The NFL season has officially begun on One Winning Drive! This is one of my favorite times of the year as it marks the start of Training Camp for the Baltimore Ravens en route to hopefully a successful season. As an HR professional, I tend to see the world through that lens. Whether sports is a microcosm of life or life is a microcosm of sports is a matter of philosophical debate which is best discussed over one’s favorite ice-cold adult beverage. So, here are just some random thoughts on the Ravens’ season using a Human Resource framework:
Pre-screening: A few months before the start of training camp, the NFL has a very elaborate process for evaluating young players coming out of college, known as the “Combine”. This annual event features cognitive assessments like the Wonderlic, the Player Assessment Tool developed by my colleague Dr. Harold Goldstein of Baruch College, and the Troutwine Athletic Profile by Dr. Robert Troutwine. Teams will also interview players to obtain more of a sense of persona and character. Players are weighed and measured. In addition, they are put through athletic exercises to determine speed, strength, and position-related skills. All of this is done to get a handle on the KSAO’s which they could potentially bring to a team. The results of these assessments in combination with prior scouting reports will be used to make decisions about whom to draft or sign. Teams rely on scouts and references to refine formulations of college players. Here the axiom of the best predictor of future performance is past performance is relevant. Players who have had successes and achievements in their college career will warrant being drafted highly, signed to large contracts, and more-or-less guaranteed to make the team. During this time, players are not just vying for a spot on the Ravens, but also for their playing careers in general. A player cut by the Ravens may in fact be suitable for another team before or during the season. As such, the Preseason represents a talent showcase.
Talent Acquisition: Training Camp is a combination of assessment, screening, and selection. There has been some selection already done from the draft, returning players and other players signed. The number of players might be as high at 90. From that 90, the final number for the opening game roster will be 53 players, 46 of whom may suit up to play in a given game. There may also be 10 players on a practice roster and a number of others who because of injury or other circumstances are part of the team, but not counted towards these other numbers. As a result of observation by coaches, competition in practice and “work samples” in the form of Preseason games. This time of year is really one big assessment center. The larger number is ultimately reduced to the limited final roster. Factors such as the position of a player, his skills and competencies, and injury-based attrition will determine the composition of the final roster.
Talent Management: Each team has its “systems” or general approaches to the game. Systems are sometimes dictated by the coaches, sometimes by the talent, and most often based on the combination of the two. These are styles of how the offence plays or defense plays. New players from college or other teams must learn the systems used and adapt to them. Furthermore, incoming players must make certain adjustments from the way that they played in college and how they will need to play in the NFL. Here, coaches will play engage in Talent Management through direct mentoring roles. They do this my teaching “technique” and providing ongoing feedback during practice drills and simulated games. Given their experience and been-there-done-that, returning veteran players will be coached differently than players early in their careers.
Physical Fitness and Wellness: Football is a physically intensive and demanding game. The summer heat of Training Camp is further challenging. Another goal of Training Camp is conditioning and getting the players into “game shape”. While most players maintain an offseason regimen of workouts and diet for overall fitness, the specialized activities of the game and its competition cannot be simulated individually. During Training Camp, teams will also monitor dietary habits and put extra rules in place to promote wellness and reduce risky behaviors. Recently, the NFL has taken a look at the detrimental effects of football on many former NFL players. Many of the manifestations include cognitive impairments experienced by retirees often at a premature age. The league has taken steps to specifically monitor head injuries such as concussions. Whereas in the past, players and coaches were empowered to make decisions as to a player going back into the game, the NFL has now mandated independent evaluations of such injuries.
Coaches: Led by my favorite Head Coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens have 24 coaches on staff. Each coach will play a specific role, either directly or otherwise, in assessment and selection. There are also elements of Operations and Management in running the practices in an organized and efficient manner. Each team has its own system and style and way of going about this. Another function of the coaches is motivational. There needs to be a certain focus, discipline, and tone that the coaches set. During an individual game and over a long season, one of the roles of the coaches is player engagement. Beyond the field coaches, there is the General Manager. Ozzie Newsome occupies this role. He and his staff are not running the practices per se, but are certainly observers and legendary assessors of players, ultimately making the final decisions of the workforce of the team. In certain respects, there is a matrix management going on here.
Leadership: Training Camp is the beginning of hopefully what will be the beginning of a winning journey towards an NFL Championship. John Harbaugh has developed successful styles of leadership of how he deals with players on and off the field. He also is the face of the organization over the course of the season, serving as the main spokesman for the team before, after, and between games. Over the course of a season, leadership has to deal with players on a micro level and the team on a macro level. There are ups and downs to every season, so a successful leader can navigate both the battles and the war.
Strategic and Contingency Planning: There is always a need to plan ahead especially in a game where injuries are not uncommon. Injuries may begin as early as Training Camp. Teams like the Ravens maintain “depth charts” which are succession plans. These are contingencies in anticipation of an injury either prior to a game or during a game which would render a given player unavailable. Furthermore, teams can put players on “Injured Reserve”, allowing them to retain the rights of that player during recuperation. Less developed players can be part of the “Practice Squad” enabling them to participate in team exercises, but not play in a game. In addition the assessments done during Training Camp may give a team a comfort zone about a player, enough to bring back a yet unclaimed player later in the season. This would be akin to candidate not being initially selected but reached out to f the selected candidate does not work out.
Culture and Teamwork: During Training Camp, some teams will have known rituals which are passed down from cohort to cohort. Some of these might represent a pecking order based on seniority. Other norms are reflective of culture. The success of the team in previous years or historically will drive expectations and collective attitude.
Employee Relations and Risk Management: As it any contact sport things can get physical and competitive. It is common for there to be one or two significant skirmishes that take place during practice. After all, some players are fighting for their jobs or careers. How the coaches manage these situations which arise will typically drive how significant the issue becomes. There can be classes among players and between players and coaches which call for Employee Relations. Beyond the playing field, there are off-field incidents which might pose a distraction. Unfortunately, we have seen domestic violence, DUI, substance abuse policy violations lead to suspensions of some form. Other behaviors such as assaults and possession of handguns have led to legal repercussions. Besides the obvious victims of such infractions and often the player himself self-destructing, this most definitely affects the team’s reputation. Teams have had to become more sophisticated as to how they handle the distraction element, balancing between supporting their players and acknowledging the infraction. They must be sensitive to the laws of that locale and the values of society. Teams must also realize that unlike the average Joe, players are public figures and subject to scrutiny by general public with cell phones and instant social media access. This Risk Management now comes with the territory.
Total Rewards: Because of the high skill levels required to play at the professional level, compensation follows supply-and-demand. The average career of a professional football player is relatively short and players (and agents) want to capitalize on market value while it is at its highest. Furthermore, the big money associated with broadcast rights, apparel licensing, and corporate relationships has driven up salaries for not only players but highly sought coaches as well. In exchange for this, players under contract are expected to perform on the field and behave off of it. There is a high level of scrutiny by media and fans in light of the expectations emanating from the disparity between star players and the average Joe. There are parallels here with CEO’s who have large compensation packages. Unfortunately, we have witnessed former players who have made bad financial or social decisions and end up in poor financial straits. Recognizing these challenges, the league has started NFL Player Engagement which is a combination of proactive and reactive support services. In addition to helping players make better life choices, this program helps players make the transition from their playing careers into the business sector or other endeavors.
Media: Another layer of scrutiny comes from beat writers and sports talk show hosts. Beat writers are looking to fill content by prognosticating who will make the team, who is “on the bubble”. They will also express their own personnel opinions and second-guess decisions from the beginning of Training Camp until the end of the season. Coaches and players have to understand that the writers are merely doing their own jobs and have to have a thick skin. That’s just life in the big city. On a more positive track, writers will also follow specific human interest stories such as a prospect who overcame a certain struggle to get to where he is. The public always like to root for the underdog and have a soft spot for the long shots. These players are akin to unconventional candidates vying for a position in the corporate world.
Performance Appraisal and Management: Another favorite exercise of beat writers in the media is “grading” players, coaches, and the team on a weekly basis. This is akin to performance appraisal which takes place in every organization. Often, grades published by print and broadcast media types tend to show evidence of a severity effect. But then again, that comes with the territory of high salaries. Coaches are the ones responsible for interacting with individual players to provide positive and developmental feedback throughout the long season. They will also manage the performance of the entire team in aggregate through the ups-and-downs of the season.
Unions: Unions have also played a role in the NFL. There are Collective Bargaining Agreements which will set parameters for the relationship which the players have with team ownership. With each renewal of a CBA, certain points come up, which are debated and leveraged as part of a process. Players who have disputes with management are the beneficiaries of union representation in adjudicating such issues through mediation and grievance hearings.
So, maybe HR is a microcosm of football and the Ravens, after all.