NFL Mimics Investment Bank With Gulliver Generating Alpha to Win

Robert Gulliver, the NFL’s first vice president of human resources, is the latest example of how league employees increasingly need the same skills as finance professionals.

The former Wells Fargo & Co. executive, who joined the National Football League in 2010, even brought with him a nine-box talent assessment protocol that he utilized for two decades on Wall Street. Executive search professionals say the league that last season generated almost $10 billion in revenue from a variety of sources, mimics an investment bank these days.

“The NFL is the Goldman Sachs of sports leagues,” said Liz Boardman, who conducts senior-level assignments at executive search firm Russell Reynolds, where she specializes in sports organizations. “The head of HR, they carry and represent the culture. He knows the talent that needs to be there.”

Gulliver, 43, said he joined the most-watched U.S. sports league when there was “a lot of receptivity” to making whatever changes were necessary to maximize personnel. He brought with him practices like the nine-box assessment, which evaluates employees’ contribution to the organization and their potential levels of contribution.

“Winning in this business comes down to people as a competitive advantage. That’s very similar to working in the investment management space, where your product, your generation of alpha, really comes from your people and leveraging and tapping into the insights of your people making decisions,” said Gulliver, using the term for measuring performance on a risk-adjusted basis. “Generating alpha is winning on Wall Street.”

Human Capital

Gulliver’s boss, Commissioner Roger Goodell, with whom he speaks every day, isn’t the easiest to please, said Eric Grubman, the league’s executive vice president of business ventures and a former Goldman Sachs investment banker.

“Goodell is not someone who you can say, ‘Hey, I can get you 75 percent of what you want,’” Grubman said. “That’s a really bad answer for the commissioner.”

The NFL, which will stage its Super Bowl on Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, has what Gulliver called a human capital agenda that mirrors what he used in finance. It focuses on key drivers that include talent management, employee and leadership engagement, rewards and recognition, and diversity and inclusion, which received a lot of attention after a Miami Dolphins player this season was accused of bullying a teammate who left the club.

Signature Initiative

One of Gulliver’s signature initiatives was the creation of an eight-person panel to identify top coaching and executive management candidates. While teams since 2003 have been required to interview at least one minority applicant to fill a head coaching or senior management vacancy, Gulliver said green matters more than black or white.

“This is looked at, simply put, as good business,” he said, noting that Wachovia, a unit of Wells Fargo, had a similar initiative to the NFL’s Rooney Rule when he worked there from 2004-08 as HR business partner director in the capital management group. His resume also includes human resource positions at Citigroup Asset Management, PricewaterhouseCoopers and General Electric Capital Corp.

Gulliver, a native of Yonkers, New York, about 14 miles north of midtown Manhattan, never played organized football. The Cornell University graduate became a Giants fan when his mother went back to school at Pace University, where the team held training camp before an audience that often included Gulliver and his sister. “I like to tell people there’s more than one way to make it to the NFL,” Gulliver said.

De Facto Bank

Gulliver’s Wall Street experience is a large part of what made him an attractive candidate for the NFL’s HR post. The league, both in atmosphere and action, is a de facto investment bank, said Jed Hughes, the recruiter who led the search that resulted in Gulliver’s hiring.

The NFL does more than just stage football games. The league also loans money to its 32 clubs for stadium development and, in a partnership with Providence Equity, has established a fund to invest in private sports and entertainment-related media and technology companies.

“Just look at the NFL and its deals -- they’re like a bank,” said Hughes, the vice chairman and global section leader for sports at the executive search firm Korn Ferry.

Annual Revenue

Hughes said he worked closely on the search with Grubman, who encouraged finance-minded candidates and ultimately pressed for Gulliver, who holds a master's degree in business administration from Dartmouth College and is a member of Goodell’s seven-person leadership team.

Grubman said he, too, sees a correlation between the NFL and investment banking.

“This is a relentless place that is extremely competitive, and yesterday’s victory means nothing tomorrow,” he said.

Grubman said Gulliver has been instrumental in changing the culture of the NFL as it tries to reach Goodell’s goal of $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027.

NFL football, Grubman said, is “one of the last, great, true meritocracies on the planet.”

“The best quarterback is going to play,” he said. “Now apply that to the business environment. Robert is taking that to a whole new level where we’re applying that same meritocracy theme inside that the clubs are showing outside. That’s the way of the NFL.”

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