From the Boardroom to the Locker Room: Assessing Athletes Like CEOs

Leadership StrategiesLeadershipBoard and CEO AdvisoryCEO Succession
min Report
July 22, 2019
11 min
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipBoard and CEO AdvisoryCEO Succession
As businesses accelerate their use of assessments, professional sports franchises are also turning to them to help pinpoint the players most likely to succeed.


Like traditional organizations, sports franchises are increasingly moving beyond observable characteristics to look at intangible factors such as motivation and focus when selecting key hires. We introduce RRA’s proprietary framework for athlete assessment and look at how approaches like this can help teams improve athlete selection and overall team performance.

One of the most critical decisions a company makes is hiring a CEO. Selecting a CEO once meant looking almost exclusively at observable traits: candidates’ past roles, experiences, performance and accomplishments. To the extent so-called soft skills such as leadership style and ability to adapt to change factored into the equation, they were discussed in vague ways based on gut feel. Over time, however, it has become clear that these intangibles play a significant role in leadership success. CEOs are routinely forced out of their companies for personality-driven reasons, including failing to navigate the culture, an inability to effectively collaborate and ethical violations.

Today, before hiring a CEO or any senior-level executive, corporate leaders almost always seek detailed behavioral assessments of top candidates to understand not only what they have accomplished but also how they’ve accomplished it, what motivates them and how they affect those around them. They also take a closer look at their own cultures through the assessment of top leadership. These insights can lead to better organizational goal setting and strategic planning, and, ultimately, a more accurate prediction of a candidate's ability to succeed in a role.

Just as businesses continue to accelerate their use of assessments, professional sports franchises are also turning to them to help pinpoint the players most likely to succeed within their unique cultures. While teams once recruited athletes primarily on quantifiable elements like in-game performance and training intensity, experience has shown that these elements alone are not sufficient to predict success. Many rising stars have failed to live up to their potential, while some athletes who initially appeared relatively unimpressive accomplish great things for their teams. For example, a recent analysis of NBA drafts since 1990 showed that despite an abundance of new data, there is no evidence that teams are selecting top-performing players more accurately. Some of the league’s best players were drafted outside of the lottery—including the entire roster of the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors— or not drafted at all. As a result, in-depth behavioral assessment techniques that probe intangibles like work ethic, coachability and cultural fit are becoming increasingly valuable tools in determining which players to draft or acquire.

Focus on the Intangibles

Over the past two decades, companies across industries have steadily increased their use of behavioral assessments to make key hires. The most recent available figures peg the overall talent assessment market at $4 billion globally, with a 7 to 10 percent annual growth rate. Between 2013 to 2018, the proportion of organizations using behavioral assessment in high-potential talent identification increased from 41 to 51 percent and from 28 to 42 percent in regard to succession planning.

Further bolstering the momentum is an influx of venture capital investment in the space, highlighted by General Atlantic’s recent investment in Pymetrics, a neuroscience- and AI-driven platform that helps improve recruitment. Additionally, leading executive search firms have shown increasing interest in partnering with or acquiring organizations with similar specialties.

Looking at the sports industry in particular, in-depth behavioral assessments are part of the ongoing evolution toward more data-driven decisions around building a roster. Over the years, teams have moved from pure observation through scouting to more advanced performance metrics and analytics to predict future outcomes. Now, psychometric data that includes personality, motivations and likely impact on team culture are becoming part of the next-generation approach.


A key reason for investing in talent assessment prior to player selection is that it not only helps identify the best players now, but also illuminates who has the potential to be a future star. In fact, these intangible factors are likely to be far more stable and predictable over time than performance metrics.


Overall, we find teams that can accurately measure and strategically leverage information around player personality, ego and collaboration styles will be best equipped to get the most out of their players. The benefits compound over time. Numerous player assessments paint a sharper image of team culture, which then allows teams to evaluate new prospects on how they would fit into the existing group, rather than how they function on teams in general. On the flip side, teams that neglect these competencies may be surprised to see expected ingame performance from individual athletes fail to materialize in new settings and contexts, as well as negative group effects.

Behavioral assessments not only help sports franchises select successful athletes, they can also help them select high-performing coaches. Understanding the personality traits and motivations of coaching candidates will help franchise leaders better understand how each one will interact with existing players and what type of culture he or she is likely to build within the team. By matching leadership style to specific team needs, the franchise is more likely to enhance its current talent and achieve its future recruiting goals.

New Insights, New Methods 

Psychometric evaluations often involve automated testing, a highly scalable and useful starting point. However, it is important to recognize that standardized test scores alone typically do not paint a full picture of an athlete. Interviews with a trained professional, as well as careful interpretation of complex test results, can help put scores into perspective and round out the picture. Hiring and development screens also need to incorporate a nuanced understanding of the organization’s existing culture and the particular competencies that lead to success in it.

In our five decades of helping organizations assess and select leaders, Russell Reynolds Associates has developed a talent assessment process that leverages rigorous psychometric testing as well as trained psychologists and expert experience. In working with professional sports organizations across the top leagues and associations around the world, we use these tools to seek out three competencies in athletes, while also considering the team's unique cultural context.

Media reports on professional athletes tend to comment on these very factors, as they are the source of both inspirational heroics and heartbreaking disappointments. However, through both interviews and psychometric testing, trained psychologists can often spot these strengths and weaknesses before the players have been signed to multi-year, multimillion-dollar contracts. How a player describes his or her family, teammates, past experiences on the field and approach to training can all help predict how significantly he or she will be able to fit in with and contribute to a team.


Crystal Balls?

 In-depth psychometric assessments can often spot the enduring strengths and weaknesses that will define a player’s career. Here, we open our files on pre-draft interviews and written assessments of NFL prospects that we completed several years ago, along with the results each one has produced in the ensuing years.


Culture as Competitive Advantage

Simply finding players who score well on these competencies is not enough, however. To sharpen its competitive advantage, a team also needs to take a close look at its culture – how it operates and the behaviors it prioritizes – to determine how well a given player will mesh with existing norms and expectations.

Some key dimensions of culture include:

Structure vs. Flexibility: 

Does the organization value consistency and hierarchy above all else, or are players encouraged to be spontaneous and help find new approaches?

Individual Achievement vs. Supporting the Team: 

Does the team tend to award outstanding individual achievements, or does it focus on players who put team accomplishments ahead of their own?

Task vs. Community: 

Are players expected to focus all their efforts on perfecting in-game performance, or do team leaders look for players to invest some time in developing community with teammates?

When there is misalignment between team and individual values, even the best players are unlikely to be as successful as they could be. Athletes who have an independent streak will chafe in a high-structure environment, while those with extreme work ethics may disappoint in a community-oriented one.

The upshot: there is no single formula for success. Rather, what defines winners is the ability to navigate the complex interplay of individual personalities and team culture, and to coax the best out of both of them.

Two Steps Ahead

The greatest athletes not only know where the ball is, but where it is going. Professional sports teams can benefit by taking a similarly farsighted approach to managing their talent. While raw athletic ability will always be table stakes, using new techniques to find the players and coaches who are motivated to consistently produce high individual and team performance will be a crucial differentiator going forward.

Physical attributes may fade, but mental makeup does not. The latter can provide great insight into how easily a player is likely to evolve—both professionally and personally—to adapt to challenging situations, fit within the team’s culture, and ultimately, succeed as a player.


1 Tom Haberstroh, “"Are We Getting Worse at the NBA Draft?” NBC Sports, June 18, 2019, are-we-getting-worse-nba-draft.

2 “Corporate Executive Board to Buy Talent Management Firm,” Reuters, July 2, 2012, update-1-corporate-executive-board-to-buy-talent-management-firm-idUSL3E8I26DU20120702.

3 Tracy M. Kantrowitz, Kathy A. Tuzinski, Justin M. Raines, SHL 2018 Global Assessment Trends Report, Global%20Assessment%20Trends%20Report.pdf.

4 “Pymetrics Raises $40 Million in Series B Funding, Led by General Atlantic,” Sept 27, 2018; 40-million-in-series-b-funding-led-by-general-atlantic/.


Brian Bayne is a senior member of the firm's Technology sector, as well as its global Sports and Technology Officers practices. He is based in Houston.

Jacob Martin is a member of the firm’s Leadership & Succession team and a core member of the global Sports and Diversity & Inclusion practices. He is based in Atlanta.

Dean Stamoulis is a senior member of the firm’s global Board and CEO Advisory Partners as well as the global Sports practice and oversees Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. He is based in Atlanta.

Adam Twersky is the Knowledge leader for the global Sports and Consumer Digital practices. He is based in Chicago.