Today’s guest columnist is Marcus Jones, senior NFL consultant at Sportsology Group.
As the end of another NFL season approaches, ownership groups will be asking themselves an age-old question: Do I “stick or twist” with the front office group we have in place today?
And then they will most likely do what they’ve always done, which often means shaking up the team’s leadership without actually changing the fundamental management structure.
Sportsology’s research shows that over the past five years, the NFL has the lowest average GM tenure of any of the big five U.S. sports (2.1 years) and the smallest hiring window. This will come into focus next week on “Black Monday,” the day after the regular season concludes, when teams frequently announce key management moves.
When it comes to leadership changes inside front offices and coaching circles, “Black Monday” is the most traumatic day of the U.S. sporting year. The Sportsology Intelligence Unit has analyzed the last five years of NFL leadership changes (General Manager/President of Football, etc.), and found that 53% of franchises changed their No. 1 football lead, with 70% of the 23 GM firings occurring in December and January—while 91% of the subsequent hires were made in this same window.
The pressure to deliver instant results, particularly in light of recent quick turnarounds (such as the Eagles and 49ers, which made a Super Bowl within three years of a GM change), plus the fact that eight different teams have won an NFL title in the last 10 years, has only accelerated everyone’s “time to win” clock.
When the pressure to win is coupled with the mentality to “pull the tree up to see if it’s still growing,” finding a strategy to deliver winning in the short term, while still building for the future, has taken on even greater significance.
The NFL also has the shortest and most competitive hiring window across the major leagues. It is this unique level of time pressure that drives ownership into “doing what we have always done.”
Owners may well be asking themselves, Where do the next leaders come from?
Our numbers show 72% of current GMs come from a scouting background. (The NBA has 50% from scouting, second most among the big five North American sports leagues). A cap-and-contract/operations background is next highest at 16%, and the remaining 12% is split between coaching, ex-player, analytics and owners themselves. Scouting is important, but it is difficult to defend having a single skill-set vertical constituting 72% of current leadership (and 78% of hires in the last five years).
Perhaps more revealing is the high percentage of GMs who are first-timers in the role (88%), with 66% coming from outside the organization. Some 63% of all GMs fit into both categories, entering the role with no prior experience of how to lead an organization, nor a good grasp of, “What is this thing that I am leading?”
Of course, this has certain perceived advantages (i.e. no preconceived ideas or biases about the organization), but most of the time the new bosses will bring their own preconceptions, even if wrong, that the entire edifice needs to be broken down and rebuilt from the ashes. They will also believe that the most capable people of delivering will be those with whom they have previously worked with.
Sportsology Group has worked with over 50 ownership groups across global sport, and we know that the blame for failure is never the fault of a single element within an organization. However, the ultimate responsibility for all aspects of the business lies with ownership. The high burn rate of talent and the consequent missed opportunities must be addressed at that senior level. Ownership groups need to be clearer about the function a GM is expected to perform and use that clarity to better plan the entire search, hiring and onboarding of new front office personnel.
For example, if the function of the GM is merely to be a glorified owner of the draft board, then hire a Director of College Scouting. If the function is to manage the scouting department and all of the other relevant departments, then hire a great manager. The best manager of scouts need not be the best scout.
On the other side of the hiring process, candidates must apply the same level of preparation into the first days on the job that they put into winning the interview. They have to arrive with a robust, pragmatic and detailed plan for the first 90-120 days.
Critical moments will come thick and fast. It is likely that a new hire could be choosing a new head coach (or seeking to build rapport with an existing one), preparing for the scouting combine, navigating free agency and making pivotal selections in the draft, all within the first 90 days. Couple this with getting to know ownership, the media, the fan dynamics and the city’s expectations, and the new leader is inevitably in for a bumpy ride.
When we speak with first-time GMs at the end of their first year, the feedback always hits the same three points:
- It’s a lonelier job than I thought.
- I wish I had been better prepared in the first few months.
- It’s totally different from the job that got me here.
The solutions to all three are simple:
- Understand that leadership is a team game.
- Prepare better.
- Clarify the precise function that ownership wants delivered.
If ownership also understands that these are the key issues and answers, the organization has a strong foundation.
Jones oversees all of Sportsology Group’s research efforts in the NFL, generating insights on front office trends, organizational performance and what it takes to win. He has also worked with clients across several major U.S. sports leagues and European Soccer.