Your Success Depends on Your Talent

What business leaders can learn from the Super Bowl-winning practices of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots

Today's business leaders, obsessed as they are with creating sustainable, high-performing companies, would do well to study one of the most successful, high-profile organizations in the news today: the New England Patriots. The story of how Bill Belichick and his front-office leadership team created a dynasty of sorts (a chance for four Super Bowl victories in seven years) provides insight as a case study in how to hire, reward, and retain top talent to drive performance.

For starters, unlike many NFL teams and far too many business organizations, the Patriots select and develop talent that will drive their long-term strategy. Under Belichick's leadership the Patriots have turned their backs on the prevailing "win now at all costs" mentality which, given the salary-cap competitive rule, often translates into signing one or two expensive players to long-term contracts. Instead, they've broken with tradition by recruiting underrated mid-tier players with the potential for growth, foregoing the more expensive, sometimes unpredictable, superstars.

These players are paid fairly, but on expected future results, not on past performance. This approach has attracted a number of younger players eager to prove themselves and veterans—witness the transformation of Randy Moss—thirsting for their first title with an organization growing in stature and prestige.

The Player to Match the Need

Next, the Patriots' leadership has identified and created key roles that will drive the team's strategy, and has carefully matched the talent to those roles. Rather than build a team around the talent they already had or, again, a few highly visible stars, the Patriots have identified what they need in order to win, and then acquired and developed talent to fill those roles.

For example, the strategic decision to build a unique defense based on speedy, versatile linebacker play dictated the types of players required. It led to the acquisition of players such as Mike Vrabel, a second-tier talent playing for Pittsburgh, who has flourished since joining the Patriots, along with the cultivation of performers such as Tedy Bruschi, Adalius Thomas, Rosevelt Colvin, and Richard Seymour.

The Patriots took a similar approach when the team's performance was hampered by a lagging offense: They quickly adjusted by recruiting and updating their group of wide receivers with new talent that would make all the difference: Moss, Donté Stallworth, and Wes Welker.

Same Demanding Standards for All

In making such strategic selections, the Patriots have recognized a valuable talent management principle overlooked by too many organizations today: Don't treat high potential as a trait—an enduring characteristic of the person—but as a temporary state that takes into account an individual's current capabilities in relation to specific demands of future roles.

Third, the Patriots view individual roles and players in the larger context of the team's operating philosophy and goals. Unlike so many teams, the Patriots have stuck to their compensation strategy. Belichick holds everyone —from his biggest stars to the practice squad—to the same demanding standards. More than just lip service is paid to the notion the team as a whole is bigger than its individual parts. Titles, reputation, even past performance and the culture of entitlement it cultivates, count for little.

Start With Strategic Context

Finally, the Patriots have made talent a top priority for their entire front-office leadership team. They have separated three key functions—coaching, player selection, and business operations—allowing Belichick, Scott Pioli (vice-president of player personnel), and owner Robert Kraft to focus on their areas of greatest expertise, while at the same time working together on the critical issue of talent. This approach at the top—long-term outlook, emphasis on team over individual, and coordination of separate leadership roles—has continued to enhance the Patriots' operational effectiveness and has led to a long winning streak.

Most business leaders—like most NFL teams—can only dream of achieving such sustained high performance, in part because they don't take the time to really align their talent to drive their business strategy. Instead, they view talent management as an HR-driven initiative with little direct involvement of top leadership and separated from the explicit requirements of the business. Rather than start with strategic context, they focus first on individual talent.

They have yet to discover that by aligning their talent needs with their strategy, being clear on the roles required to drive the strategy, emphasizing team over individual stars, and making talent a top business concern, they can create a winning organization, whether it plays in the Super Bowl or on Wall Street. They have yet to learn what the Patriots have long recognized: Talent is the business, and if your talent doesn't drive your business strategy, it's hard to make it to the championship game.

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