Any organization with 100 years' worth of history has its share of stories to tell, and few such organizations have had their histories so immortalized as the National Football League.
2019 marked a century of operations for the NFL. The league is not only one of the most popular professional sports organizations in the U.S. but also the world's highest grossing professional sports organization globally, reportedly taking in an estimated $14 billion in revenue in 2018.
As the NFL celebrated its 100th birthday, it also concluded a lower profile campaign: the search for a new HR chief. In November, the league announced the hiring of Dasha Smith to the role of chief people officer and executive vice president. Smith previously worked as executive vice president and CHRO at Sony Music Entertainment, and she held similar positions at organizations including Time Inc.
In addition to her experience, Smith brought a variety of skills especially tuned to the NFL's needs, according to Jason Hanold, CEO and managing partner of executive search firm Hanold Associates. Smith did not respond to interview requests but, in an interview with HR Dive, Hanold explained the NFL's game plan for finding the right candidate and what Smith's hiring says about the qualities top organizations are looking for in their next HR executive.
What the NFL wanted
Hanold said the NFL's first and foremost goal was to hire a "very contemporary" chief people officer with experience working with a large employee base.
But company size alone wouldn't be the sole indicator of a candidate's preparedness, he explained — the candidate also would have to demonstrate the ability to work at an organization with the reach the league has. "The NFL is unique," Hanold said, adding that its athletes, coaches and other stakeholders "help to drive a social narrative in our country."
Part of that narrative is diversity, especially in hiring. The NFL has been criticized in recent months by observers including The New York Times for a shortage of people of color at the head coaching position. Among the league's 32 teams, there are only three head coaches of color. The league office's influence over head coach hiring may be limited, according to the Times, but the statistics are telling. In the previous three years, 20 NFL head coaching positions opened and only two were filled by persons of color, according to HuffPost — for a league in which 70% of players and 34% of assistant coaches are nonwhite.
Still, the NFL made clear it wanted a chief people officer that could spearhead diversity and inclusion initiatives company-wide, Hanold said. It's an emerging topic among sports organizations like the NFL and Major League Baseball, with which Hanold's firm also has been involved, he said.
"They fundamentally get that what they need to enhance outcomes and results is to have this elevated view of D&I to move forward," Hanold said. "For any contemporary and forward-thinking CHRO, it's at the core of your responsibilities." He noted organizations are beginning to pay more attention to research that points to a business case for D&I.
The NFL stated in its announcement of Smith's hiring that talent and diversity strategy and workplace culture would be among her responsibilities. "I am excited about the impact Dasha will have in key areas across our organization, especially diversity and inclusion which is a top priority for our league," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in the statement.
The league also wanted a candidate that could further such initiatives among a variety of stakeholders, including the league office itself, club owners and clubs' individual HR departments. This indicated a need for a candidate who "could and has done well with strong and accomplished personalities," Hanold said. The right candidate would demonstrate credibility and the ability to grasp the implications of HR decisions beyond what they would mean for the NFL itself.
Smith's work with Sony indicated that she could meet these requirements, per Hanold, who cited Smith's past work with strong personalities. "She certainly did that in the music industry," he said.
Smith also combines a strong IQ with a strong "EQ," or emotional quotient, which indicated she would be a good fit working with NFL leadership, Hanold said. "Her EQ is distinctively balanced and just as incredibly high as her IQ." Hanold believes these qualities allow Smith to take into account the many factors affecting NFL operations. "Her approach is very holistic," he said.
Make them walk away smarter
Part of what Hanold's team aims to do in searches is to focus candidates on talking aspirationally, he said.
"If the client walks away smarter, they tend to be more inclined to remember that," Hanold said. Company executives may know that they need to improve in a given area of operations, but it's up to HR executive candidates to bring insight that targets a plan forward with specificity. "We're encouraging our candidates to be consultants during the process."
CHROs, too, can do more than improve performance on HR initiatives. Hanold said being knowledgeable in organizational aspects like financials is part of the reason former HR executives, like Mary Barra of General Motors, have been elevated to CEO roles. "You'd have a hard time discerning whether Mary Barra was a CHRO or CFO," Hanold said. "I'm convinced we're seeing a time where there'll be more CHROs [appointed] to that post."
The search for candidates like Smith also means finding someone who can be a close confidant of the CEO. "CEOs have to be the most lonely people at their organizations," Hanold said. "The only person they can really turn to is when and if they have a CHRO who is a trusted advisor."
Overall, HR leaders vying for positions at top organizations need to have the functional depth to mitigate risks and maintain highly engaged cultures, Hanold said. Such candidates are great listeners but also decisive.