Talent Management—or Lack Thereof—Evident in Sports Playoffs

By Thomas Stone Jan 26, 2012
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The National Football League (NFL) will host Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, Ind., on Feb 5, 2012. A big day indeed for the competing teams—the New England Patriots and the New York Giants—and for their fans.

But beyond the obvious impact on these sports insiders, there’s no finer example of the importance of succession planning than a sport playoff season that culminates in one team attaining the No. 1 spot in its industry—at least for that year. The on-field match-ups and winning strategies take much longer to formulate and solidify than the few hours of the game itself. Here are some lessons learned from the manner in which the 2011-12 NFL season playoff contenders stepped up to address their talent management needs—and where they fell short.

Contingency Plans: Cover Critical Positions

Let’s start with the Super Bowl host city’s Indianapolis Colts, which had a horrible season. They lost their first 13 games and ended the season with a 2-14 record—the team’s worst performance in 20 years. Compare this season’s record with an average 11.5 wins that the team posted during the past 12 seasons, and you can see why a shakeup in the front office was not a big surprise.

Why the sudden collapse? The Colts’ defense was weak and the team had no running game, among other deficiencies. But these areas were not weak because of significant personnel changes or injuries; in each case, the players involved were largely the same as those employed in 2010. The primary reason for the Colts’ lack of success in 2011 was that the team’s four-time most valuable player, quarterback Peyton Manning, suffered a neck injury before the season and couldn’t play.

Manning had been an amazingly consistent producer for the Colts, leading them to the playoffs in 11 of their 12 previous seasons and putting up strong individual statistics every year. And at the age of 35, he wasn’t yet showing his age. Manning wasn’t able to play in 2011, and some wondered whether his career is over.

What is clear is that the Colts lacked a backup plan in case something happened to Manning. In fact, the Colts’ backup quarterbacks didn’t play in any regular season games during the 2010 season. By not having a solid backup at this key position, and by not making any significant talent upgrades elsewhere on the team, the Colts were extremely vulnerable to disaster.

For Comparison’s Sake

How have other teams fared in similar circumstances? One case to consider is that of the Green Bay Packers from 2005 to 2007.

Like the Colts with Manning, the Packers in 2005 found themselves with an aging superstar quarterback, Brett Favre. He was a fan favorite of the “Cheeseheads” (Packers fans’ nickname) for good reason: He had been a strong performer for 13 years, winning three most valuable player awards and numerous other accolades. But knowing that he wasn’t getting any younger, the Packers in 2004 drafted a gifted young quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.

But the Packers then kept Rodgers on the bench for three seasons. Like any rookie NFL quarterback, he had plenty to learn. But when Favre started to falter, the Packers fell to a 4-12 record in 2005 with Favre throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. The team improved to 8-8 in 2006, though Favre still wasn’t his old self.

Meanwhile Rodgers managed to get into only five games over the two seasons. Still, during his years as backup, Rodgers’ inspired performances with the practice squad would earn him the respect of his teammates. As a result, a “quarterback controversy” was brewing, as it seemed that Rodgers was increasingly ready to step up and would have been the starter on many other teams.

This is the risk taken in business. Is it better to ride out an existing, experienced talent to the career detriment of developing the younger talent? Do you sacrifice on-the-job professional career growth for the person waiting in the wings, thereby delaying their greatness a bit longer? It is the classic short-run vs. long-run benefits tradeoff, with a good measure of uncertainty added to the mix.

Rodgers practiced with the starting squad in the 2007 pre-season and seemed more than ready to play, but Favre remained and, at 38, achieved one of his best seasons ever, leading the team to a 13-3 record.

Rodgers, meanwhile, continued in his backup role, getting into only two games in 2007. In one sense, this was a classic “good problem to have”—and it turned out well for the Packers in 2007. But it just as easily could have turned out poorly, with the Packers keeping an aging, popular veteran in place and thereby blocking the faster emergence of a high-potential and likely future star performer.

In 2008 the Packers finally handed control to Rodgers, who didn’t disappoint. While the team lost many close games and posted only a 6-10 record, Rodgers’ numbers as quarterback were good as he played through injury to earn further respect from Green Bay’s fans. Rodgers has improved consistently since, leading the Packers to a Super Bowl title to crown the 2010 season and a 15-1 record in 2011, throwing 45 touchdowns with only six interceptions.

When It Really Works

A third example is that of the New England Patriots—one of the smartest organizations in the NFL, according to many experts, and arguably in all of pro sports. The team seems to draft and develop players consistently well, across many positions and over a lengthy period of time. From 1993 to 2000 the team’s quarterback was Drew Bledsoe, and they had some success with him at the helm. But in 1999 Bledsoe threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and the team ended the season with an 8-8 record.

In 2000 the Patriots had acquired quarterback Tom Brady, who—like the Packers’ Rodgers—was to be groomed as Bledsoe’s eventual replacement. In 2001, during the second game of the season, Bledsoe was hit by a New York Jets linebacker, suffering a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady stepped in as his replacement and ended up leading the team into the playoffs and eventually winning the Super Bowl.

A similar situation arose for the Patriots several years later. By 2005 Brady was entrenched as a superstar for the Patriots. While they actually had a veteran substitute for him in 43-year-old Doug Flutie, the Patriots knew they needed a younger player as protection should disaster strike. So they drafted Matt Cassel. His role in his first few seasons was to learn the ropes and be ready should something happen to Brady. The Patriots went 10-6 in 2005, 12-4 in 2006, and then had a record-breaking, undefeated regular season (16-0) in 2007 before falling in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. That year, Brady arguably had the best statistical season any quarterback has ever had, throwing 50 touchdowns against only eight interceptions and leading the league in many other performance categories.

Then at the start of the 2008 season, just as Patriots fans were excited to get the season underway so they could put the crushing Super Bowl defeat behind them, the unthinkable happened. In the first quarter of the first game, Tom Brady suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus cruciate ligament and his season was over. Matt Cassel’s time in the sun was now, and the team’s drafting and preparation paid off: He stepped in and not only led them to victory in that first game but also led them to a respectable 11-5 season, narrowly missing the playoffs. Brady returned the following year, but Cassel’s performance in 2008 earned him a ticket to a starting role with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Succession Planning and Talent Management Implications

Some valuable succession planning and broader talent management lessons can be learned from these NFL scenarios. For example, regarding:

Bench strength and talent mobility. Companies can make a great hire or promotion and get a lot of productivity from that person for a long period of time. But they can’t rest on their laurels: They need to be focusing not only on the support and development of their “starters” but also on building out their bench strength. Having a rich talent pool and a strong focus on internal talent mobility is the best way to make sure the organization doesn’t suffer if disaster strikes.

High-potential development. Focusing on developing high-potentials is critical to retaining them so that one day they can step up and be the leader the organization needs them to be. Handling how to give them a promotion when existing, perhaps star, employees are in place can be a challenge. But there are multiple career paths and potential leadership positions in most organizations that can become available to a rising star.

Labor demographics. Business leaders need to develop their entire labor pools, not just their high-potentials. In organizations where Baby Boomers are unintentionally blocking others from developing their careers and reaching their potential sooner, this is a classic case of what smart economists call the “seen and unseen”: Yes, the companies are retaining experienced employees’ skills, knowledge, network and the like, but this is being done at significant opportunity costs in delayed career and talent growth for young employees.

Readiness. How is the readiness level of the company’s young, inexperienced employees being addressed? Does the company have tools that enable a broad range of people to nominate ready successors for all critical roles?

Know your people. Professional sports are awash in statistics, talent analytics and performance metrics. Teams know the value of this kind of talent intelligence, and it is critical to their success. What level of talent intelligence is available about the people in your organization, and how does it support its succession planning efforts?

Wrapping one’s head around all these issues will take longer than the typical Super Bowl halftime show, for sure. But having the right talent pool waiting in the wings is succession planning’s ultimate endgame.

Thomas Stone has been in the talent management industry for a dozen years. He is a senior research analyst for Taleo Research.

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