Lessons from the Offseason: What companies can learn from the NFL about building the perfect team

LeadershipTeam Effectiveness
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Dean Stamoulis
August 15, 2018
min read
LeadershipTeam Effectiveness


With reams of player data and an offseason that dedicates at least three full months per year to slicing and dicing it, NFL teams have an ideal set of circumstances in which to construct a winning team. 

I recently talked to several general managers and personnel executives at top teams in the league to probe what they consider most important to a successful offseason. Collectively, they offer three key lessons that corporate leaders can put into play.

1 - Build the team for the next championship, not the last one:

With a 53-player limit, crafting a team roster is a zero-sum game. Every offseason involves assessing the current team against external talent that might be available through the college draft, free agency, or trades. It also involves a knack for predicting the future.

“The mistake is to feel like ‘We’re making strides, so let’s keep going in same direction,’” said Jacksonville Jaguars general manager David Caldwell.

A key screen in “self-scouting,” or the practice of assessing the current team, is whether a player is ascending (perhaps a newer player who hasn’t yet reached potential), descending (often an experienced player who may not have the physical skills he used to but has key leadership skills), or simply plateauing. One is not necessarily better than another - every team needs a mix of growing and seasoned players – but it’s important to understand what to expect from each one in the season ahead.

It’s not a perfect science under any circumstances, but experienced coaches and front office staffs realize that past results don’t always predict future performance. Last season’s star player may look indomitable - or a new college prospect may seem superior to last year’s rookie –– but the question is, how will they perform next season?

“Whether it’s a college player we’ve brought in, or a pro free agent – even players who have been in the league four or five years - we typically see a tremendous amount of growth in the first year they’re with us,” said a scouting director for a top NFL team.

For companies: It’s important to look beyond an employee’s current contributions and analyze whether he or she is on track to offer what the company will need in the future. 

2 - Get away from the emotion:

“If you end the season three and thirteen, it seems no one is good enough,” said Caldwell. That’s why he asks each member of his staff to independently record notes and ideas for improvement at the end of each season -- and then take some time off to clear their heads. More formally, the staff will review each player three times over the course of the year, going back to video footage and notes as necessary throughout the offseason to ensure the assessment is thorough and accurate.


Les Snead, general manager for the Los Angeles Rams, does the same, tagging the first, postseason review “the emotional review” and the second, later review the “unemotional” one. “You definitely see a difference when you step back,” said Snead.

The emphasis on multiple reviews means the team is more likely to see the potential that develops in players during their tenure. “When someone comes in as an immature player, you may have that first impression in mind three or four years down the road, even after they’ve physically and mentally matured,” said Caldwell.

Advice for companies: Make talent review conversations a more frequent part of meetings, so that the thread of discussion occurs independently from isolated events and outcomes. 

3 - Be transparent:

Over his tenure, Snead has opened up roster reviews, which are in-depth assessments of each current player, to the entire coaching staff, and has become more transparent about the information that is shared.

“If we trust that staff member to have an impact on one of our most valuable assets – one of our 53 players – they should be in the room,” said Snead.

His goal is not just to help colleagues feel engaged, but also to manage internal politicking and conflicts. Different experts may have different perspectives – for example, the strength staff may give a player a gold star, while the nutrition staff expresses concerns – but in the end, they all need to see the big picture as to why the player does or does not deserve a spot on the team. “The number one mantra is we’ve got to be able to have direct conversations,” said Snead. “Sharing the info only makes us all better.” From there, a key next step is to build a plan and a team of staff members to support that player in reaching his potential.

Advice for companies: Look for ways to actively involve diverse parties in the discussions leading up to key hiring and promotion decisions. Make rationales clear and objective.

Bringing it in

Corporate executives face a different set of circumstances than football executives do, yet the core elements of successful offseason planning can transcend these differences. It starts with gaining perspective on what the organization needs for its next season, assessing talent over time and from multiple vantage points, and then engaging key stakeholders to create a holistic understanding of the vision. Bragging rights aside, corporate organizations – which can build excellent teams that last years rather than months -- may face even greater rewards than a Lombardi trophy.