‘He asks why’: New Vikings general manager is curious and collaborates in building his career
By his fifth year in the San Francisco 49ers’ research department, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah had built a reputation as a problem solver and a value addition to any conversation.
In 2017, the team needed help. He needed a new general manager and a head coach. Leaders knew they needed Adofo-Mensah’s sharp perspective and collaborative skills in the room with owners and VPs.
So while Adofo-Mensah’s first big task as Vikings rookie general manager is to find his new team’s next head coach, he’s been in these halls before.
“He’s doing his first search for a coach to head this one, but he’s built one that I’ve already found to be very successful,” said Brian Hampton, vice president of football administration for the 49ers.
The 49ers finally signed Kyle Shanahan, who is coaching his second NFC Championship game on Sunday against the Rams. Adofo-Mensah helped keep the search “good and clean,” Hampton said.
“Make sure you ask the same questions of each candidate so you can compare them on an equal footing,” Hampton said. “Restrain yourself, don’t get too excited about one candidate before another; background checks, phone calls, keep us on track.”
Adofo-Mensah, 40, is the NFL’s first general manager to come from a primarily analytical background, but that alone doesn’t define his unprecedented and meteoric rise. Ten years ago, he was a former Wall Street trader pursuing graduate school at Stanford and flirting with the idea of pursuing his football dreams. He is now in charge of the Vikings, with experiences that transcend job titles.
“I know my background is unique,” Adofo-Mensah said during his introductory press conference on Thursday. “But when you think about this job, the job is about making decisions, building consensus, combining different sources of information into one answer and having everyone behind it. In that sense, I don’t don’t think there are many more qualified people.
“My background on Wall Street, having the emotional stability to make those decisions at a high level,” he added. “Be accountable to yourself, and kind of learn and grow from that perspective. It’s an upbringing that I will never fully appreciate.”
A growth mindset
Adofo-Mensah is from Cherry Hill, NJ, just outside of Philadelphia. He is the middle child of Emma, a former executive administrator and teaching aide, and Daniel, a dentist who died in 2014. His family is from Ghana, where Kwesi (kway-see), meaning ” born on Sunday”, is common among the Ashanti. people.
Her older brother, JoJo, is a Dartmouth graduate who majored in economics and worked in finance. “Little JoJo”, as Kwesi was called, considered Dartmouth but stepped out of his brother’s shadow and went to Princeton. Their younger sister, Ku, advises companies on digital fronts at the EY Design Studio in New York. Their mother set the tone.
“She always had this phrase, ‘When anything happens in life, all I can do is work,'” Adofo-Mensah said. “That’s all she was telling me; all I can do is work. So when I see problems now, I kinda have this smile on my face and I think of my mum. I roll up my sleeves and that’s where I’m most comfortable.”
His passion, along with the Eagles childhood and Randall Cunningham fandom, was football. He played basketball in high school but was kicked out of the team in sophomore year. A college growth spurt had the 6-4 freshman curious to see if he could get back into the game.
Mike Brennan was then the assistant coach in charge of Princeton’s junior varsity team, a varsity practice squad where former high school hoops walked to push Division I players. remembers a hard worker whose intellect was what separated him from his Ivy League peers.
“Mostly JV, where there are no guys recruited, so it’s the 1,400 to 1,500 SAT guys,” Brennan said. “He stood out among them.”
Adofo-Mensah’s brief basketball pursuit was a sign of a willingness to fail and learn, which he would show from Wall Street to the NFL. He graduated from Princeton in 2003 with a degree in economics, embarking on an eight-year career in the financial industry trading energy and coal derivatives before managing portfolios.
“It’s just that growth mindset,” Adofo-Mensah said. “You’ll see it about me, I like it. I like pushing myself to improve. I think a lot of that comes from trading, where a lot of times you see at the end of the day that there’s a scoreboard and it could be bad, and that’s okay, because it gives you a reason to get better.”
In 2011, Adofo-Mensah went to Stanford, thinking of becoming an economics professor – “I was going to wear a tweed jacket with glasses and teach students,” he said.
His comprehensive exams in macroeconomics “didn’t go very well”, he said, and he was seriously considering getting into the sport. He was courted by former Princeton roommate Mike Chernoff, now general manager of the Cleveland Guardians, to join the growing ranks of baseball analysis. But Adofo-Mensah refused; his passion for football persisted.
Chernoff introduced him to Daniel Adler, now the Twins’ assistant general manager who was then working as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ director of research. Asked about Adofo-Mensah last week, Adler found emails from 2012, when Adofo-Mensah began probing Adler’s brain about football analysis. He was curious about the underutilized data from the NFL and college football scouting combine. He aggregated and analyzed stats in a way that many NFL teams weren’t looking for at the time, Adler said.
“The questions he was asking at the time have hopefully been answered in NFL offices since, but they certainly weren’t answered at the time,” Adler said. “They were really insightful, especially for someone watching the game as a fan and wanting to get involved.”
Adofo-Mensah’s break came at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference, where Adler introduced him to Hampton, which was looking to hire a 49ers research analyst. About a month later, Adofo-Mensah got the job. Soon he was managing an intern.
During his introductory press conference, Adofo-Mensah apologized for taking so long in Hampton’s office to ask questions. Hampton said that was key to Adofo-Mensah’s success. He was quickly exposed to high profile meetings and his duties grew, eventually becoming director of football research and development in 2017. He compiled studies on the injury risks of free agents. It influenced the organizational orientation of off-field concerns up to which department a vacancy should be assigned.
Adofo-Mensah identified Telemetry Sports, then a primarily baseball company, to redo the 49ers’ data interfaces. San Francisco was the company’s first NFL customer; now “about half the league” is partnering with them, Hampton said.
“Once it’s in the room and it adds that value,” Hampton said, “then you want it in the next room.”
Adofo-Mensah’s business acumen led him to teach league-mandated financial literacy classes for 49-year-olds. He also taught scouts, starting a voluntary recurring class with a few students. Word got around and before long they needed a bigger room. He formed links between departments and was asked to fill gaps; “He’s the guy who gets invited to everyone’s wedding,” Hampton said.
“He asks why,” Hampton said. “It’s not a simple why; it’s very strategic, let me get to the bottom of it and find where the disconnect is, get people to understand this and solve this problem. I think it’s really his strength.”
‘Fit like a glove’
Andrew Berry, now 34, was the youngest general manager in NFL history when he was chosen to lead the Browns in 2020. He knew Adofo-Mensah before seeing his name on references of the combine in an Indianapolis elevator. The chance encounter led to a tie-up and Adofo-Mensah’s first major NFL promotion. Impressed with the breadth of his knowledge, Berry hired Adofo-Mensah to replace Eliot Wolf as vice president of football operations for the Browns.
Adofo-Mensah began his traditional “scouting boot camp” with two years of scouting, school tours, writing player reports, and free Browns agency and draft meetings. He also led one of the NFL’s largest research departments in a progressive front office.
Adofo-Mensah said Berry was grooming him to become general manager, adding that Berry knew it would be with the Vikings before him.
“I could just tell with the way Kwesi was buzzing after the interview,” Berry said. “I was like, ‘OK, this is really the right place for him. Looks like he’s going to fit like a glove.'”
Adofo-Mensah learned about the organizational alignment of the 49ers and Browns, which will be key from the Vikings front office through to the new coaching staff. He relates to coaches as a former risk-taker on Wall Street, Adler said, and not just as a “pure academic.”
“Saying, ‘I’ve been there,'” Adler said. “‘I can tell you it’s not always nice to take that hit, but when the numbers are in your favor, you want to make those favorable bets.'”
Andrew Miller, the Vikings’ chief operating officer, knew Adofo-Mensah before the Vikings’ internal search team interviewed him and seven other people for the general manager position. Miller worked for baseball’s Cleveland Guardians from 2006 to 2015, riding Chernoff, through whom Miller met Adofo-Mensah years ago.
Ties with Adofo-Mensah and the Browns, who are coached by former Vikings assistant Kevin Stefanski, have led to further lessons in structuring a team that’s on the same page when it comes to resolve of innovative problems.
“You learn a lot about their culture, their structure, how their decision-making works,” Miller said. “I met a lot of people who were there at different times. Considering our relationship with Andrew Berry and Stefanski, they were very open about Kwesi and their approach to their culture, structure and culture. leadership.”
With Adofo-Mensah bringing his own twist to the Browns’ progressive approaches to Minnesota, he’s once again tasked with rounding up a room. This time as a leader.
“This word culture gets thrown around a lot, but it’s so essential,” Adofo-Mensah said. “Alignment doesn’t mean having the same mind or thinking the same thing, it’s just general core beliefs, ways to solve problems, a constructive attitude towards mistakes. Those things really matter.”