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What Football Can Teach Small Business About Winning Teams

5 Mins read

Small businesses know all about competing for talent against the big guys. Big means more money, added resources, and a recognized market brand. These advantages may make you feel like an underdog, but they don’t mean you’ll lose the game. As football organizations have learned, size and winning don’t necessarily equate.

When you develop the right strategies for scouting diverse talent and assessing their skills, and always live up to your promises, you have what it takes to attract top talent. While you root for your favorite college or NFL teams this fall, make it your goal to understand their recruiting strategies. Discover what you can learn from football to stack p more wins for your business.

How to scout top talent

Dominant recruiters, in business and sports, become the champions. Recruiting excellence enables coaches and business managers to develop their teams, execute, and rack up more wins over time.

  • Don’t wait. Football programs compete year-round to recruit top talent. For college teams, this means beginning the recruitment process with high school freshmen. Businesses, on the other hand, tend to wait to “post and pray” only when they have an open position to advertise.

Rather than waiting until the last minute, you should be continually building a pipeline of qualified candidates to ensure a broad choice of “right” people for critical roles whenever needed. Imagine a football team without a quarterback, and let that thought be your guide.

  • Create a strategy. Understand that recruitment is a priority equal to all your other top business priorities. Like each of them, it requires a strategy. In this case, the strategy is to treat recruitment like a sales process. For most leaders, this requires a different mindset.

In creating your strategy and tactics, remember that it’s not one thing, it’s everything you do that makes a positive impression on candidates. Pay attention to the small things to ensure a positive experience for each one.

  • Get personally involved. Coaches get to know recruits well so they can create a ranked list of top candidates. They are able to describe in detail their ideal player for any position in terms of character, mentality, and skills. They personally reach out to athletes, travel to see them compete, and invite them to their own camps. They also get to know their families, understanding that Mom and Dad will likely weigh in on offer decisions.


Similarly, there’s nothing that impresses a candidate more than an employer’s personal involvement in the hiring process. Take time to understand what’s needed to do the job and find appropriate ways to get to know candidates for critical positions by participating in phone and video calls as well as interviews. Seemingly small touches, like sending a welcome note to the candidate and their spouse or partner upon accepting your offer and taking the new hire to lunch on the first day, are good ways to initiate a lasting relationship.

Build a diverse team

With a wider range of skills and life experience, diverse teams have proven to be more creative and better at problem solving. Today’s top candidates want to know what you’re doing to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on your team.

It has become an imperative that your brand and reputation include a strong commitment to DEI as well as an employee/player base that’s congruent with your customers/fans. Organizations lacking diversity are losing people’s interest along with their ability to find and keep good people.

Football teams are built around players and assistants with complementary skills and strengths. It’s no different in your business. Diverse teams share and learn from one another and apply the knowledge gained in new ways. Coaches are aware that being a top pick can be a crucible moment in the life of a player. Businesses can have a similar impact by providing life-changing opportunities for success. By considering diversity in your choice of recruits, you are benefiting your organization and our greater good.

The NCAA created a diversity, equity, and inclusion framework for measuring DEI efforts. In addition to guidelines for creating cultures of belonging, it includes information to consider and questions to ask to help identify shortfalls and gaps in college athletic programs. But businesses are largely on their own when it comes to a framework for DEI. If you don’t have a plan and metrics, you should take a page from the NCAA’s playbook and create something similar for your organization.

Assess the skills of your players (employees)

It doesn’t matter how experienced an NFL player is; he still shows up before the start of every season for training and conditioning, strategy, and practice-practice-practice. You will never hear a football player say he doesn’t need practice and plans to arrive before game time and just figure it out. There’s not a coach in the world who would put up with that, nor should a business leader allow it.

  • Role play. In business, role play is similar to pre-season practice. It’s not the most popular game, taking many outside their comfort zone. However, it’s one of the best ways to assess the skills, strengths, and weaknesses of individual players and test their performance as a team.

Try to make the team understand the value of practice and don’t let them wriggle out of at least giving role play another try. Each person should understand their role and that they will be held accountable for it, just as they are in football.

Part of a football team’s preparation for a game is reviewing films of previous games. Sales teams can do something similar to prepare for meetings with potential customers. Make sure the team is aligned in its goals for the meeting and imagine what the customer wants from it. Anticipate what questions will come up and how the team should respond. Discuss whether the team is in agreement that the customer is a good fit for your product or service.

Make good on your promises

In football, many recruits join the team based on the personality and reputation of the coach and their alignment with the coach’s vision. If it turns out that the coach talks the right talk but doesn’t live up to a recruit’s expectations, he won’t stay on the team long.

Good coaches are clear about the opportunity for their recruits, who are likely concerned about their next career step. As they recruit, they focus on the bigger team picture and not just individual star power and success. Effective business leaders do the same.

Members of every kind of team are looking for inspiration and the opportunity to perform. When coaches and leaders provide them, people are excited, motivated, and ready to go. That enthusiasm and trust you’ve established are never recoverable unless you make good on the promises you made while trying to convince people to join your team rather than the competition’s. Winning teams are glued together with truth and respect.

College and NFL kickoffs are happening around the country every week, each the culmination of years of recruiting and coaching expertise. Watch, learn, enjoy, and apply what you can to increase your own wins.

Kathleen Quinn Votaw (, is the CEO of TalenTrust, a strategic recruiting and human capital consulting firm. Quinn Votaw ( is the author of two books, DARE to CARE IN THE WORKPLACE: A Guide to the New Way We Work, and Solve The People Puzzle: How High-Growth Companies Attract & Retain Top Talent.

American football stock image by Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

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