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Cultivating a Culture of Mentorship Like the Pros

This is the second blog in a series from NFL all-pro wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. Click here for the first entry.

Professional football is a microcosm of 21st-century industry. The most successful teams are the ones that have figured out how to: identify and develop their own talent, create incredible film-study sessions combined with intense practices, and tap into their networks to ensure they’re always connecting with the best opportunities to better the team through trades and free agency.

Some people come to the workforce with a pedigree that is undeniable. For football, it’s the Alabamas and Ohio States—if you’re a star at a school like that, you’re sure to get looks from the league. In the real world, the same is true—top of your class at Yale? You can write your own ticket, right?

The funny thing is, that pedigree doesn’t mean you’re going to be an instant success. In fact, most players come into the league and it takes some time learning from other players to become productive.

Once you’re in the NFL—no matter how you got there, whether it be from a football factory, or a Division II school—you have to learn on the job.

Every rookie is learning alongside seasoned vets while contributing to the team—they’re apprentices. Year one they might play on the practice squad—where they witness first-hand the dedication it takes to do the job. Year two they might make the active roster but only play special teams, and here they catch the boss’ eye—this is how Terrel Davis made the leap from special teams to Hall of Famer. You’ve all seen the kick-coverage hit that put him in the spotlight, but it was the work he put in that offseason with pros like John Elway, Shannon Sharpe and Steve Atwater showed him what it took. By year three, maybe a player has become a backup and in year four they earn that starting spot. 

That trajectory is not unlike that of an apprentice. Apprentices are hired because of promise, and each year they contribute more and more as they learn from those seasoned professionals around them before they earn their spot as a full-time employee. Sometimes that happens quickly because of talent and drive, and sometimes it takes years of development.

But the benefits of apprenticeship—and the comparisons to the NFL—don’t stop there. Whether it’s the NFL or a more conventional workforce, new employees are joining each year. So those that were once rookies and entry-level employees, and then starters and mid-level employees…are now the mentors training and guiding the next generation. 

Midway through my career I started the transition from developing player to established veteran, and as such I became the mentor to some of my younger teammates. It connected me to the bigger goals of the team, helped me motivate myself knowing that others were looking to me as an example—that my influence would impact their work and get us closer to a super bowl. 

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have that culture of mentorship for success, to lean into the power of being a training company. It’s the right thing to do for our more junior employees and it’s good business. The most successful companies in the world—and most successful NFL teams—know that a strong culture of mentorship is a strong competitive advantage.