5 Lessons HR Can Learn From the NFL Coaching Carousel

The firing of Dallas Cowboys head coach, Jason Garrett, wasn’t exactly a shocker to anyone. 


One of the league’s most beloved—or hated—teams, the Cowboys kicked off the season with the hope that a Super Bowl championship would be at the end of the road. But when they failed to even make the playoffs, it was no surprise a coaching change was in store. 
 

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In fact, it appears Jason Garrett even had a positive recommendation for his replacement, Mike McCarthy. We’re to believe there were no hard feelings when it was time to part ways. But how? The organization simply said they didn’t think Garrett was the right person for the job—and both recognized it was time to part. 


When we look at this through an HR lens, there’s a lot managers can learn. Here are five key takeaways:

 

1. Set Clear Expectations & Goals

There are clear expectations in the NFL: make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. Since only one team gets to hoist the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy each year, realistically teams must at least show improvement throughout the season. This barometer measures how well coaches are doing their jobs and makes it possible to gauge success. 


When Jason Garrett took over as head coach, I’m sure his expectations were to get the team back to the pinnacle of the early ‘90s. In the first few years, his goal was to get the team headed in the right direction, and eventually back to the playoffs—which he did three times. Although the team posted some impressive records along the way, they never made it to the Super Bowl. It was clear it was time to move on from their coach.
 

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How this applies to the workplace:

Expectation- and goal-setting are equally as important as it sets the tone for what needs to be accomplished and when. It also gets everyone on the same page so there are little-to-no surprises when it’s time for an annual review. 


2. Host Regular Performance Reviews

Performance reviews in the NFL—called film sessions—are given every week to break down the X’s and O’s of the previous week’s performance. To reflect on the entire season and analyze their complete body of work, all players and staff members participate in exit meetings. Both are necessary to gauge performance on a granular and holistic level, which then helps determine who will be brought back the following year.  


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How this applies to the workplace:

Host frequent reviews with your direct reports to track progress towards their goals. Whether it’s weekly, once a month, or quarterly, this should be a time to have an open dialogue about what is going well and where improvements can be made. These conversations should tie back to the expectations that were established in the beginning. If goals have changed, then it is time to get aligned on the new course of action. 

 

3. Explain Clear Repercussions
The expression “do or die” is often the ultimatum that NFL coaches are given if they don't reach specific expectations, such as making the playoffs or producing a winning record. A classic example of this is Hue Jackson, the former head coach of the Cleveland Browns, where he historically went 3-36-1 over the course of over three years. Jackson was fired in 2018 after failing to win a road game over his tenure. The next full-time head coach hired by the Browns was Freddie Kitchens, who was then fired one year after failing to bring the Browns to the playoffs. It was clear that the Browns had set expectations after the abysmal performance of Jackson to “make the playoffs or bust”. Unfortunately for the Browns, Kitchens didn’t work out. 
 

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How this applies to the workplace:

Managers should clearly explain the repercussions if expectations aren't met. In most cases, it won't be the end of someone's role at an organization... but it could be why the raise they wanted wasn't as high as expected or why they are looking externally for a role that could have been a promotion. 

 

4. Offer Help When Needed
Often, change is necessary to help improve performance. A good example of this is with the current number 1 seed, the Baltimore Ravens. Instead of removing their head coach, John Harbaugh, they traded for playmaker Marcus Peters to bolster their defense. With 5 interceptions and 2 touchdowns on defense, he has been an integral part of the Ravens success. They are not just on the path to the Super Bowl—expectations are high that they will bring home the ultimate W. 


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How this applies to the workplace:

Employees with lofty goals need the tools or teams to achieve them—otherwise, they could be set up for failure. Consider dedicating another team member to assist with tasks at hand, or invest in technology that can help everyone operate more efficiently.  


5. Keep It Classy—Ditch the Trash Talk 
When the Cowboys’ season ended just shy of the playoffs, Garrett knew the decision that had to be made. But he remained extremely professional the entire time. He didn't slander his former employer in the media, or run to Glassdoor to post a negative review. He accepted the decision and helped in any way he could to find the right replacement. 

Just as Jason Garrett didn’t speak poorly of the Cowboys, owner Jerry Jones relieved him of his duties with dignity and respect—a surprising move in a league rife with ugly firings.

Take the firing of the Chiefs head coach Gunther Cunningham, for example. In 2001, Cunningham showed up to work after posting an 18-18 record of two seasons. During the day, he read reports of his imminent firing. After speculations, the Chiefs announced on the team website that Cunningham was terminated—and it's unclear if Cunningham learned of his release by any member of the team.

In contrast, the Cowboys kept it professional and got an ally in their search for a new coach. 
 

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How this applies to the workplace:

Employers are just as responsible for maintaining a professional demeanor in these types of situations. Don’t trash talk your employees, and be sure to tell them what is happening before communicating it externally. 


Although your organization may not have the opportunity to compete for a Super Bowl, you certainly have lofty company goals of your own. A focus on every interaction between managers and employees not only makes these situations more bearable, it improves the experience for everyone in the talent journey. 

Devin is in product marketing at Phenom People. He leads webinars and sales enablement—and you’ve probably seen him in our videos.

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