The NFL versus Moneyball

May 6, 2020
Subscribe to Our Newsletter     
Executive Accessment

Want to do better at selecting talent than the National Football League selects players? Here is what we learned from the research and from a Major League Baseball president that will improve your batting average.

NFL leaders succumb to natural bias, favoring athletes who are tall, fast, and strong. “It’s about a particular cultural fascination with the idea of potential,” Malcolm Gladwell, Canadian author and journalist, explains. “NFL teams think that these ‘natural athletes’ have more room to improve than anybody else. But the evidence suggests that if anything, those who are slower or shorter, and who have had to compensate for those deficiencies with increased hard work, guile, and intelligence prove to be better performers.”

So what does this have to say about assessing talent beyond the gridiron? For one thing, it suggests that credentials such as the prestige BA or MBA diploma might not be as accurate a predictor as the individual’s track record in persevering and overcoming barriers and attitude toward continual learning and coaching.

Not long ago, in a conversation with the president of an MLB club, he spoke of the exhaustive process by which they initially assess talent. First, the player-development team meets to identify ideal key performance dimensions using Moneyball analytics such as on-base percentage for hitters, speed to the ball for outfielders, and velocity, movement, and on-base percentage for pitchers. Then scouts observe the play of teen athletes on high school or junior college diamonds to measure their athletic abilities and come back with hard data. What may surprise you is that while the scouts are on site, they also interview family members in the bleachers and observe a number of the obvious and many more subtle behaviors of the parents and siblings to get a sense for the kind of adult this athlete might become. At this stage, they are looking at the whole person, assessing character and role models—not just athletic performance. They combine these data sets with their own Moneyball analytics to decide which players to draft and how much to offer them.

When you are hiring, first get firm alignment regarding the position specifications among all key stakeholders. In a typical internal assessment interview you probably don’t have an eye to family background and core internal motivations. This is where a multifaceted external assessment can provide insight into the individual’s intellectual, emotional, and motivational makeup through skilled interviewing. A capable assessor teases out the factors that predict a candidate’s approach to self-development and ability to deal effectively with the inevitable setbacks that accompany managerial roles, both of which are robust predictors of future performance.

How do you get the complementary, Moneyball-type analytical hard data? Employ an in-depth personality inventory and tests that provide an objective read on raw capabilities and problem-solving performance under pressure. Combined, these two sources of data enable you to improve your batting average and make hiring decisions with the same kind of precision as best-in-class Major League Baseball teams.

Grant W. Levitan is a Senior Partner based in Chicago. His work facilitates organic and authentic growth in leaders, enabling them to achieve new levels of performance and personal effectiveness.