The throwing motion of a quarterback is the most complex motor skill in all of sports. Hundreds of elements in the passer’s technique need to be perfect in order for the ball to reach its target. Decisions have to be made in fractions of a second. To quarterbacks in the National Football League, a chain of actions with no margin of error are all that separate victory from calamity.
A football team’s fate depends on the skill of its quarterback. For that reason, truly elite passers are nearly priceless to the organizations that employ them. To those of us who study how employees at all types of organizations can develop into top performers, the NFL quarterback is a basket of training superlatives. He represents the highest-stakes, most difficult, most existential development challenge imaginable. Here are four ways in which that challenge translates to your own efforts to turn employees into top performers.
Training counts most in the context of long-term development.
A great quarterback isn’t a flash in the pan performer. He’s a steady leader and producer over the course of years, sometimes decades. Whereas individual moments can come to define the careers of other position players—Odell Beckham Jr. already has his poster moment for life—a quarterback’s skill is judged in the long term.
Top performers in your organization should be seen in the same light. Having skill today is great, but it’s not worth much unless they keep it up through continuous growth.
Successful organizations develop quality instead of spending for skills.
The best football teams don’t usually outsource their quarterback development; they do it in-house. Whereas players at other positions routinely come and go via free agency and trades, good quarterbacks tend to be home-grown. With the exception of Drew Brees, the top 12 quarterbacks in 2014 and the past 12 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks all played for the teams that drafted them.*
This isn’t a coincidence. When teams draft and nurture a QB, it means they have control over the organizational culture and leadership ethos their most important player develops with. When culture and leadership are missing from your top performers, no amount of natural talent can redeem them—as Jay Cutler or Michael Vick could tell you. On the other hand, buying into the organizational culture as a leader can turn players who weren’t projected to be superstars, like Russell Wilson or Tony Romo, into top performers.
*Counting Eli Manning as a Giants draft pick.
All learning needs to deliver at the moment of application.
How many times have you seen a quarterback revert back to his worst habits under pressure? In a clean pocket, his throws are textbook. When the play breaks down, though, he panics and falls back into the same problems his high school coach tried to correct. Throwing off his back foot, staring down a receiver, or carrying the ball unprotected are some of the more common sins committed when a guy is running for his life.
In the world of L&D, Gottfredson and Mosher say that training needs to translate at “the moment of Apply.” The theory is that learning is really only useful if you can put it to use at the decisive moment it’s needed. Otherwise, you may as well have not learned anything at all. This is the breakdown you witness with the scrambling quarterback.
Brett Favre’s fateful cross-body throw to give away the 2009 NFC Championship—officially the most Brett Favre moment in history—is a shining example of how bad habits creep in at the moment of Apply. Favre was a great quarterback. He set records for career postseason passing attempts and completions that game. But all that greatness failed him at a critical moment of Apply, when he lost his bearings on the run, reverted to form, and decided to roll the dice on an off-balance throw. It ended his team’s season needlessly, just a few easy yards shy of a Super Bowl berth. Favre’s poor decision is what good training and performance support seek to avoid.
Great development unearths superstars.
An organizational culture of development creates bona fide stars seemingly from scratch. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, arguably the two best passers in the league today, were both diamonds in the rough before they developed into superstars. Brady was drafted 199th overall before excelling in coach Bill Belichick’s notoriously perfectionist system. Aaron Rodgers was radically remade by coach Mike McCarthy, who turned him from a “robotic” passer out of college into the fluid genius we know today. Even Joe Montana needed the tutelage of offensive guru Bill Walsh to turn his raw skillset, which placed him in the third round of the NFL draft, into the greatest quarterback of all time. All three of these players had natural talent, but they needed the right learning environments to develop into legends.
Luckily for you, playing quarterback in the NFL is harder than the vast majority of what you need your performers to learn. That doesn’t make development any less important, or the rewards any less great. An efficient, constant approach to employee development reaps enormous rewards for the organizations that do it right. Are you developing any of your people into legends?