Hiring tip: don’t interview like the NFL

Some people are destined for mediocrity. Take this guy for example: A college kid, who, despite a semi-decent college showing as an American football quarterback, was drafted 199th by a professional team. You don’t have to be a football or sports fan to realize how terrible that is.

And he wasn’t drafted for anything near a starting position. He was drafted as a fourth-string quarterback. You’ll hardly find any active fourth-string quarterbacks. In the rare occasion the third-string gets hurt during a game, you’ll sometimes see a random player, like a wide receiver who played quarterback in high school, come in. That tells you how valuable a fourth-string quarterback is: about the same as a high school kid who doesn’t even play the position anymore. Fourth-string quarterbacks are often just practice squad dummies — fresh meat for the real players to pound on, maybe they get a few throws in during the last seconds of a pre-season game.

And sure enough, our bottom-rung quarterback, during his rookie season, got to pass 3 times. 1 completion. For a total of 6 yards.

But then things turned around. He moved up to second-string the following season, and the starting quarterback was injured, which gave him a chance to start.

That season, this mediocre quarterback, Tom Brady, won the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots. And not just a win, but he was their MVP. He went on to win the Super Bowl again 2 years later. In his career, he’s made the playoffs a dozen times, been to the Super Bowl seven, and won four (scratch that — five) of them.

Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. And everyone almost missed him.


Photo by Kowloonese

A combine is an intimidating looking machine for harvesting grain. The name is derived from what it does: combines the steps for harvesting — reaping, threshing, and winnowing. Those things are also often metaphors for how we do hiring. Reap the best candidates. Harvest the top prospects. Winnow the resumes.

Professional league sports teams have no shortage of young athletes who want to play for them, so they’ve created their own combines.

For example, the NFL invites about 300 college kids in February for a weeklong trial. They are put through the things you probably assume they are put through: running, jumping, lifting heavy things. They even go through interviews, intelligence tests, and have half-naked photos taken of them for later scrutiny.

That’s why Tom Brady was picked 199th as a fourth stringer. He was terrible at the combine. The 40 yard dash is one of the combine’s tests. Tom Brady ran it in 5.28 seconds — the worst score in the history of the combine. And those photos they take? Here’s Tom in 2000:


Doesn’t scream world class athlete. But fortune would lead to Tom getting a starting job where he could show off his true performance.

Here’s the funny thing, though, Tom Brady isn’t the exception at the combine, he’s the rule. In 2008, Dr. Frank Kuzmits and Dr. Arthur J. Adams from the College of Business at the University of Louisville began publishing their research of the NFL combine. Those physical tests don’t actually predict how athletes perform. Bottom scoring combine players find themselves at the top of the professional world all the time. And top scoring combine players, contain a ton of washouts — top draft picks who you’ve never even heard of because they lasted just a single season.

And it’s not just the physical tests that don’t work. The intelligence tests fail too. Kuzmits and Adams also studied the Wonderlic, which is a rudimentary test of intelligence given to all NFL quarterbacks. NFL quarterbacks have a lot to process. They need to be sharp.

Except, again, no correlation was found for the scores on those tests and the performance of quarterbacks in the NFL. Dan Marino has one of the lowest Wonderlic scores of all time, but Dan Marino is also one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

Hockey and basketball scouts have the same problem.

These combines don’t work.

But this isn’t just a problem for professional sports. There’s plenty of other studies showing how tests we’ve created to find top candidates in fields like academic recruiting and finding good teachers fail at predicting anything.


Highrise is the simple CRM tool that recently spun out from Basecamp. One catch: As the new CEO of Highrise, I needed to find a brand new team. No one from Basecamp came over in the move. So we’ve done our fair share of hiring and team building in a short time.

What I keep finding is that no matter how many screening questions, interviews, sample projects, etc. we do, the best data comes out of actual real life work situations.

Because really, the only way we can judge someone is by observing their actual performance. One great idea that Michael Dwan introduced into our interview process is online text chat interviews. Now, first you might think, that’s not good. You need at least phone or video — higher bandwidth — conversations to truly know these people. Sure, on some levels. But Highrise is all remote employees. We spend most of our day, every day, in online text chat with one another. If an online chat is going to derail an initial interview, this isn’t going to be good fit. It’s a real world test of how we actually work.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, please help spread it by clicking that below. And if you are interested in more, you should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us come up with better ideas and start businesses.



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