Believe It or Not, There Are Lots of Similarities Between HR Pros and NFL Head Coaches

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Sep 24, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

It’s been a long summer, but now it’s fall and the professional football season is (finally!) officially upon us.

While most of the focus has been on the players (such as the combination of players that will make the ultimate Fantasy Football team), the start of football season has us thinking more about the coaches.

When you get down to brass tacks, the structure of a National Football League team is pretty comparable to any organization. You’ve got your executives (owner, president/CEO, general manager), your manager-level employees (offensive/defensive coordinators, assistant coaches) and your employees (the players).

While the relationships between each of these groups don’t always match up exactly with a traditional company, there are some striking similarities.

HR pros vs. NFL head coaches

So where do HR professionals fit into this comparison? In our minds, the role of the HR professional, as varied as it is, most closely resembles that of the head coach.

Think about it: Often, HR professionals are tasked with communicating the businesses expectations of the executive team with the rest of the workforce, serving as a liaison of sorts to the other levels of the organization. The head coach of an NFL team typically reports to the GM or owner, but is ultimately responsible for coordinating the performance of the players.

The HR director is often also considered the “face” of the organization when it comes to employee matters (at least to the employee population), even if they don’t, in fact, have ultimate control over personnel or policy issues, and NFL coaches are also easily the most likely members of a team to be seen as the “face” of the organization.

Regardless of whether you truly buy into this comparison, we think there are a lot of things today’s up-and-coming and even more seasoned HR professionals can learn from their counterparts in the football world. Below, we’ve listed out what we think are the top four (4) lessons HR pros can take from NFL football coaches:

1. A deep bench is worth more than one star

While a star football player may help you sell more tickets, they can’t win the game by themselves. (No matter how many sacks J.J. Watt and his No. 1 defense make, the Houston Texans still struggle to overcome issues on the other side of the ball.)

How it applies to HR pros: The same principle holds true when it comes to a company’s recruitment and retention strategies. Star employees, those who are motivated, dedicated and talented, are rare and expensive to acquire. Instead of expending all your energy (and recruitment budget) going after the elusive star player, consider focusing your energy on putting together a deep bench of qualified, capable employees.

2. Top teams tend to attract the best talent

Everyone wants to be a part of one of the top teams, the ones that have an established track record of winning seasons and playoff appearances. It’s why when ESPN asked more than 100 NFL players to fill in the blank for the question “The only way I’d play for ______________ is if they doubled my salary,” 23 percent said the Oakland Raiders. (Oakland hasn’t had a playoff appearance in over a decade.)

How it applies to HR pros: If you’re a smaller organization, you have to try two or three times as hard to recruit the most talented players than bigger companies, simply because you just don’t have the same name-recognition value.

If you’re constantly competing and losing talent to larger employers, the key is to pinpoint what distinguishes your company from those bigger brands, and the value you bring to the table as a smaller organization.

3. Put people in positions they can thrive

There have been several cases of college quarterbacks who went on to play different positions in the NFL. Sometimes it takes the experienced eye of a coach to spot players who might be able to play multiple positions or who might be better suited to a position different than the one they might have initially expected to play.

How it applies to HR pros: Due to their unique ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their employees, HR professionals are often involved in the hiring and promotion processes. The practiced eye of an HR professional can often discern which junior account rep is ready to make the jump to a senior account rep, or recognize that the receptionist has a knack for marketing.

4. Continuous feedback allows your team to adjust

With the premiere of HBO’s documentary series Hard Knocks this season, fans are now more aware than ever of just how often NFL coaches talk with their teams about performance. Coaches use game film to point out errors, stop practice to correct a play, and use every halftime break to talk to their players about their performance.

How it applies to HR pros: Ongoing feedback is essential when it comes to performance management. Real-time feedback gives employees the opportunity to adjust their performance to better align with their manager’s expectations.


No matter whether you’re a seasoned veteran with an established record like Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, or a bit newer to the job like Todd Bowles of the New York Jets, as an HR professional you can truly learn a lot from the way NFL coaches manage their teams. (Although we’d recommend avoiding the excessive yelling they’re also known for.)

This was originally published on the G&A Partners blog

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.