Building Great Teams (Talent & Recruiting Insights from Bill Belichick That Apply in Business)

The other day I was watching Nate Burleson on the Morning NFL Football show talk about Julian Edelman and what he said inspired me to write this article. The story Nate mentioned reflects on Bob Kraft’s and Bill Belichick’s “unique” approach to recruiting great people to build a high-performing team. And I write “unique” chiefly because most other coaches in the NFL don’t do this (or, don’t really understand how to do this well, maybe can’t learn from Belichick, or maybe even they are simply unable to step outside the box and stop repeating the same old and outdated thing). I’ll circle back in a minute to what I heard Nate Burleson say about Edelman (aka “Jules” – Nate called him the “Crown Jewels” of the Patriots) but first a quick note…

Note: I wrote this not as a fan of the Patriots but as a fan of a few great lessons from a successful coach and I think that any sales or marketing group leader can gain some insights from this especially if you feel that it’s hard to find great Talent (i.e. since there is always war for Talent, with a capital “T”, irrespective of the state of the economy). I hope you will appreciate the insights from Belichick I mention below and that they will help you recruit great people.

Whether you are a fan of the New England Patriots or not, you can learn a lot from their operating executives (Bob Kraft and his team who are all operators and entrepreneurs) and from Coach Bill Belichick. How did Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick build an NFL Dynasty in the era of 1. Salary Cap + 2. Free Agency + 3. Draft picks (i.e. this applies particularly to Patriots who are consistently in the bottom group for draft picks only because they are always in the top group of winning teams)?

Anybody who follows American football knows that the Patriots have accomplished the impossible – their consistent success goes against all odds. The Salary Cap was introduced in 1994 and was designed to create parity in the NFL to force each team to spend the same amount of money.  This way nobody with more money could buy themselves better players. And the Free Agency was introduced in 1993 – and this is how each team loses its best players and can’t easily keep them around forever. Back in the days of the greats like WR Jerry Rice playing with QB Joe Montana – teams like 49ers didn’t have these “parity” factors and could consistently pay and keep great players to achieve long-sustained and dominant success. But not today. Not anymore. Thus today it is impossibly hard to consistently perform at the highest level over the long term.

But Bill Belichick as a Coach and the Patriots under Bob Kraft’s ownership and leadership have done exactly that.  They have achieved a long-sustained, consistent performance of excellence. It’s truly unprecedented and both the performance and the results make it very clear… 5 Super Bowl Championships (and are ready to win – and will definitely win – their 6th Lombardy trophy).  8 total trips so far and going on their 9th trip to the Super Bowl (i.e. that many Divisional and AFC Championship playoffs consistently entered and won).

So what is Belichick’s formula for building great teams again and again every year? It’s Bill Belichick’s unique approach to recruiting players.  Recruiting is the most important thing for building great teams (it’s the same in the business world and the same for building great sales and marketing teams).

So back to what inspired me to write this… Nate Burleson was sharing that Bill Belichick brought in Julian Edelman to the Patriots while other coaches completely ignored him and didn’t care for him.  Edelman’s scouting report said “Lacks size and speed… a bit of a gimmick prospect… may lack a true position at the next level… “.  Just watch Edelman read his Scouting Report in this video.  The expert scouts wrote some damning things about Edelman and felt he didn’t belong in the NFL: “5’10” and 198 lbs… too small and unconventional. There are questions about his durability and he is an unknown Wide Receiver…  perhaps he is just a camp arm to give the Wide Receiver some more work.  He is a gimmick prospect who lacks a true position at the next level.  ”

Gimmick player? Too small, lacks size and speed? Questions about durability? Just a camp arm? Just watch this video – that’s the greatest catch in what was ranked as the best Super Bowl of all time… and that “gimmicky small player who lacks durability” – that is Julian Edelman!

And here are the stats that Nate Burleson put up on the screen this morning (copyright and courtesy of the NFL Channel):

Nate Burleson then said that (and while ignoring Edelman’s scouting report) Coach Belichick called Julian Edelman and said “Hey, this is Coach Belichick. We are going to draft you. We don’t really know what we will have you do. But we know that you can play football.

And that’s how Bill Belichick approaches recruiting. He looks to bring in great people and he is not worried about what position or seat to put them in. He will find the right seat on the right bus for them. He just wants to get them first – it’s easy to figure out what they will do later. Talent is Talent and the key is to get it first. (i.e. Talent with a capital “T” is rare so Belichick just doesn’t want to lose it). If Belichick sees “Talent”, he doesn’t waste time over-thinking or waiting too long – he just grabs the Talent and doesn’t lose time. While the competition was wasting time noodling on things and wondering whether there is a fit, Belichick was ahead of them all and just focused on getting that Talent on the team.

In fact, Bob Kraft was recently interviewed before the 25th Anniversary of his ownership of the Patriots. Bob Kraft mentioned one key phrase that really stood out for me: “One of my strategies in life, no matter what I do, is try to collect good people.. And that’s it – that is the foundation of how he built the Patriots, a team that is going to it’s 9th Superbowl with Kraft, Belichick and Brady.

And this is the key lesson for recruiting that everyone in the business world must heed from Bill Belichick (and Bob Kraft too). If you see someone great, don’t waste time – just hire them. Collect great people! These people are great for a reason and will be great almost anywhere you decide to apply them. Therefore, if you Talent and have the right processes to identify this raw talent before your competition can then you are going to succeed in building great teams (and better and faster than your industry competition).

Belichick is very consistent in recruiting great Talent or players that other teams and coaches completely missed because they had no idea how to evaluate or “value” these people or how to create the right system and process to apply them effectively on their teams. What a shame! That basically says that everyone else is not executing at the same high level in recruiting except for Belichick.  And this is a fact. Remember the story of how Tom Brady was drafted? Here is a photo of Tom Brady during the draft to remind you. He wasn’t really that interesting to anyone – other coaches ignored him.  This is why he was picked in the 6th round – one of the last picks…199th pick. No other team really cared about recruiting him. Here is what Tom Brady’s scouting report said: “Poor build, skinny, lacks great physical stature and strength, lacks mobility and ability …lacks a really strong arm… can’t drive the ball downfield, does not throw a really tight spiral…”

All the other teams completely ignored Brady and missed out on the greatest QB in history of the sport (he got to 9 Superbowls which is more than any NFL team, won 5 of them which is more than any QB, got to 40 post-season playoff games which is more than 18 NFL teams, won 29 playoffs which is more than 27 franchises, is the only 41-year old QB to ever be in the playoffs, etc. etc. – i.e. nobody else has achieved these stats in history of QBs) . But why did all the other coaches and team executives ignore him during the draft? Was this an honest mistake or intentional ignorance?  Intentional… because they did the very average thing, looked for generic things that others look for, and ultimately didn’t think outside the box. That’s because they didn’t look much beyond what Tom Brady’s scouting report  – I mean, seriously – this is what the *experts* were saying… just think about it again for a minute: “poor build, skinny, lacks great physical stature and strength, lacks mobility… lacks a really strong arm… gets knocked down easily”.

Maybe this is beyond the scope of this article but I have to emphasize this – there were 6 other Quarterbacks prioritized and drafted BEFORE Tom Brady by all the other teams in that same drafting class. But do you remember any of them? Most people don’t remember any of them. They are all gone and don’t have Superbowl victories or a consistent record of performance. All the other coaches were so focused on the traditional factors and paid so much attention to the generic stuff in the scouting reports that they didn’t figure out how to recruit unconventional raw talent – but Belichick did.

See, Coach Belichick proactively looks beyond the generic stuff on the surface. He proactively looks for different things and that’s how he found Tom Brady. That’s Belichick’s formula to recruiting. It actually starts with the correct mindset to avoid outdated and generic recruiting.  It’s a frame of mind to proactively recruit by thinking outside the box.  Let your company’s competitors recruit like those other NFL teams and their “experts” who completely missed Brady and Edelman (and others).  But you need to think like Bill Belichick and start by looking beyond the traditional factors for raw talent, for people who may not look like a fit on paper (and it’s great if your competitors ignore these candidates – it’s better for you)… but you will be seeking something more and outside of the norm that everyone else is applying (i.e. the “typical approach” used by all the companies in your industry).

In fact, here is another insights – it gets even more interesting with Belichick and the Patriots because they are proactively looking to find players who are un-appreciated or even underperforming on other teams (i.e. in other systems).  Belichick regularly signs undrafted (i.e. “undervalued”) players: Nate Ebner, Matthew Slater, Chris Hogan, Edelman, and the list goes on and on.  Belichick also signs players who have fallen out of favor other places, sees great value there, and gives them the opportunity to rejuvenate their careers (Moss, Corey Dillon, Cordarelle Patterson, Chris Long, etc.) And we all know how hard they work for Belichick because he saw the Talent in them and values them. Remember the story of Randy Moss – the Raiders wanted to trade him out and he wasn’t even that great before the Patriots. But Belichick saw the Talent in him, and recruited him – today Randy Moss is one of the best of all time and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The lesson here is this: when you find great people (and especially if you are good enough to see they are “undervalued”) then they’re going to appreciate you a great deal as their leader (or as their Sales Coach as sales leaders are frequently referred to) and they will be more loyal to you and to your company’s mission – they will ultimately work harder for you and go above and beyond in their duty to perform for you.

Now think about this for a moment: Do you look for Talent like Belichick? Are you recruiting like everyone else (i.e. like those other coaches who missed Brady, Edelman, etc)….doing the same thing when it comes to recruiting and yet complaining about the shortage of talent?

Belichick has made a successful and consistent system out of it – he has identified exactly these players who then go on to excel as members of the Patriots.

Belichick looks for intelligence, hard work ethic, toughness, versatility and dependability.

But sometimes it is “what is missing” from this list that really matters – note something important and that Belichick does not look for a player to be really good at one specific thing.  But unfortunately, this is how many sales or marketing managers hire.

Belichick got Brady because he saw the raw talent and the key factors above and not the traditional and generic factors listed in the Scouting Report. Belichick knew that Brady would perform well despite what other coaches thought and despite what Tom Brady looked like in that photo or on paper (in scouting reports). And this is the same story with Julian Edelman above.

Recruiting outside the box and only looking for “great people” beyond the resume resume (or beyond what is on the scouting reports) is not new – Warren Buffett does something similar and only looks for 3 things. Also, Jason Lemkin recruits for sales and marketing similarly – talks about not “overindexing” on things that don’t matter which is a similar way of thinking.

A few years ago I wrote “How to Hire Sales Reps: 5 Must-Have Traits to Look For” (this was based on the many things I discussed with and learned from Mark Roberge who was a Sales Management adviser to me) and the key takeaway is that none of those traits are your classic, generic requirements that some companies look for. And “domain expertise” is not a must-have. When you are recruiting for sales, are you asking questions that help you determine these traits or determine the quality of the raw talent or are you just asking the same old questions that are more about industry experience or domain expertise?

So think about it – we all read all these stories about the “war for talent” and how hard it is to find amazing people but how are you or how is your company recruiting?  Is your company recruiting like all those “expert coaches” who ignored Tom Brady and Julian Edelman?  Is that how your team picks talent?  Is your company repeating the same mistake like all the other 31 teams did in the year 2000 NFL Draft when Patriots recruited Tom Brady?  Just think about it – these are professional scouts and coaches who get paid a lot of money to pick the best and build great teams.  It’s easy to “hope” and believe that your recruiting process is pretty good – but it’s critical to consider that maybe, just maybe, perhaps yours and other companies have an unfortunate blind eye and we are not really thinking outside the box about recruiting great talent. It’s a possible gap that we should recognize and be proactive about looking for new ways and unique ways to find talent before our competitors do.

 

Takeaways:

  • Do what Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick do: “Collect great people” (and “great” has less to do with industry experience or years of experience especially when recruiting junior sales or marketing team professionals but even Senior Executives don’t necessarily need industry experience – just read Jason Lemkin’s suggestion of what to *not* overindex)
  • Ignore the “scouting reports” or generic factors that don’t really correlate to success – look for non-obvious factors to find great Talent
  • When recruiting A-Players for your sales or marketing teams, avoid using old-school approaches (i.e. looking for things that don’t necessarily correlate to high performance or looking for things that your competition is looking for – instead think outside the box)
  • You can start with these ideas: 3 things Warren Buffett looks for when recruiting
  • Look for the “5 Must-Have Traits” when recruiting sales professionals – don’t try to buy industry or experience and, again, just “collect great people”
  • Look for ways to “recruit & think outside the box” when you need Talent or A-Players – don’t overindex on things that don’t matter… just think carefully about what truly drives results on your team and I bet 80% of things you have on that job spec actually do not matter as much
  • Seek out undervalued and under-appreciated Talent – great people that were passed by others (like Tom Brady) – you should proactively seek Talent like that
  • Be proactive about seeking unconventional candidates (like Julian Edelman was described) – they will go above and beyond for you
  • Think outside the box – look beyond the generic recruiting factors
  • This is how you win the war for Talent and how you win in general by building great teams (like Belichick has done every year)