How do you manage your people in a high-stakes, high-tension environment like the NFL? Here, Denver Broncos EVP of HR Nancy Svoboda opens her playbook to share strategies for managing people, culture, team reputation, and changing the game.
The sports landscape is changing, and the NFL is no exception.
Technology advancements are changing how fans engage with the game. Calls for changes – to both football’s culture and its rules – are in the headlines. Athletes are building their personal brands through social platforms and strategic partnerships.
It’s a game of high stakes, high drama, and high-profile people. So how do you manage your people in that environment, juggling everything from recruiting and training talent, keeping players happy, managing the team’s reputation, and maintaining a strong culture.
Ask Nancy Svoboda. Entering her seventh season with the Denver Broncos this year, she’s the team’s EVP of HR. Svoboda oversees the Broncos workforce, a mix of full-time and part-time workers that expands and contracts with the season and cycle of football.
Here, she shares her strategies for managing a disparate workforce, and discusses being a female exec in a male-dominated industry and bringing emotional intelligence to football.
Q: As a people leader for an NFL team, what does your workforce look like, and what are some of your challenges from an HR perspective?
Nancy: I oversee the HR function for both the Denver Broncos and Stadium Management Company,
We have about 230 full-time staff members which includes coaches, football operations, public relations, digital media, marketing, ticketing operations, corporate sponsorships, IT, finance, and stadium operations. During the season, we spike to about 1,100-plus employees. Some of these employees will work throughout the year, because we have various events at the stadium, but the majority of them are game-day (part-time) staff members – anything from the PA announcer who's calling the game to our guest relations staff who are greeting our fans and part-time security officers who are needed on game-day. There’s a lot of movement and you learn to understand the cycles of football. On the player front, our involvement is more the administrative side of HR.
People always say, "You must be really quiet in the offseason." No. The busiest time for HR is when we're in the offseason, because when we're on the field playing, we're all focused about what's happening on the field. Things like performance reviews, salary increases, benefits administration – that's happening in the offseason, and a lot of our training happens then as well.
Q: With the diverse roles in your workforce, how do you determine culture fit and keep it consistent for the broader organization?
Nancy: The Guest Relations department, which hires the majority of the part-time workers, know what they’re looking for. These employees have to be outgoing and personable and understand that they’re going to be here for 10, hopefully 12, home football games.
On the front office side, we try to get different perspectives involved in the interview. While someone might be a functional expert, we need to ensure they can also interact with other people and departments
I can speak to the interview process I went through, as an example. I've been with the club now for seven years. I interviewed with our CEO and our general counsel, but they had other key business people interviewing me as well.
It's very competitive on the field and internally. You need the ability to form relationships and have the EQ to understand and empathize with what somebody in football is going through right now.
Q: It seems like more and more organizations are treating the interview process cross-functionally, which can also impact how they’re hiring or the talent pool they draw from.
Nancy: On that front, I’ve seen a shift in thought process since I’ve been here. It used to be that to get hired within a sports organization, the NFL in particular, you needed to know someone. We tapped into your own network to find candidates.
But I’ve seen a switch, especially on the business side. It’s great if somebody has sports experience, but we also want to consider someone with experience from outside the industry, to bring different thinking and innovation to us. So we’re starting to shift the interview process in terms of where we’re willing to go to find the talent.
From a diversity standpoint, we look at our fan base too. Do we have internal people that represent the fan base and bring that perspective?
Q: Can you expand on what you talked about earlier regarding the importance of EQ in the organization? On the surface, this seems to buck the stereotype that sports organizations wouldn’t necessarily prioritize emotional intelligence.
Nancy: You have to [introduce the idea like a] Trojan horse. If you say, “EQ” they might say, "Oh, that's too warm and fuzzy and emotional, and we're all about winning on the field."
You have to make the business case for why EQ is important. If you talk about how bringing in different perspectives and developing empathy can impact, for example, department performance , then you get the attention of the executives.
I, personally, am a trained facilitator in emotional intelligence. I think it's slow to come in our industry, but the organization is learning the importance of it.
My first week on the job, someone who knew my experience was not in football told me that I was going need an entire year to understand the cycle of our business. It was probably the best guidance anybody ever gave me. Here I am, coming in gung-ho, but then realizing that I can’t do salary increases at a particular time of the year.
Having that understanding, and then using it to better communicate with the group, is something we are definitely trying to achieve within our organization. This is something that applies to all industries – seek to understand before you go in and try to make wholesale changes.
Q: Building on this, what have you learned about managing people working with the Broncos and in the NFL that you might not have learned elsewhere or in another industry?
Nancy: The one thing that I've learned here is that there are 32 individual clubs, operating as individual businesses, but you have this mother ship, if you will, being the NFL, that steps in and assists you with different policies. It’s understanding how they protect their shield while we're also trying to establish our own identity as the Denver Broncos.
A recent example is related to legalization of gambling in the NFL. How do we as the Broncos interpret that, but also, what's the bigger picture at an NFL level? It’s learning those nuances, and how to work with the NFL.
The other thing that I have found very interesting is people are very passionate about what they do and their role in producing a winning team. They take it so personally if we lose. What can they do differently, how can we fix it, and how can we create a better fan experience? That's been fascinating for me to learn, watch, and understand.
Q: How does the team’s performance impact culture, and how do you keep things positive when tensions are running high?
Nancy: My observation has been if the team is not performing as well, tension is created and people withdraw a little bit, because they feel like they don’t want to interfere with anything going on with the game.
It’s important to find balance: “Yes, I hear what you’re saying, but you have a job to do.” And we have to remain positive because the team can thrive off that positivity, energy, and culture.
The other challenge stems from the fact that we have two buildings. The stadium and the training facility are physically separated. Because of this, the culture at the stadium doesn't feel like what I just described as much as the people here in the training facility that watch the players out at practice and see them at lunch every day. At the stadium, they have other events going on, so their culture doesn't tend to be as reactive to the play on the field as it is in our training facility.
Q: That brings up an interesting point around the importance of communication and maintaining culture across a dispersed workforce. What are some of the things you do to keep everyone feeling like they’re part of the team, even with the separation?
Nancy: This was something that came up soon after I accepted my job here. I asked a colleague from my previous job, who had also worked for the Broncos, for some insight. She told me that communication was a big challenge, so I knew that coming in.
That really has beenmy charge – to make sure communications are reaching the stadium and that we keep them as consistent and as timely as possible. Before, a press release would go out about something happening out on the field, and that was how our employees heard about it. Now, we are taking a proactive stance. Whether it's related to our ownership or other issues surrounding our players, we're trying to get in front of it with our employees.
Also, when we did our first-ever town hall meeting in 2018we were a little anxious as we didn’t know what to expect.. And after it was over, we got praise for taking the time and having our CEO, our coach, and our GM answering employees’ questions.
It’s really about using the resources that we have, finding low-hanging fruit, and then leveraging it to improve communication.
Are we perfect? No, and I haven't worked at an organization that is, but I feel like we're definitely making strides. We are fortunate that we have a PR team, so from an employee communication standpoint, we leverage it a lot, too. For example, as they’re crafting a message to go out to the media, they’re helping us craft it to go out internally before employees see it online or elsewhere.
Q: When you have a big picture view of your challenges, sometimes it’s the simple things that get you started, and that can have a huge impact.
Nancy: A great example for us is after we won our Super Bowl, every full-time employee got a ring. But part-time employees had a role in it, too. It was a financial consideration – when you go to the Super Bowl, it’s not cheap. But we worked with the vendor to create lapel pins with the image that matched the top of the rings.
I personally went around to the various part-time departments and made sure they got one of those. The reaction was so positive and appreciative. It was the thought that we recognized that they had value.
I always tell people, "Don't underestimate the simple thank you, too. Write a note."
Q: You work in a male-dominated industry. You’re the only female executive on your team. What is this like? And what would you say has contributed to your career acceleration?
Nancy: Even the marketing company that I worked for previouslyits major client was a beer company, was a male-dominated industry. But gender was never a factor in my vision. I thought, "I'm going to be the best that I can be in what I do. And the fact that I’m female comes with it.”
When the league had their first NFL women’s symposium [in 2016], I was very fortunate to hear Condoleezza Rice speak, and she said the same thing. Her perspective was, “I just want to be a great leader.” And in her case, being an African-American female happened to go along with it.
I've always had that perspective. I grew up in a family of six, with four brothers, so I think it was my upbringing as well. Thinking about how I moved up in my career, someone once gave me this advice: "If you want that promotion, start doing the job that you want before they even give it to you."
We had a similar question come up in our town hall meeting that I referenced earlier about women and promotion. They asked me to speak on it, and I said, "Do the best that you're doing in your current job and then start performing the job that you want before you're even given it, instead of just sitting back and waiting for it to be handed to you." I think I shocked a few women in the organization, but I believe that.
I do feel like we're making a lot of progress in that area, where people have looked at me thinking, "I never thought I'd see a woman in that department," but they're there.
Q: What would you say to people in organizations where they feel they get pushback on making changes to the way things have always been done?
Nancy: When I first came here, I felt like I was getting a little pushback. If I had a dollar for every time somebody said, "Well, we don't do it that way…" For me, it goes back to showing [people] your expertise and building those relationships. Start with the small wins and people start to lean in. Then they see the benefit of what you've been trying to tell them. If you're in their face, it's not going happen. It's about working from all angles, and finding those people internally that believe in what you're saying and getting the message in. I was very fortunate because that’s why our CEO hired me – because he saw that we needed to make progress with having more women across the front office organization.
Q: It’s like planning very complex plays in a game. That’s my terrible sports-related analogy.
Nancy: If the first try doesn't work, you better have a second one.
Q: Do you have a story about work – whether your first job, or worst job – that had an impact on you?
Nancy: There are two things. One, I was fired from a job once. I was an administrative assistant. I was in college at the time and I quit [college] because I was “over” school. I started this job and quickly found out that I wasn’t cut out for it. The fact that the manager fired me was a blessing in disguise because I went back to school, and now I have my master's degree.
But how [the manager] approached it wasn’t the right way to do it. That’s one experience that had an impact on me, and the second is a comment from my brother-in-law, who worked for a major company in the Illinois area. He did not refer to his HR people fondly – he used to say that they weren’t helpful and were often angry. And I thought, "No, I'm not that type of HR person and I never want to be that type of HR person. I need to be that liaison from the management side to the employee side,” and found that role and how to do it. I think both of those instances really crafted my approach to HR.
People joke, “Oh, no, HR has walked in the room." If they can joke in front of me like that, I look at that as a compliment because they trust that I'm not going to overreact or take that as a mark against them. Those comments come up from HR departments, in my opinion, that haven't figured it out.
Q: That speaks, too, to how HR’s role is changing. Can you tell me more about some of the key things you think are important as a person who manages people and HR?
Nancy: I personally – and I tell managers this – always listen to both sides. Managers might come in and tell me they have a terrible employee or situation, and I listen to them. And then I'll ask questions because usually, I let the employee explain too. I always say that the truth is somewhere in between. It’s important to manage the manager and the employee in trying to resolve the issue, and be empathetic to both and try to find a solution.
It’s encouraging to me when those managers that were telling me when I started, "That's not the way we did it," come in now asking for my advice and coaching – it shows that the approach is working.
It’s all about letting [employees] know that I am a person, too, and I do have a sense of humor and I am willing to listen and understand their point of view. I might not agree with their point of view, but I'm willing to listen to it. After they explain it, if there's a legal reason why I can't agree with it, or why we have to take a different approach, it’s important to be able to explain that in terms they understand.
I tell everybody that if I can't have fun at work, it's not going work for me. It’s important to interject a sense of humor, too, because it’s not rocket science. It's not brain surgery. It's football, and we should be having fun.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity