How The NFL’s First Female C-level Executive Sees The Next Generation Workforce
Michelle McKenna, CEO of The Michelle McKenna Collaborative, spoke to us in a recent virtual fireside chat about all things technology, leadership, work life balance, inclusive culture and of course, football. Michelle has spent over two decades in tech and has led massive digital transformation and change management projects at well-known institutions including the NFL, Universal Studios, Disney, and most recently, the WWE.
Michelle was interviewed by her son, Jackie McKenna, and spoke about how “hiring and retaining top talent will be the strategic advantage of the future.” She also shared a lot of the wisdom she’s gained through her experience, particularly from the ten years she spent at the NFL.
As an avid football fan, Michelle dreamed of working for the NFL since childhood. She became the first person to ever hold the CIO title at the NFL, and she was its first female C-level executive, ever. Professional sports and tech are classically male-dominated industries, so Michelle was already making change from the very beginning of her journey as the CIO.
The Next Generation Workforce
Michelle spoke about what she referred to as “the next generation workforce”. As a ‘GenXer’, she has witnessed the corporate handoff from boomers to millennials. And, as a technology leader, she manages a lot of millennials and Generation Zs.
She shared that many people think (or assume) that millennials and Generation Z want vastly different things than older generations. But, according to Michelle, that’s not the case. They generally want the same things from their employer, but the key difference is that younger generations have less trust in the institutions themselves. Employers need to recognize that inherent lack of trust, and engage with employees and candidates on an individual level in order to attract and retain talent.
Michelle said that, during her time at the NFL, millennials were the ones who really stepped up and adapted to the unforeseen circumstances that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. The league went from planning the annual in-person draft in Las Vegas, to having each of the 32 teams join the draft virtually from their own facilities, to having each individual player attend the draft virtually from their own homes — all in a matter of a few weeks.
Michelle led this seemingly impossible undertaking, along with the help of the tech team at the NFL. Under an immense amount of pressure, Michelle assured NFL CEO, Roger Goodell, that it would work out. And after countless hours of meticulous and technical planning, the first ever completely virtual draft became the most watched NFL draft in history. And she couldn’t have done it alone — the “next generation workforce” shared that success with her.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Efforts
Michelle has been a champion for diversity and inclusion for years, and she talked about the importance of those efforts during her time at the NFL. Inclusion comes in so many different formats, and each of them are critical to help level the playing field for the groups that they affect the most.
Just as one example, while Michelle was preparing the players for the virtual draft, it became apparent that ‘the digital divide’ still exists. The digital divide refers to the gap between individuals and households, and socio-economic levels in regard to their access (or lack thereof) to the internet and other communication technologies. These young players were about to become millionaires, but at the same time, some of them didn’t have internet connection in their family homes, and they weren’t necessarily comfortable with cameras showcasing their living rooms.
Michelle and her team personally handled each of these cases, and made sure players were able to participate in the draft from a nice Airbnb, with a strong WiFi connection. And she sent each player a box of all the equipment they needed to be set up for success during the draft.
The digital divide certainly isn’t the only DE&I issue to be addressed at the NFL. It’s no secret that there’s a lack of diversity amongst head coaches in the league. The vast majority of head coaches are white men. Michelle shared that AI has helped them diversify their hiring efforts and to help fill roles with diverse candidates, to make the NFL a more fair and inclusive employer.
The role of AI in today’s workforce (yes, even in professional football)
The positive impact that explainable AI-driven tools can have on HR teams alone is massive. Not only can AI help HR teams make the hiring process more fair by reducing bias, but it can also assist in retaining top talent.
Some AI-driven HR tools can help identify skills gaps that exist within the organization, and can match those gaps with current employees who may have the skills needed to fill that role. Internal mobility programs like this are proven to increase retention rates and employee satisfaction. If an employee is on the fence about leaving your company for another opportunity, being offered a new position internally might just be enough to get them to stay.
In the NFL’s case, more efficient and fair hiring is not the only use case for AI. In recent years, the NFL has incorporated AI into officiating the games. Every game ball has a chip that collects data, which can then be analyzed back at the NFL HQ in New York. Data is collected from each player on the field as well. This data can be analyzed by the NFL scientists to identify dangerous plays that should be made illegal in the game, and can even assess injuries to help coaches know when it’s safe for players to return to the field.
There was resistance from some coaches when the idea of using AI in professional football was first introduced. Ultimately, what helped Michelle get their buy-in was her stance that it’s called “artificial” intelligence for a reason. It does not replace the human brain and it only enhances what we can already do. And that’s critical for employers to remember as well. AI won’t replace your talented HR professionals, but it can help make their jobs easier.
Power to the employee
One key takeaway from the event was the idea that, in today’s workforce, the power is in the hands of the employees. Interviewer Jackie McKenna compared this to the ‘power of the customer’ movement that happened years ago, when ecommerce gave consumers the power to choose to buy whichever product from whichever brand they wanted. Manufacturers and retailers had to figure out how to position their products at the right place and the right time, to get consumers to choose them, over the competition.
Michelle argued that today’s employers must do the same thing to attract and retain top talent. It takes more than a decent benefits package to attract today’s talent. If the pandemic-driven shift in the way the world works taught employees anything, it’s that they want more from their jobs. For example, they want flexibility to work where and when they need to. This is particularly important for working parents. Michelle said, “you don’t need to know their kids’ names to manage them, but you do need to know that they’re a parent.”
As a mother of two, Michelle understands the importance of flexibility and empathy in the workplace. She explained that Disney was excellent during those critical “mommy years”, as she called them, and they allowed her to work from home while her children were small (back when it was still called telecommuting).
The bottom line is, employees are looking for personalized experiences from their employers. Not all employees will want or need the same things, and that should be normalized and respected by employers who want to attract and retain top talent in today’s market.
Talent is the strategic advantage of the future
One of the most powerful things Michelle said during the interview was that “hiring and retaining top talent will be the strategic advantage of the future.” Michelle shared that she likes to get to know each of her colleagues and team members one on one, on a deep level — but the problem with that is it’s not scalable.
That’s where technology comes in. Technology like AI can help large companies get to know their candidates and employees in great detail — they can learn about their skills, experience, and even their hobbies, without ever being in the same room with them.
HR technology like this enables organizations all around the world to hire remote and hybrid employees, while still keeping them highly engaged. Large companies have been using ‘HR systems’ for decades. But now, it’s becoming mission-critical for business leaders to invest in more sophisticated tools that have the ability to create personalized candidate and employee experiences, and proactively predict the workforce they’ll need in the future, while still meeting DE&I goals and business objectives.