What Business Could Learn From the NFL Combine


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It’s the end of February and that can only mean one thing: the start of the NFL off season. For many football fans, the off season presents a welcomed break from the sport. For others, the off season is an eight-month opportunity to salivate over the prospects of what the next year could hold. Each year around this time, the NFL holds their Scouting Combine where college players display their skills in front of coaches, general managers, and team scouts in hopes that a team will draft them.

Now comes the point in this post where I should probably disclose that I am not a fan of using sports analogies in the business world (see what I did there?). Sports analogies have become a tiring cliché and they all too often over simplify a complex situation. Having cleared the air, I will now contradict myself and state that the business world has something to gain by paying attention to the NFL Combine. At the Combine, athletes are subject to a series of tests and evaluations designed to assess their skills and abilities. In part, the Combine helps teams to decide which players have the potential to thrive at the next level. Not surprisingly, teams that draft better are more likely to have success on the field. In the business world, organizations are notoriously bad at identifying potential for next-level leadership. Rather than concentrating on skills, abilities, and other personal characteristics (the measureable qualities that are the focus of the Combine), businesses tend to rely on other factors (similarity, attractiveness, and who can play politics) to populate the leadership pipeline. Could you imagine what would happen if NFL teams stopped relying on objective data points to help make decisions, and instead started drafting players based on the cars they drive, how interesting their post-game interviews were, and how they dressed when they arrive at the locker room?

Information is paramount to any decision-making process. Without relevant information, any decision is likely to net a 50/50 outcome at best, with only half of the decisions being correct. If organizations are comfortable getting it right only half of the time, then there really is no reason to change the prevailing modus operandi for identifying emerging talent. If, however, organizations want to improve their decision-making abilities, they will need information. The only way to get relevant information on a pool of candidates is through some form of validated test, evaluation, simulation, or assessment designed to detect key attributes that influence job performance (the lack of relationship with performance has caused some to scrutinize the use of cognitive assessment at the Combine). Perhaps what we need is a Business Leadership Combine to help solve our current leadership crisis.