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10 Connections between Talent Management and Fantasy Football

Over the past two decades, NFL Fantasy Football has grown immensely from a mostly-male niche hobby to one with broad appeal, where tens of millions of men and women play. Each year, at around this time, many fans are not only gearing up to follow their favorite team, but are also participating in drafts to choose players for their fantasy football rosters. Such drafts can occur at in-person draft parties, online over the course of a week, or live online for a few hours; but regardless, they are both fun and critical to a person’s success in their fantasy football league(s).

Over the years, various strategies for success have been developed – ranging from draft logistics strategies to approaches to evaluating player talent and likely statistical success. I’ve reflected on some of these and I think that there are some interesting parallels between fantasy football and talent management considerations in the workplace.

But before discussing these parallels, there are some big differences between drafting a fantasy football “team” and building a solid workforce “team." Obviously the former is a virtual activity: it is abstracted and simplified from anything in reality, while in the real world – whether a real football game or running an organization – what matters is achieving concrete, very real objectives (creating products, making a profit for shareholders, providing non-profit or government services, etc.) Further, you acquire the majority of the talent for your team in fantasy football through an annual draft that proceeds either by rounds or via a price-based auction. Imagine if organizational recruiting happened in this way… talk about a high-stakes draft!

But leaving those (and other) differences aside, what insights for organizational talent management can be gained by reflecting on how talent is evaluated, compared, and yes even “drafted” in fantasy football leagues?

Position pool depth. In fantasy football, it is generally agreed that the position of Running Back is the hardest to fill with quality players. This is because of the relative scarcity of stars at the position (teams usually have at most one RB that provides high production (and some have none if they use a RB-by-committee approach). Other football positions, such as Quarterback and Wide Receiver, are much deeper – so a typical draft strategy is to focus early on getting the best Running Back(s) you can.

Similarly, in the workforce there are some talent pools that are much deeper than others. This is one factor that goes into labor supply and impacts salaries for various roles, but it also should impact to what degree you focus on each position. More time should be spent on those roles that carry a high importance for the organization and also have a very tight talent pool. Really doing your homework and leveraging both internal and external talent pools, and internal talent mobility programs, can be critical to securing the best person for these critical roles.

Positions with little differentiating talent factors. In fantasy football, several positions such as running back, quarterback, and wide receiver all have significant variance in talent levels and production. Picking the wrong player – especially too early in a draft – can seriously impact your season. But some positions – most notably placekicker – just don’t have much differentiation in scoring ability. Similarly, when it comes to talent management within an organization – it is important to determine what roles in your workforce will or won’t have a significant differentiation between top and bottom performers. Then spend more or less time and energy recruiting, performance managing, and developing each role, as appropriate.

Determining and focusing on “keepers.” In some fantasy football leagues, you are allowed to keep a small number of players for the following season. Such players are known as “keepers,” and this factor can greatly alter when or for how many dollars a player is drafted. In the workplace, given the significant costs of hiring replacements for most roles, retention of top employees is an even more important issue. As a result, smart organizations naturally try to hire as many who have “keeper” potential as they can. But organizations are wise to also focus on characteristics that are good indicators that the employee will choose to stay, e.g., having stayed for a number of years at previous jobs, recommendations that stress dedication, and so on.

Identifying “sleepers” and “breakout” potential. In fantasy sports, a “sleeper” is a player who you realize has a significant chance to perform very well, but who other people in your league are likely to “fall asleep on,” i.e., ignore during the draft. Sleeper potential often arises when players are given larger opportunities to excel, e.g., a player joining a new type of offensive scheme that suits his talents better, or a team obtaining better teammates to support him. Similarly, individuals in the workforce can have “breakout” performance possibilities, and for some of the same reasons: perhaps they just needed to join a different organizational culture, or needed to move to a different type of team within the organization. Developing your employees in key skills and competencies, while also focusing on talent mobility (so they don’t leave), can also set the stage for breakout performance improvements.

The relevance of good (or bad) teammates. Evaluating an individual’s capabilities – whether in football or the workplace – is complicated by the fact that no one excels solely because of their own talents. Quarterbacks need good wide receivers, and vice versa. Running backs rarely succeed without a good offensive line to perform the “blocking and tackling” for them – a phrase that has entered business lexicon for the same reason, i.e., top leaders and strategic thinkers can only be successful in those roles if they have others who excel at operations and “keeping the lights on.” So it is important to consider to what extent a person’s success in a particular role, at a particular time, at a particular organization was the result of his or her own strengths or that of the team and support staff they had available. Expecting the same results after an internal move, or from a new hire, might not be realistic.

Spending big on All-Stars. There are times when it makes sense to spend big money for big production. In a fantasy football auction draft, this might mean spending top dollar on a consistently superior running back or quarterback to anchor your team. In business, this often means paying a premium for top C-Suite or Sales professionals. But there are limits to this strategy, because with finite resources (in both scenarios) you end up mortgaging the level of talent you can recruit for all other positions.

Consider again the importance of an individual’s surrounding teammates or network. There is evidence that for some kinds of positions, bringing in “All-Stars” will not produce the performance you expect.  For example, star Wall St. analysts who change firms often crash and burn. And as much as 90 percent of the information that employees take action on comes from people in their network, so often “all-star” success in the workplace is situational, highly dependent on networks, culture, and reputation within a particular organization.

Identifying “gamers” and “must avoid” individuals. There are sometimes less obvious characteristics of football players that, all other things being equal, can be relevant in selecting one player over another. Some players just love being out on the field – they have a positive attitude, will play through injuries, and are “gamers”. Others have a bad attitude, or are such poor performers in certain areas that they can significantly hurt your team’s overall (statistical) performance. Similarly, in your workforce you want as many “gamers” as you can get – people who will give 100% and do so with a consistently positive attitude (while not burning bright and then burning out). Noticing signs of “must avoid” individuals – such as those who overly focus on benefits or speak negatively of a former employer/manager during an interview – can also protect you from a costly mis-hire.

Skill relevance. In football, leading a team to playoff and even Super Bowl success is the ultimate goal. But sometimes players who excel in this regard do not actually put up the best numbers – Troy Aikman is a classic example – and for fantasy football, numbers are what matter. Another example is the case of a wide-receiver whose value comes more from excelling on punt and kickoff returns – accomplishments that matter in real games, but often don’t count in fantasy football scoring systems. Similarly, when considering a new hire or an internal transfer, make sure that “what got them here, will get them there” (apologies to Marshall Goldsmith). That is, be sure to hire, move, and promote people based on the relevant skills and competencies required for high performance in the particular role. In some cases, additional skills and competencies will be an asset to the organization in other (and even unforeseen) ways – but you can also end up overpaying people with irrelevant talents.

Teams of generalists vs. specialists. In some aspects of your business you may need teams of well-rounded individuals who are flexible and can capably substitute for each other (e.g., customer service). In other areas, you might be wiser to hire more one-dimensional individuals with very high proficiency in a particular talent (e.g., technical or creative positions). Indeed HR organizations themselves often face this difference with HR generalists and HR specialists. Either way you approach it, in the end you need coverage of each relevant skill, competency, subject matter area, etc. The same is often true in fantasy sports, although a better example here comes from fantasy baseball. In some leagues success is determined by a team’s relative rankings in ten or twelve different statistical categories. This means having a team of homerun hitters who don’t steal any bases or hit for high batting averages will lead to very little success: you usually need to draft a team such that you can rank highly in each category. Whether you do this by picking players who are strong generalists or complementary specialists is up to you.
The importance of Talent Intelligence. People who consistently succeed in fantasy sports (whether football, baseball, or others) do so because they do their homework, have the relevant data at their fingertips, draft smart, and then consistently manage their talent throughout the season (e.g., acquiring good performers as necessary to replace injured or poor-performers). One could say such team owners make use of Talent Intelligence in the same way that savvy talent management professionals do in the workplace. Do you have a platform that provides robust talent profiles on all of your employees, that includes pre-hire and post-hire data, and that allows for strong talent mobility in your organization? Both fantasy football team owners and line of business managers, human resources professionals, and executives need access to  strong Talent Intelligence in order to achieve success.

I’ll note I’m not the first person who has reflected on this subject and noted some of these parallels. Amy Wilson posted last year on “My Fantasy Football Conversations are Talent Reviews.” And see also Jeff Haden’s posting from earlier this year, “The Fantasy Sports Approach to Building a Better Team,” which compared fantasy sports player archetypes with employee archetypes.

As you’ve seen, there are many parallels between fantasy football and workforce talent management. These include determining the relevant talent pool factors and focus areas, recruiting the best talent available, determining the value that teammates play, closely monitoring each individual’s performance, and having all the vital data – the Talent Intelligence – you need to make informed decisions that drive success.

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