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NFL's HR chief hopes to start 'culture change' in camps in May

By Bill Bradley, contributing editor

"Respect in the workplace" and "culture change" have been the biggest watchwords to emerge from last month's NFL Annual Meeting. The league wants players to treat each other better from the locker room to the field and beyond.

One of the key people driving that change will be Robert Gulliver, the NFL's executive vice president for human resources. Gulliver, who also is the league's chief diversity officer, joined the NFL almost four years ago from the Wells Fargo Corporation, where he was head of human resources for the wealth, brokerage and retirement business unit.

Gulliver talked with NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley about his transition from financial institutions to the nation's biggest sports league, the challenge of changing the culture around the NFL and the discussions he has witnessed about improving respect among players.

First, a little about yourself: Why did you make the transition from human resources at Wells Fargo to the NFL?

I've always been interested in the business of sports. I've spent the vast majority of my career in human resources, but when I got the call several years ago from an executive search firm about being the head of HR for the National Football League, for me it was a unique opportunity that certainly got my attention. I've always wanted to see more, learn more, experience more about the business of sports and this was a unique opportunity to do great HR work, but do it for the best brand in sports.

How is working human resources different in a major corporation than for one of the major sports leagues in America?

In my experience, any high-performance organization realizes it's important to leverage people as a source of competitive advantage. In that regard, working for a large successful financial institution is not any different than working for a large successful sports league, like the National Football League. We certainly have been leveraging our people as a source of competitive advantage. When I look at the success of the NFL, what I really see is a combination of the best sports product on the field and the best in sports business leadership. Whether you're looking at our commissioner, our owners, our leadership team, our dedicated employees or our league and club staff, we have people that are the best at what they do. When you combine that with the talent on the field, you create this phenomenally successful product.

Workplace changes have been the buzzword publicly for about six months in the NFL. At what point was the decision made at the NFL headquarters that the culture among players needed to change? Was there a tipping point?

I would not necessarily say that there was a tipping point to turn to. We've been talking about culture and people at least for the balance of the time that I've been here. There's certainly the unique opportunity to do more when it comes to driving a respectful culture and driving change. I don't think that there's a particular catalyst where this was a new conversation because we've been talking about people, from my vantage point, for the duration of my tenure here.

The term "culture change" has been thrown out a lot around the NFL. What needs to happen for "culture change" to happen in the NFL?

When we talk about culture change, a lot of the discussion is around respect at work. We talk about driving in more respectful culture relative for respect for the game, respect for players, respect for coaches and officials and fellow employees. It comes down to doing more for driving this fundamental notion of respect.

What role did the Ted Wells investigation of the Miami Dolphins' locker room play into this push? Or was it already started before the offensive lineman Jonathan Martin decided to leave the team?

The Ted Wells investigation certainly brought to light that there was an opportunity to do more. That is, to do more to reinforce policies that we have in place. The way I look at it is that our culture ultimately reinforces the policies we have, so there's an opportunity to do more relative to leveraging our culture to reinforce the policies that we have in place.

I understand you sat in a lot of the conferences at the NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando last month when workplace issues were discussed. What were some of the reactions when workplace issues were being discussed?

I thought there was some very candid and authentic discussion about the NFL, about the culture and about our workplace. I think there was the realization that there's the unique opportunity that we have right now as a league to do more to drive a more respectful culture.

Was there fear or trepidation about changing culture of the NFL locker room?

I think this did not come from a place of fear. It came more from a place that there's an acknowledgement of the fact that we have a unique window of opportunity ahead of us.

You just came from an important meeting with Players Association representatives last week to discuss workplace issues. What were the expectations of that meeting and what were the results?

I would say that it was a productive meeting with the Players Association. The Players Association brought with them several current players, their union head, several executives. The NFL had the commissioner, several owners, coaches, general managers, league officers and executives. It was an opportunity to have some real dialogue on where there are opportunities to drive the notion of respect at work. I think there was agreement that we've got an opportunity to have more dialogue. To have more dialogue with each of the 32 clubs. To leverage our NFL family in having that dialogue. And to bring in some thought leaders in the area of culture change and respect at work. But a lot of it starts with fundamentally talking about workplace culture and the culture that we want to have.

Was there anything that the Players Association brought to the meeting that wasn't thought of previously?

I thought that we had some common ground we talked about and that we had opportunities to start the dialogue. We talked about opportunities to influence the influencers if you will. We have the opportunity to really make this an area of focus.

Most people wouldn't equate "human resources" and football culture. How tough is it to change the culture among players on and off the field?

Any time you talk about change, I think, the work is not necessarily easy. The way you end up having to go about it is make it a concerted team effort. This goes beyond being a human resources initiative where it's me going off by myself. This is really a fundamental priority of the league. We have the commissioner talking about the importance of respect at work, we have owners, we have coaches, we have general managers, leaders from the union, all talking about the same thing. From my vantage point, I don't look at this as just a human resources issue but as a business issue where we've got a lot of momentum to work on the same issue. ... The commissioner has been out in front of this. It's great that we've made it fundamentally a business priority.

What is the game plan for changing the culture with players, coaches and referees and when does it begin? Do the changes start during mini-camps?

We'd like to start going out and engaging the clubs in the end of May to the beginning of June time frame. We are looking at a model where we are likely going to engage our NFL ambassadors to go out to do what I call, "train the trainers." We will leverage our ambassadors and other experts, especially folks from our Player Engagement team, to have some dialogue with the clubs about driving a respectful workplace and culture.

How do you extend that on field where the referees will try to manage better sportsmanship?

It starts with dialogue. Our (senior vice president of football operations) Troy Vincent is very much a partner in this important work and I know the football operations team is making this an important area of focus as well. I imagine that there's going to be a lot of dialogue throughout all parts of the NFL.

What's the ultimate goal for the NFL in making these changes?

It's broader than just the field or the locker room. It's respect for players amongst one another. It's respect for coaches, officials, fans, employees. I think this goes well above and beyond just the locker room or just the playing field. We want to make sure that respect is really in all facets of the National Football League.

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