiet bystander in a diversity debate,” the researchers write, “... but it is crucial to high performance and innovation.”

That means building out the applicant pool. That means making interviews real rather than token, to satisfy one rule or another. That means transparency on employee diversity data. That means creating a more welcoming culture and maintaining it. All of which should lead to more significant changes, given the data and the Sportsology analysis. Right?