Blog » What NFL Refs Can Teach Us About Business Leadership

What NFL Refs Can Teach Us About Business Leadership

If you’re a football fan like me, you’re undoubtedly glad to see the return of the NFL referees. The replacements did their best, but there is nothing to compare to the skills and capabilities developed over significant time by the ‘official’ referees. Overall, the situation reinforces the importance – whether in sports or in business – of having the best talent in place at the “gamebreaker” positions.

Recently, I had the good fortune of meeting head NFL referee Mike Carey. It turns out that in addition to being one of the NFL’s most respected referees, Mike also runs a very successful business. His company, Seirus Innovation (, manufactures ski and snowboarding gloves, face protection, and other cold-weather accessories.

We sat down together to enjoy a few frosty beverages, and our conversation soon turned to the similarities between sports and business. In the NFL, Mike is known for his thorough pre-game preparations and his post-game reviews to improve the performance of his crew. He sees a lot of crossover between the skills that lead to success in sports and those that enhance winning in the corporate world. For example:

Can’t manage what you don’t measure
Most people notice the refs only when they throw the flags. But their job also involves a lot of measurement: how many yards gained or lost on each play, how much time left on the clock, how many points scored, etc. Without this measurement, the game would have no meaning for the players or the fans.

The same holds true in business. Unless you track individual and team performance, nobody knows how the company is doing, which reduces people to little more than showing up to get a paycheck. You can’t win in sports with that kind of attitude – witness how often teams with the highest payrolls fall short of winning. And you can’t win with it in business either.

Provide ongoing feedback
In and of itself, measuring performance isn’t enough to win. You also have to let people know where they stand on a regular basis. Professional and elite sports gets this concept better than perhaps any other industry. This is why even the highest-skilled athletes have coaches and managers to provide performance feedback. Constructive feedback always works best. As in, “Here’s what you did and here are the results you got. Let’s focus now on improving.”

Teamwork often wins out over talent
In sports, a team with the right chemistry in the locker room will often defeat a more talented team that lacks cohesion. In his company, Mike spends a lot of time educating employees about the importance of teamwork and helping to create a sense of family. He believes that teamwork starts with caring for the person working next to you, and having an honest desire to help your teammates get better. When people believe in and support each other in pursuit of a larger goal, organizations can achieve amazing things.

Hire the whole person (not just their skills)
This goes back to creating good chemistry in the locker room. Great athletes that don’t get along with teammates and focus more on personal goals can easily undermine a team’s success. At Seirus, Mike strives to create a humanistic environment where management focuses on the whole person rather than just their technical skills. This manifests itself in their hiring process, where they look for three essential criteria:

  • Passion. The passion doesn’t necessarily have to be around the product, although it helps. To get hired at Seirus, a person must have a passion for being part of the team and constantly working to make it better. To quote Mike: “If a person is all in, you can train them to do anything.”
  • Continual learning. The best employees/teammates constantly work on developing their skills and honing their craft. They’re willing to practice, take risk, and try new things – an especially important trait in today’s business environment where ongoing innovation lays the foundation for success.
  • Willing to admit mistakes. People don’t like to be wrong, and often get defensive when shown their errors. But the biggest strides come from acknowledging and correcting mistakes. Athletes are taught this from a very early age. We need to teach it more in the business world. In a constructive way, but we definitely need to do it more.

Welcome back Mike and all your colleagues. These are lessons we would all do well to apply – regardless of the business or the sport!

Call to action: Find a leadership principle in professional sports and explore how it might apply to your business.

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