I'm not much of a football fan, so I won't pretend to have any analysis of the sports aspect of last night's game to offer. But, as a business blogger I did manage to dig up one thoughtful analysis of a rarely mentioned aspect of the Pat's victory -- they did it, apparently, in spite of their terrible approach to hiring.

The team's near disaster is a great lesson for companies in less glamorous lines of business, according to Highrise CEO (and more informed football aficionado) Nathan Kontny on the Signal v. Noise blog. In the fascinating post, he tells the story of how Patriot's quarterback Tom Brady barely made it into the NFL and was only picked 199th in the draft for the less-than-promising position of 4th string quarterback.

Why did a guy who was destined to lead his team to five championships only make it through try outs by the skin of his teeth? Because, Kontny explains, he performed poorly on "the combine," a series of tests of mental and physical prowess that all aspiring football players are put through.

Sorry, but your tests are probably totally worthless.

Now here's where it gets interesting for non-football fans (or those who love the game but are itching to get to the general leadership lesson here). While the particular tests in the combine might be specific to the NFL, many businesses use a similar approach to sussing out talent, submitting potential hires to a battery of tests.

The irony, however, is that those tests are just as lousy at identifying superstars in business as they are in sports. Leave it to abstract measurements to determine who to hire and you're dramatically increasing the chances of missing out of a future superstar, Kontny claims:

Tom Brady isn't the exception at the combine, he's the rule. In 2008, Dr. Frank Kuzmits and Dr. Arthur J. Adams from the College of Business at the University of Louisville began publishing their research of the NFL combine. Those physical tests don't actually predict how athletes perform. Bottom scoring combine players find themselves at the top of the professional world all the time. And top scoring combine players, contain a ton of washouts -- top draft picks who you've never even heard of because they lasted just a single season.

And it's not just the physical tests that don't work. The intelligence tests fail too... These combines don't work.

But this isn't just a problem for professional sports. There's plenty of other studies showing how tests we've created to find top candidates in fields like academic recruiting and finding good teachers fail at predicting anything.

Which is a fascinating field of research to know about if you're still relying on tests to tell you who to hire. You certainly don't want to miss out on the business equivalent of Tom Brady because you're blinded by scientific-seeming assessments that turn out not to be predictive of much of anything. But these results also raise an obvious question: what's the alternative? If tests fail, how are you supposed to separate superstars from mediocre B-players when hiring?

Kontny offers a simple answer: just make candidates actually tackle a real-life task. "No matter how many screening questions, interviews, sample projects, etc. we do, the best data comes out of actual real life work situations. Because really, the only way we can judge someone is by observing their actual performance," he writes.

Do you agree with him that the business version of the NFL combine is pretty much useless?

Published on: Feb 6, 2017
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