There is a key distinction between being intelligent and having wisdom. Intelligence, for the most part, can be acquired early and often in one’s life. Wisdom only comes from experience – years of application of intelligence in different situations and scenarios, leading to a better understanding of how, when, and why things should be done. In the business world, intelligence is a commodity that is brought and sold, wisdom a rarity that is sought and coveted.
Jed Hughes is undoubtedly an intelligent man. One look at his education – a Masters from Stanford and Doctorate from Michigan – will tell you as much. But it’s Hughes’ almost half century worth of experience that has given him incredible wisdom when it comes to navigating the complex and nuanced process of building and leading great organizations in sports. It is also this experience and wisdom that has allowed him to become one of the industry’s most trusted confidants and advisers, and the architect of some of its most successful franchises and teams.
At his core, Jed Hughes is a coach, having spent two decades helping lead college and professional football’s most storied programs during the 1970’s and 80’s. Yet even as the win totals piled up and he rose through the ranks of the profession, Hughes knew early on that he was destined for a career that would extend beyond the sidelines. When Hughes became UCLA’s defensive coordinator in 1977, his Ph.D in Philosophy allowed him to see the game of football from a wholly different prospective than anyone ever had. While poets and quants may have become common in modern front offices, they are a rarity on the actual field, and back then were essentially non-existent in any part of the organization.
For Hughes’, the locker room became a laboratory to observe and experiment with concepts that had rarely been studied in such environments. From the management skills of the general managers, to the leadership abilities of his fellow coaches, to the psychology of his players, Hughes was able to gain an incredible understanding of the underlying dynamics of a successfully run sports organization. More significantly, he was given an opportunity to implement and test ideas in a setting that would provide almost instantaneous feedback. It was also within this environment that Hughes realized his greatest strength – his eye for talent. During his time at UCLA, more than 33% of the players he was responsible for recruiting to the school went on to play in the NFL (including 3 top 10 picks), a number that few have rivaled since.
Yet after moving on to the NFL, where he spent a decade helping identify and develop some of the leagues brightest stars, Hughes finally stepped down from coaching to pursue his passion for talent evaluation full time, first running an organizational behavior firm and then as an executive recruiter. Beginning as a Senior Director at Spencer Stuart, and now as Vice Chair and Global Head of Sports Practice at Korn Ferry International, Hughes has spent the last twenty years leveraging the knowledge he gained on the field and in the front office to place executives and coaches atop college and professional sports most storied teams. Indeed, some of the most celebrated hires in sport’s over the last several years – from Charlie Strong and Shaka Smart at Texas, to Seahawks GM John Schneider and head coach Pete Caroll – were all orchestrated by Hughes.
Not surprisingly, the question everyone wants Hughes to answer is how he so consistently identifies talented candidates for positions, many times well before anyone else in the industry even has them on their radar?
“The biggest mistake organizations make when hiring someone in any position is assuming that there is only one type of individual that is suited for that particular role,” opines Hughes. ”There is certainly a common denominator we search for in top candidates – intellect, high emotional intelligence, charisma – but none of these traits guarantees success. But you also have to ask yourself why someone is a candidate for the position in the first place; what are the qualitative and quantitative factors that you believe will make them prosper within your organization at that moment in time?”
It’s important to remember that inherent to Hughes’ ability to identify talent is his ability to compare such factors in candidates to individuals who were in similar roles and positions in the past. Having a deep and throughout understanding of what challenges and opportunities the organization itself is facing, and then determining how organizations in similar standing addressed such conditions in the past is an asset that can only come from decades of studying such circumstances. Through the years, Hughes has observed countless situations in which candidates who were perceived as home run hires and who proceeded to fall flat on their face. Likewise, he has also been witness to the seemingly most unqualified of candidates turning into an organizational savior.
“There is no secret formula or recipe to executive search, only a systematic analysis of the available candidates and how they fit the role you are trying to fill,” explains Hughes. “That’s why the first thing we is start with a detailed job specification – we have a number of propriety tools that help us pull out exactly what it is the stakeholder wants in their candidate and what we think they need. More importantly, we work hard to create an objective candidate selection process – the nature of sports industry hires creates pressure and bias that is simply not seen in other areas of business. You have to eliminate the noise and get to the bottom of what critical components are necessary for a coach or executive to succeed in the given scenario,” he continues.
There might be no better example this process than in Korn/Ferry’s work to find a new head football coach for the University of Michiganin 2015. Although many within the industry believed that Jim Harbaugh’s hiring was a forgone conclusion, that is exactly the line of thinking Hughes’ process oriented approach attempts to avoid. While the university community rallied behind the idea of their beloved son returning to lead his Alma mater, insiders knew that there was a reason why he had left the college game in the first place. Yet there was no better person to understand the internal conflict Harbaugh was facing than Hughes, who has had a relationship with the coach for some three decades, beginning when Jim and his brother were ball boys at Michigan.
According to Hughes, “Growing up, Jim dreamed of nothing more than being an NFL player and then coach, and when he was finally given the chance he seized it with passion and tenacity that has rarely been seen. Yet even with all of his success, the alignment in San Francisco [and the 49ers organization] had began to crumble; there was a disconnect between the way he choose to do things, and the way the ownership group wanted him to operate. He was emotionally torn by the decision, but I also knew that his love for football was so strong and deep that maybe the college game was where he belonged all along. As much as Michigan wanted him, we would never have persuaded him to return if we didn’t feel wholeheartedly that it was in his and the University’s best interest to do so. [Interim Athletic Director] Jim Hackett and I had daily discussions on how best convince Jim to come to Michigan and also put him in the best situation to succeed. He was instrumental in creating a strong relationship and comfortable environment for Jim who needed that reassurance of who he was going to work for after the turmoil in San Francisco.”
While Hughes is arguably the most connected and widely respected executive in the sports industry, what’s most telling about him is his choice to remain in almost complete anonymity while conducting his work. Hughes has never sought out the spotlight – he learned learned long ago from a colleague by the name of John Wooden that the only real score that counts in life isn’t how much money one makes or how many people know their name, but rather how many people remember them for making their lives a little better. And while Hughes, like all of us, is by no means perfect, few will argue that anyone has touched more lives and connected more people in the sports industry than him.