Five Questions Asked in an NFL Head Coach Interview

I have never been in a Head Coaching interview. But I have prepared coaches for them. And after multiple post mortems on conducted interviews from the candidate side, I have come up with a list of five questions that teams normally do not, but should ask during the one on one. I give them to you now in honor of the spat of hirings that will happen over the course of the next two weeks.

1) Tell me about your coaching tree? Do the coaches who work for you go on to become promoted? Why do they, or do they not?

It’s a red flag if coaches do not create “disciples” who move up the coaching ladder. Being technically proficient at calling plays gets most coaches noticed, and many hired to run teams. However, it’s the ‘softer’ systems management skills that prove most valuable to leaders of teams in the long run. The ability to turn subordinates into better coaches is a fundamental part of the job description and resultant in the command of these skills. Hiring a leader who cannot create new leaders is flawed at the most basic level, but it happens all the time. The coaching development process is one that is largely unguided. You’re lucky if you find a mentor, and you’re even luckier if they have broad domain expertise outside of simply coaching X’s and O’s. The ability to coach the coach should be a requisite not a bonus.

2) Are you adaptable? How you will adapt your style and scheme for the players we have and the injuries we will sustain?

It amazes me that a variation of this question is so rarely asked. Interviewers spend hours on the topic of scheme, and it mostly assumes a perfect scenario of personnel for the incoming coaches style of play. But that’s the exact opposite of what reality gives you. Rarely does a team begin, or end a season, with the full complement of players it intended. You lose a quarterback, a defensive back, or a pass rusher and the scheme you had is now irreparably altered. Coaches should have systems that not only adapt play calling to specific personnel situations, but they should also adapt the way plays are called, the method of practice, the tempo, and/or any other variable that can adjust scheme to bring out the best in the players who will suit up. More to the point, the topic of scheme adaptation must be one tackled during the hiring process. The ability to adapt is one of the reasons Bill Belichick has been so successful — coaches need to start emulating this rather than his gruff demeanor.

3) How will you build culture? Show me your method on this piece of paper.

Everybody talks about building culture. Culture this and culture that. But few people can sit down and draw up a specific plan for developing it through messaging, team building, and structure. The craftiest coaches I’ve seen come to interviews with a specific plan on how they’re going to do it. These typically have steps that include messaging players one on one to utilizing media and fans to create a standard platform to communicate a vision and tangible emotions. The best coaches don’t speak in platitudes; they speak in plans and programs.

4) Without using any clichés, can you describe your leadership style and how you developed it?

The dreaded ‘tell me about your leadership style’ question is always asked. It’s never prefaced with ‘don’t use any coach-speak clichés.’ Leadership style is ephemeral enough without allowing people to use catch phrases. Leadership is a structure that provides hierarchy, principles, and specific actions, or behaviors. Does the coach guide, direct, or control his subordinates? Will you create cross-functional teams across departments as a means for developing leaders with broad based domain expertise? What is your metric for knowing whether your leadership style is working or not working? The lack of specificity and the over-reliance on acronyms (every coach has an acronym) as well as standard coach-speak such as — attacking, disciplined, hard working, tough — makes the answers to this question borderline useless. Teams need to begin testing leadership styles and skills — not just checking the box on them.

5) Can you diagram your strategy for success here — your vision, your goals, and the metrics you’re going to use for evaluating your strategy?

If I owned a billion dollar company, I would want the person running the front line workers to have a clear-cut strategy on paper. I’d want to see the overarching vision followed by specific goals that laddered up to it. Next, I’d want to know how they were going to measure the success of each goal. Then, I’d want to see the exact action plans and measures taken that link to the metrics. ‘Winning a Championship’ is not an acceptable goal. Yet every interview process I’ve been a part of has that phrase at the top and center. I believe that winning championships is a byproduct of a set of smaller goals. ‘Making the playoffs for seven out of the next ten years’ is a great goal that has a high likelihood of leading to winning a championship. ‘Having the best coaching staff in the league’ is a great goal, and measuring that by the number of interview requests for your coaches is a solid metric. That’s the sort of thinking I’d want to see from the person preparing to run my team.

The reason people fail when promoted to head coach is because they rarely possess the core traits needed to run an enterprise level team. Ferrari would never promote the most technically gifted engineer to CEO without ensuring they had the foundational skills to mange the entire business. However, NFL head coaches (and GMs for that matter) are given the keys to the Testa Rossa based on their ability to call plays. It is high time teams began to ensure that they possessed all the skills needed to run a team.

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