As we gear up for Super Bowl week, it strikes me that there is an obvious lesson staring us in the face about hiring for success in the Brock Purdy story. Brock was drafted by the 49ers as the VERY LAST pick of the draft in 2022. Not only the last pick of the 49ers, but the very last pick of all teams in the NFL. Here we are, two years later, and he is leading the team into the Super Bowl. His competitor last week on the Detroit Lions was none other than Jared Goff, the VERY FIRST pick of the 2016 draft. What can be learned from this in terms of hiring?

In my many years of helping Venture-backed and Public companies attract exceptional CFOs, the mix-up of optics about a certain candidate’s skill set happens more frequently than one would think. When investors are looking to hire a CFO (or probably anyone into the C-suite), they look for certainty and reduction of risk. If the candidate is coming from a well-known or brand-name company, they must be certified as top-tier. Conversely, if the candidate is coming from a company that has had a hard time of it, the candidate must somehow be held accountable. I call this hiring for optics. It is not the way to assess talent, fit, drive, competence, or anything else. Being at a high-flying superstar company does not make the individual a superstar. In fact, it could even hide weaknesses. Being at a struggling company does not make the individual the scapegoat, in fact, working through adversity probably makes the employee stronger for the next battle. Going up and to the right on the growth chart is the easiest thing in business. Facing daily struggles can build up character and tenacity. Just like the stock market, previous returns do not guarantee future returns. We need to invest in people like Warren Buffet invests in companies: hire what you know, hire for upside, and not for what happened in the past.

So, did the 49ers really see a superstar in the making when they drafted Brock Purdy, or did they just get lucky? Maybe some of both. Clearly, the success in his young career is not luck. He has skills that match the complexity of the 49ers offensive scheme. He makes lightning-quick decisions. He executes on those decisions with a precision that makes other quarterbacks look on in envy. He hits the short pass and the long pass, he scrambles and throws on the run with the best of them, and as he proved last week, he can use his legs for long runs when the opportunity presents itself. These skills did not magically appear in the last two years. Certainly he was thrust into the role of starting quarterback because others ahead of him got hurt. And indeed, once in this leading role he has received an exceptional amount of coaching. But he had to have an underlying base of skills to reach this level of athletic competition. Beyond just physical skills, he has the mental aptitude and toughness to execute at the highest level.

How can we take this incredible hire from the bottom of the heap and apply it to executive hiring? May I suggest we first not judge the book by its cover. We need to dig deep on the people we evaluate on a number of fronts – not just the optics of their previous employers or Ivy League degrees. What matters is what happens in the trenches. What matters is character. What matters is poise under pressure. What matters is doing the right thing when no one is looking. What matters underneath the resume is the person. This type of hire was outlined in Moneyball by Michael Lewis and explored further in an earlier blog by yours truly:

I am not suggesting that someone who has never had success is a good hire. To get to the NFL, you have to be top-notch. To get to the conversation about a CFO role with an Arnold Partners client, you have to be top-notch as well. But the skills in evaluating what makes someone top-notch in their profession should be left to someone who knows what that means and not be based on optics of the past. If you want to explore this further, give me a call, I am happy to discuss.

Go 49ers! Go Mr. Irrelevant!
– Dave