The Super Bowl of Coaching Trees

Much like the NFL’s star coaching system, some of today’s top CHROs can trace their training roots to a handful of HR leaders.

Every Super Bowl has its story lines, and this Sunday will include whether New England Patriots star Tom Brady has one more miracle last-minute drive in him at age 41, or if younger sensation Jared Goff will handle the pressure for the underdog Los Angeles Rams. But here’s one that has relevance far beyond Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz stadium: coaching trees. 

In the NFL, such trees are all the rage. The most successful coaches in today’s game learned under the systems of a handful of past innovators who modernized and updated what they had learned from their predecessors. The branches of the two coaches in this week’s game—Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Rams coach Sean McVay—not only stretch back more than 20 years, but also are spawning their own trees. Owners are eager to hire coaches that have roots in one of their systems. 

Apparently, a similar dynamic exists among CHROs of Fortune 1000 firms. According to his count, Dan Kaplan, senior client partner for Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice, says more than 350 current and former CHROs of Fortune 1000 companies worked at one time for either Pepsi CHRO Mike Feiner or former General Electric CHRO Bill Conaty. 

“Not unlike how the best NFL coaches were protégés of mentors who changed the game, the best human resources practices and practitioners were trained and developed more often than not by one of these two guys,” says Kaplan. 

Before going on to nine Super Bowls and winning five of them as the Patriots’ head coach, Belichick served as an assistant with the New York Giants under Bill Parcells. In fact, five current NFL head coaches came from Parcells’ coaching tree; only Andy Reid has more protégés in current head coaching positions with six, which is impressive considering Reid is still coaching (his Kansas City Chiefs lost to Belichick’s Patriots in the AFC Championship game). McVay, who at 33 is the youngest head coach to compete for a Super Bowl, literally comes from a football family. His grandfather was a player-personnel executive with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, where head coach Bill Walsh was planting the seeds to perhaps the greatest coaching tree in NFL history. 

“All these coaches have done things that had never been done in the game before,” says Jed Hughes, vice chairman and global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Sports practice. “They have different styles but they have all been successful because they were able to adapt to the changing nature of the NFL.”

Not unlike these legendary coaches, Kaplan says Feiner and Conaty have been at the forefront of evolving and adapting the HR function to shifting business and talent strategies. Feiner was one of the first to understand the importance of culture to talent recruiting and retention and be an advocate for human resources as a C-suite function. Former GE chief executive Jack Welch famously referred to human resources as the “picnics and benefits crowd” before Conaty implemented a new leadership program that rotated HR staff through GE’s different business units and functions “to better anticipate business needs.” 

Kaplan sees similarities in the way head coaches like Belichick and McVay have changed the NFL and the way Feiner and Conaty changed the CHRO role. And as things like culture, diversity and inclusion, engagement, and purpose grow more important to business success, he sees CHROs at places like Google, Netflix, and elsewhere becoming models for a new generation of human resources leaders.