February 14, 2006   view past issues

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Feature: Championship Caliber Employers

The big event may now be behind us-that’s the Super Bowl for you non-football fans-but the commentary and analysis have only just begun. Football experts, of course, will dissect the game to determine what it portends for offensive and defensive strategy in football. Not to be outdone, however, we’ll also probably have to endure experts opining about what the Pittsburgh victory will mean for the stock market in 2006, and for fashion, Rolling Stones tickets, auto sales, solar flares and global warming.

While all of that is undoubtedly very important, I’d like to discuss a football-related topic that almost certainly will not get discussed. Rather than focus on how Pittsburgh played the game, I’d like to explore how the Steelers managed their team. In fact, I think there’s much we can learn from the recruitment strategy and human resource leadership of the Super Bowl champions.

First, let’s look at the team’s track record. Results are everything in our culture today, so how have the Steelers done on-the-field, where it counts?

  • Since 1992, they’ve earned more regular season victories than any other team in the National Football League.
  • Since 1970, they’ve been to the playoffs more often than any other team but one.
  • And, for those of you who are fond of the bottom line, they are one of only three teams in the National and American Football League to win the Super Bowl five times.
  • To put it succinctly, the Steelers are what we HR and recruiting professionals call “best in class.”

    So, how do they do it? Let’s start with the conventional wisdom about team management in professional football. The vast majority of today’s teams believe that the best way to source talent is by chasing free agents. In other words, when they need to improve performance at a particular position, they go into the league labor market and recruit a specific player to fill the gap. Despite rules to the contrary, this “open market sourcing” strategy has dramatically increased the pay rates for free agent talent. Equally as important, the record shows that it has only marginally improved team performance. Why? For two reasons-one economic and the other human nature:

  • The economic reason: Any team that wants to hire a free agent has to compete with other teams that want to hire the same player. When that happens, demand goes up, while supply remains constant. The inevitable result? Higher and higher and higher salary offers.
  • The human nature reason: The people who manage talent for most pro football teams can’t help themselves; they’re convinced that the grass is always greener outside the team. Despite extensive screening, however, it’s impossible to know free agents well before they arrive. There simply isn’t the time or the opportunity to assess them sufficiently. As a result, offers are made based on past performance in different team cultures and at different times in the players’ lives. The inevitable result? Free agents seldom live up to a team’s expectations.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the other hand, employ a non-conventional strategy for team management. They seldom go into the free agent market, but instead prefer to acquire talent through the draft. Of the 22 starting players for the Steelers, 17 were actually drafted by the team. That’s 25-50% higher than any other pro football organization. This approach enables them to avoid the high salaries required by free agents and to recruit players they know will fit into their culture and excel there. How do they accomplish that? With a strategy that has two key elements-one economic and the other human nature.

  • The economic element: The Steelers hire talent before they’re famous and, therefore, very expensive. They identify prospects early and get to know them well. For example, Willie Parker, one of the stars in this year’s Super Bowl, wasn’t even considered by another pro team. The Steelers, however, spotted him in high school and watched him in college (where he played only sparingly); they invested the time and effort to understand his capabilities before they were public knowledge and thus were able to recruit him while other teams were looking elsewhere.
  • The human nature element: The Steelers employ a very long term view of talent management. They hire players early in their careers and then emphasize their continuous development. That commitment to individual success breeds loyalty to the Steelers organization. Players don’t jump at the first big contract that is dangled in front of them by another team. More often than not, they stay with the Steelers where they not only acquire the skills to advance their own performance, but they gain a deep understanding of the Steelers philosophy of the game.
  • These strategic elements should sound remarkably familiar to human resource practitioners and professional recruiters.

    The economic element is analogous to using an applicant database to build long term relationships with individuals who have already expressed a desire to work for your company. Most organizations profess an appreciation for the value of their database, but precious few invest the time and energy required to draw that value out. They do not use the connections with their prospects to get to know them better. Yet, as the Steelers have proven, getting to know them better has at least three important benefits:

  • it gives an employer the insight it needs about individual skills and character to make consistently accurate selection decisions;
  • it gives the individual the trust and familiarity they need to engage with an organization and genuinely consider its value proposition as an employer; and
  • it enables recruiters to avoid the investment of time and effort and the exorbitant cost of entering the open market for talent.
  • Similarly, the human nature element offers an effective response to the looming crisis organizations are facing today with attrition. Survey-after-survey suggests that a quarter or more of today’s workforce believes they have been mistreated by their current employer and intend to look for a new job this year. The damn-the-human-toll perspective of “doing more with less” and achieving productivity gains on the backs of a leaner workforce has built up a huge residue of resentment and even outright hostility toward employers. The Steelers, in contrast, have clearly demonstrated that supporting and engaging employees, even during difficult times, can pay huge dividends:

  • When employees are conditioned to see themselves as a integral part of a corporate team-when they understand the organization’s mission and appreciate the importance of their contribution to its success-they are much less susceptible to the siren song of a higher offer from a competitor.
  • When employees believe an organization is working for their personal advancement as well as its own success, they are much more likely to perform at the peak of their abilities and willingly go above and beyond expectations (and the position description) in their performance on-the-job.
  • Everybody loves a winner, so there will inevitably be much written and spoken in the weeks ahead about the Steelers organization. We will forget (at least until next season) that they are led and coached by people, and people do make mistakes and do call the wrong plays from time-to-time. Nevertheless, the Steelers seem, better than most, to understand how to wage and win the War for the Best Talent and, equally as important, how to deploy the talent they do have so that their organization comes out on top. We all can learn from their back-to-the-basics approach to human resource leadership.

    Thanks for reading,


    P.S. Don’t keep WEDDLE’s to yourself. If you like our newsletter, please tell your friends and colleagues about it. They’ll appreciate your thinking of them. And, we will too!

    This Issue’s Sponsor: IEEE Job Site

    This issue of WEDDLE’s newsletter is brought to you through the generous support of the IEEE Job Site.

    The IEEE Job Site connects you with the world’s largest targeted technology talent pool. More than 1,400 leading corporations in fields ranging from ASIC design to aerospace and defense system development use the IEEE Job Site.

    Find senior-level managers, engineers and technology experts, and make job offers to these top-notch candidates before your competitors know about them. Register an account and you can begin posting positions within minutes! Click here for a special offer available only to WEDDLE’s Newsletter Subscribers.

    For more information or to place a posting today, contact Deb Grant at or call +1 732 981 3420.

    Section Two: Site News You Can Use took deceit (and chutzpah) to new heights with a site that encourages applicants to learn:

  • “The best way to get fake references;”
  • “How to get college transcripts from any university with any GPA you want;” and
  • “Why you can’t afford not to lie on your resume;” as well as other ways of tricking employers that are recruiting new hires.
  • Sadly, this site is the product of one of our own: its creator is Derek Johnson, a former executive search consultant. What’s he trying to do? Flog his book of dishonest resume writing techniques. As he notes on the site, however, deceit is already a pandemic in the job market: Over 53% of all job seekers lie on their resumes, while over 70% of recent college graduates admit to doing so. This site, then, is the bird flu of job search. It’s certain to infect and, in all likelihood, will kill the employment prospects of those who come into contact with it. Warn your friends, your family members, and anyone else you care about.

    Harvard Business Review announced some of the results of its research into productivity and innovation. It found that the environment and, in particular, team interaction is the most important factor in success. In one example cited in the study, a heart surgeon had very different death rates when performing the same procedure with different surgical teams. What does that mean for recruiters? While it’s easy (given our limited time and resources) to see our role as being “the filler of open positions,” it would be more beneficial to our organizations (and therefore enhance our standing in them) to view it as “the improver of group performance.” In other words, we don’t help hiring managers fill their reqs, we help them upgrade their teams. We look for candidates who have not only the right skills, but the right personality and temperament to interact effectively with the team. More than anything else, the HBR research indicates, that “fidelity of fit” is the key to the team’s (and the hiring manager’s) success.

    Intel commissioned a study of the online habits of various nationalities in the European Union. It provides some interesting insights for employers with global recruiting requirements. For example, while the Brits love their Internet for home shopping and music downloads, they are the least likely to go online to find a new job. Only 39% of the study’s respondents reported doing so. Among the European nations, the Dutch (57%) and the Spanish (54%) are the most frequent online job seekers. They are followed by the Germans, the Swedes and the Italians. What do the French like to do most? You probably guessed it … chat.

    Stanford University professor Robert Sutton is the author of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management. In it, he details the results of a study that examined the role of corporate leaders in management development. It found that 80% of executives believed they should have direct responsibility for enhancing the capabilities of subordinate managers, yet just 10% said they were doing so. Is this simply one more example of today’s corporate leaders not walking the talk? I don’t think so. It’s my experience that most executives genuinely want to develop a strong bench for their organizations, but they haven’t a clue how to go about doing so. And that creates an opportunity for us. You don’t have to devise anything as elaborate as the acclaimed GE managerial development program to get started. Even a regular program of brown bag lunch discussions on key leadership topics or on a book or reading about leadership can get executives engaged and invested in subordinate development. That foundation, in turn, can support your establishment of a more robust initiative over time.

    WEDDLE’s thanked supporters for their very positive response to our new outreach program called “Let Your Librarian Know.” The program is designed to assist organizations that may hire only a small number of new employees each year and thus would not make enough use of WEDDLE’s publications to warrant buying them regularly. While we’d still like to have them acquire our books at least occasionally, Let Your Librarian Know is an easy way to bring WEDDLE’s three annual publications-its Guide to Employment Sites on the Internet, Directory of Employment-Related Internet Sites, and Guide to Association Web Sites-to the local library, where they can be used absolutely free. How does the program work? Most librarians appreciate their patrons’ suggestions about books to add to their Reference collection, so all you have to do is contact your local library and Let Your Librarian Know.

    Section Three: Site Profiles

    Site Insite … how well do you know the Web’s 40,000+ job boards?

    1. Your network of technical schools is growing like crazy, and you need to hire a steady stream of new teachers skilled in an array of subjects. Which of the following sites would earn a passing grade for sourcing candidates?

  • 2. The executive chef at your resort has just quit, and winter break guests are already starting to arrive. Where can you go online to cook up some prospective replacements fast?

  • 3. Your internal computer network has just been hacked, and the boss wants to hire a full time network security expert to protect the company. Which of the following sites would help you secure qualified candidates safely?

  • Dice
  • (answers below)

    Site Spotlite … from the pages of WEDDLE’s 2005/6 Guides and Directories

    Absolutely Health Care

    Post full time jobs: Yes

    Post part time, contract or consulting jobs: Yes – All

    Distribution of jobs: National – USA

    Fee to post a job: $175/posting

    Posting period: 90 days

    Can posting be linked to your site: Yes

    Resume database: Yes

    Number of resumes: 78,000+

    Source of resumes: Direct from individuals

    Top occupations among visitors: Nurse, Allied Health

    Other services for employers: Automated resume agent, Banner advertising, Status reports

    Member, International Association of Employment Web Sites: Yes

    Answers to Site Insite

    1. All but, a New Zealand-based site that provides resources for parents.

    2. All of the sites would be helpful.

    3. All but, the site of a company that provides products for the physical security industry.

    Support Our Sponsor: IEEE Job Site

    This issue of WEDDLE’s newsletter is brought to you through the generous support of the IEEE Job Site.

    The IEEE Job Site connects you with the world’s largest targeted technology talent pool. More than 1,400 leading corporations in fields ranging from ASIC design to aerospace and defense system development use the IEEE Job Site.

    Find senior-level managers, engineers and technology experts, and make job offers to these top-notch candidates before your competitors know about them. Register an account and you can begin posting positions within minutes! Click here for a special offer available only to WEDDLE’s Newsletter Subscribers.

    For more information or to place a posting today, contact Deb Grant at or call +1 732 981 3420.