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Q&A: NFL Personnel Boss Lake Dawson

Dawson (Far Left) with NFL Hall Famers (From Left) Elvin Bethea, Warren Moon and Ken Houston and Mike Reinfeldt, former COO of the Tennessee Titans

Dawson (Far Left) with NFL Hall Famers (From Left) Elvin Bethea, Warren Moon and Ken Houston and Mike Reinfeldt, former COO of the Tennessee Titans

“You never know when someone is watching.”

That could be Lake Dawson’s mantra. A personnel executive with the Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans, and Cleveland Browns, Dawson once toiled in the shadows. He focused on mastering his craft and helping his team gain an edge – always probing deeper and never sugarcoating his true beliefs.

And such effort, humility, and candor opened doors for Dawson. In the twilight of his playing career, his general manager noticed that he took copious notes – and pointed him to a career in scouting. In his first personnel job, he became a jack-of-all-trades, handling the dirty work and capitalizing on every opportunity. As an executive, he served as both change driver and apprentice while he absorbed the nuances of operating a football team.

Dawson never worried about who was watching. He let his work speak for itself. As a result, he attracted mentors among the top men in the NFL, including Super Bowl winning executives like Ted Thompson, Bill Polian, and Mike Reinfeldt and legendary coaches like Mike Holmgren and Marty Schottenheimer. In working alongside the best minds in football – coupled with his own on-field success – Dawson learned how to build championship teams both on and off the field. And many of these lessons can be applied to any organization, says Dawson, who is currently earning his MBA through Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

Dawson greeting former Titans receiver Damien Williams (10)

Dawson greeting former Titans receiver Damien Williams (10)

As an NFL executive, Dawson wears a lot of hats. To the press, he acts as the face of the franchise. To the coach, he is the guy who goes out and finds the players who fit his system. To his employees, Dawson is the sympathetic ear and consensus builder who taps into the talents of those around them. To the owner, he is equal parts visionary, architect, and mason. In the big picture, he is the tone setter who safeguards the vision and values of his organization.

Recently, Poets&Quants sat down with Dawson to discover what he has learned in 15 years as an administrator and leader in the NFL. From leading through influence to managing diversity to choosing the right job, here are some of Dawson’s thoughts on how MBAs can get the most out of their early careers.

P&Q: Being a football executive involves balancing the short term (winning) with the long-term (keeping a young roster with financial flexibility). You find the same push-pull in every business. What decision-making strategies did you use to bring a similar strategic balance between today and tomorrow to your teams’ football operations?

LD: In my business, I see winning as paramount. That’s the first thing. With that, I think the way that you’re able to balance both the short-term goal of winning and the long-term goal of sustained success and flexibility is from what I was taught by Ted Thompson [Current general manager of the Green Bay Packers]. You build through the draft in terms of football and building your team and that you supplement other areas of concern through free agency and veteran players. For me, that means not being one-sided or not being cap poor in terms of the salary cap.*

From a strategic standpoint, that could possibly mean trading away a veteran player who is still playing at a level that is attractive to other teams in the NFL to acquire other draft picks. That could also mean trading away picks to accumulate more picks during the draft. Ultimately, it is about trying to build through the draft and then supplement other needs through free agency.

My overall strategy is to develop what I call a “stacked” roster. By stacked, I mean the depth of your roster. You’re trying to constantly create a competitive environment for the players where there are younger players who are pushing veterans for spots or younger players competing for jobs. Because the more competition you can create on the roster, the better that roster will be.

Applying that to the corporate world, how that compares is that you have to remember the big vision of what you’re trying to accomplish. In football, often times, you’re talking with the head coach and the position coaches and they want to win right now. They realize the sense of urgency – and it’s the same with the ownership. But you have to remind them, ‘Hey, here’s the big picture of what type of team that we want to be. Here’s how we said we wanted to be balanced in terms of our roster and what is important to us. This is the type of identity that we wanted to have. We want to build through the draft and supplement certain needs through free agency. We weren’t going to build our team primarily through older veteran players …although sometimes those things may look attractive. Let’s stay the course in terms of what we wanted our identity to be.’

Dawson on the sideline

Dawson awaiting the start of the game

So those are some of the strategic decisions that I’ve made along the way and some of the ideas that I was taught in terms of balancing both short-term and long-term success.

* Additional Note From Dawson: One sided to me means that your roster make-up isn’t built in just a one-sided manner of young players or veteran, more expensive players, but an actual balanced roster that has a good mix of young and experienced players is what is most desired in my opinion. Cap poor means you have strapped yourself into contracts that press you up against the ceiling of the salary cap limit.  Thus, you are limited in what you can do in acquiring players in the future due to limited remaining cap resources – you just haven’t given yourself enough room to acquire more talent because of contracts that may not be cap friendly and your overall robust spending. That also means trying to accumulate as many draft picks to acquire younger talented players who have a chance to play longer than veteran players due to age and can cost less against the salary cap.     

P&Q: These days, you hear a lot about “executive presence.” In your work, you’re interacting with very successful people who are accustomed to being leaders themselves. Whether it is how you carry yourself or how you interact with others, what advice would you give to help MBAs immediately command respect and draw others to follow them?

LD: That is a great question with regards to young MBA candidates or even older candidates coming into the workforce. In my life experience, humility and service come to mind along with listening. Those three [traits] are vital because when you come into a group or team setting, humility is paramount. A lot of times, people feel humility is a sign of weakness. But I would say it’s a sign of strength. If you’re humble enough to put your own needs and feelings aside to listen for the greater good, that’s almost a biblical principle to me in terms of what I was taught growing up in the church. I think any great leader must be able to serve. You cannot serve unless you listen. So those three qualities [humility, service, and listening] are foundational pieces for coming into a situation and trying to have an impact.

You can’t come in loud and brash in my opinion. That’s not the best way to create a bridge. I think most people respond better to a humble person who’s willing to serve. If you’re going to serve, you’re going to listen and gather information. And then, when that opportunity presents itself, you react to that situation with the knowledge and experiences that you gained in life as well as from your MBA. You attack it with vigor and innovative thought. But you have to come to that situation with humility and a mindset of service and a mindset to listen. These are small, small steps that grow into big ones. This is the best way to come into a situation and have an executive presence, even when you’re not an executive yet.