Different playing field: Alumna executive team member of Broncos
Nancy Svoboda is a coach’s kid from Joliet. Working in sports would consequently seem like a good fit, which it definitely is, yet it was never her career goal. It’s just sort of the way the ball bounced. In her case, that ball was a football.
Svoboda ’86, known as Nancy Nichols during her Illinois State days, is executive vice president of human resources for the Denver Broncos. Part of the executive staff, she is the only female in that elite group of seven.
Svoboda made her way to Colorado right after graduating from Illinois State’s College of Business. Love inspired the move. Her husband-to-be, Greg, made it clear when they met that he had no intention of staying in the Midwest. He was determined to live in Colorado. She graduated in May of 1986, headed to Colorado for the first time in her life in June, and married in October.
“I actually got there first,” Svoboda said of the life-changing move, explaining she found a job before her spouse. Colorado is where she’s lived the longest. She loves the state that she now considers home, although she always credits her time on campus and her business administration degree for her fast professional start and subsequent success.
“The school helped build my experience,” Svoboda said. “I remember taking HR classes—compensation and HR management. The professors created a bond by putting us in groups and on committees. It introduced us to different personalities and how to get along with them.”
She recalls courses in marketing, finance, management, and her electives as well, all of which prepared her to “step back and take a holistic view of business problems.” The skill has served her well on a career path that started with her first job in Colorado as an assistant manager for Walgreens. From there she accepted a position at Mervyn’s, a large department store chain, where she worked management jobs and got her first taste of HR.
After working in retail, Svoboda shifted to The Integer Group. The agency is part of Omnicom Group Inc., a global marketing and corporate communications company. She got the job by answering a classified ad and stayed for 20 years, rising to the role of HR director and senior vice president of HR.
“Coors Brewing Company outsourced its marketing to Integer, which was a startup. The company boomed. It was like family. We all grew up together,” Svoboda said. The client list eventually included Kellogg’s, Proctor & Gamble, and Gillette, to name a few. She had no thoughts of shifting to professional sports.
She learned of an opportunity to join Denver’s popular NFL team as a result of networking. Svoboda was involved with the Colorado Society of Human Resource Management, a human resources professional society.
“I was co-chair of a project with another HR professional, and she was doing some consulting work for the Broncos,” Svoboda said. They reconnected several years later, and she asked if Svoboda would be interested in pursuing an opening in the Broncos’ front office.
Svoboda was hesitant. “I wasn’t looking, and my decision was a difficult one.” She can now confirm that making the leap in 2013 turned out to be a good move from the start, due in large part to the team’s owner.
Pat Bowlen bought the Broncos in 1984. Since then, no NFL team has won more regular-season games than the Broncos. They’ve also done well in the postseason, including seven Super Bowl appearances since Bowlen took over.
Winning affects all parts of the operation, resulting in a work environment Svoboda has appreciated from her first day on staff. “Mr. Bowlen created such a warm culture that all the employees were so welcoming,” she said. “And they let you do your job.”
When the Broncos’ 2013 season culminated in a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII in February 2014, Svoboda made the trip to New Jersey despite being a new employee. “My first year, we went to the Super Bowl,” Svoboda said. “All of our full-time employees got to go, along with a guest. Full-time interns got to go, too. That was important to Mr. Bowlen.”
The Broncos lost badly to Seattle, but they came back to win it all a couple of years later against the Carolina Panthers. Svoboda was fortunate enough to attend her second Super Bowl. This time she watched as future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, playing his final season, led Denver to victory over Carolina in Super Bowl 50. Svoboda later helped design the team’s Super Bowl ring.
Traveling with the team whenever she desires is one of the nice perks of Svoboda’s job, although she usually only does so once a year. Time away from the office during the season is not difficult to manage, as the ebb and flow of her workload runs counter to the football schedule.
“The off-season is my in-season,” she said. “The minute the season ends I’m doing salary reviews, performance reviews, and benefit open enrollment. My world calms down when the season starts.”
Svoboda handles human resources issues for stadium operations, ticketing, guest relations, security, finance, marketing, and IT. Her responsibilities include oversight of staff at UCHealth Training Center—the team’s practice facility. It includes football operations, player personnel, digital media, and public and community relations.
Off-season personnel consists of about 300 employees, including players and coaches. During the season, that number shoots up to 1,400 with game-day and part-time employees. The organization makes it a priority that part-time people feel like they are part of the Denver Broncos.
As the executive vice president of HR, she is “hands-on” at the top level of the organization. She works regularly with Executive Vice President/General Manager John Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback who is also on the executive staff.
Svoboda describes him as a person who “knows what he doesn’t know and asks good questions. He’s a very good listener.” When Elway comes down the hall seeking information and guidance, she said, he listens and absorbs what others are saying. That intensity and self-awareness didn’t fail him as a player and has served him well as he moved from the playing field to the board room.
Continuing the Bowlen culture, Svoboda is a big fan of employee engagement. “A happy staff equals happy clients,” she said, “which is so important because that affects the bottom line.”
She is equally committed to lifting up others through her community service activities.
Svoboda has an affinity for helping those who have served, in part because she and her husband have two grown sons who spent time in the military. She volunteers helping veterans who are transitioning from military to civilian life, particularly offering assistance as they prepare resumes.
“I love helping ex-military members and feel honored to have employees with military experience,” she said. Often they do not realize how the incredible responsibilities they had in the military translate to the corporate world. Svoboda points that out whenever she can, offering guidance and encouragement. The opportunity to do so fulfills her as much as her involvement with a high-profile and winning professional football team.
Svoboda’s stellar HR career started when she pursued her business passion as an undergraduate at Illinois State. Her achievements will be noted on campus in the spring, with her induction into the College of Business Hall of Fame.
The honor is humbling to Svoboda, which is not surprising given she remains an honest, down-to-earth person. She has the good sense you pick up from towns like Joliet and Normal, both of which were important in molding her as a child and young adult. Although now far from Illinois and her Midwest roots, Svoboda will always remain an appreciative Redbird who is blessed to be a Bronco.
Tackling the dreaded job search
Having spent decades in human resources, Nancy Svoboda has seen reams of resumes. She also understands the difficulties and stress that exist on both sides of the hiring process. The effort can be made easier and more successful by keeping a few strategic steps in mind.
The first is to determine if a job change is really advantageous.
“If you can have fun and are continuing to learn at your job, then be thoughtful about pursuing other opportunities. Sometimes it’s best to stay at your current job because the grass isn’t always greener,” she cautioned.
If it is time for a change, pay attention to key aspects of the resume before entering the job market.
“Your resume is your first impression. That’s your brand,” Svoboda said. “We get 400 applications for marketing interns, so your resume—that first impression—is very important.”
She also advises to keep the resume short.
“I recommend sticking to a maximum of two pages,” Svoboda said. “But, if this is a first resume created for the purpose of gaining an entry-level job, make it a single page. When I’m receiving 400 resumes for one position, I won’t read a long resume. I’m too busy.”
When time for an interview, present yourself professionally and know the company well.
“Drill this one in your head,” she said. It’s equally important to know potential challenges the organization might be facing and have possible solutions.
Follow-up after an interview, even if it’s just an email.
“If I’m choosing between two candidates, that may be what tips the decision,” said Svoboda, who takes a pragmatic approach when hiring.
Make sure that your employers matches your own values.
“Yes, skills to do the job are important,” she said. “But more importantly, will the candidate match the culture, and will they be able to handle the client relationship well?” The question is similar to one Svoboda tells everyone to ponder before accepting a job offer: “Make sure that your employer matches your own values.”
John Moody can be contacted at jemoody2@IllinoisState.edu.