Career Coach: What Business Can Learn From the NFL

Career Coach: What Business Can Learn From the NFL

Football season is upon us. For many NFL fans, the games are pure entertainment, an opportunity to get their minds off their jobs and root for their teams. But for NFL coaches and players, it’s a business. In their business, success is measured by winning games. Metaphorically speaking, your business also is about winning — and there are numerous lessons we can learn from NFL football to make our company a better performer with a winning record.

The Team

It all begins with recruiting the right people to your team. This includes every position — sales, marketing, accounting, IT, and so on. These players are critically important to the success of the firm. However, their success relies on good coaching.

In football, that comes from coaching specialists — quarterbacks coach, receivers coach, linebackers coach, etc. In companies, it comes from middle-managers who lead teams within the team. Then of course you have the most senior executives. Much like football’s offensive and defensive coordinators, these C-suite executives head up major units within the team. Finally, the head coach in business is the chief executive officer.

To be a top NFL football team, you need players with talent who are developed by coaches. You need excellent coaches who know how to teach these players to perform at their best — and as a team — with the same ultimate mission: to win.

Every business needs to operate this way. Identify great talent, develop that talent and teach them how to play as a team.


In football, teams usually have several days to get ready for the next game. This involves studying the playbook, watching films of the other team in action, and creating the best game plan. Every business should do the same.

Let’s say you are in consumer product sales and have an appointment with a retailer currently working with your competitor. Prepare properly: Study the retailer, who is your potential customer. Read everything you can about it — the annual report, a 10K, news releases. Study the stores. Finally, study your competitor. Try to understand how you can differentiate your company in a way that will give you a competitive advantage.

This strategy applies to many aspects of business: Do the research, collect enough data and create a “playbook” for accomplishing your objective.

Calling an Audible

In football, the quarterback may spot an unexpected defensive set and he may change the play on the spot by calling an “audible.” Your business is the same. Even with outstanding preparation, dynamic circumstances may require a pivot or adjustment to your plan. It’s important to be nimble and flexible to make adjustments along the way.


An NFL team may have fantastic players and coaches and they may have done an outstanding job in preparing for the game. But when the whistle blows, they still must execute the plan as flawlessly as possible or risk losing the game.

Dropped passes, missed tackles, fumbles and interceptions are frustrating for the players (and the fans). Good communication among members of the team, with each anticipating another’s move, can help minimize these kinds of mistakes.

But mistakes will happen. When they do, don’t assign blame. Instead, work harder together as a team, support each member and maintain focus.

Get Ready for the Next Game

Even great NFL teams usually lose a few games in a season, but there is no time to wallow in a loss. The next game is only a few days away.

It’s the same for you in your business. You will not always win. It’s important to learn from a loss or setback and make adjustments to your game plan for future opportunities. Get over it and begin preparing for the next game, working on being at your best.

The next time you watch an NFL game, think about the work involved in the preparation, the potential pivots, and the overall execution of the game plan. Put these practices in place and put your business team in a position to win.

Gary A. Cohen is associate dean of the Office of Executive Programs at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is a certified executive coach and prior to joining the faculty at Smith, he had a successful 30-year corporate career, with the last 15 as a senior executive. He can be reached at, @gary_a_cohen, and on LinkedIn.

Author: Enterprise

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