By his fifth year in the research department of the San Francisco 49ers, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah had built a reputation for solving problems and adding value to any conversation.
In 2017, the team needed help. It needed a new general manager and head coach. Executives knew they needed Adofo-Mensah's sharp perspective and collaborative skills in the room with owners and vice presidents.
So while Adofo-Mensah's first big task as the Vikings' rookie general manager is finding his new team's next head coach, he has been in those rooms before.
"He's doing his first coaching search as the head of it, but he's built one that I've found very successful already," said Brian Hampton, the 49ers' vice president of football administration.
The 49ers eventually hired 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.
"Making sure you're asking the same questions of every candidate to be able to compare them on equal footing," Hampton said. "Controlling yourself as to, don't get too excited about one candidate before another; the background checks, calling around, keeping us on track."
Adofo-Mensah, 40, is the NFL's first general manager from a primarily analytical background, but that alone doesn't define his unprecedented and meteoric rise. Ten years ago, he was an ex-Wall Street trader pursuing a graduate degree at Stanford and flirting with the idea of chasing his football dreams. Now he's in the Vikings' lead chair, with some experiences that transcend job titles.
"I know my background is unique," Adofo-Mensah said at his introductory news conference Thursday. "But when you think about this job, the job is about making decisions, building consensus in the building, combining different sources of information into one answer and having everybody behind it. Along those lines, I don't think there's many people more qualified.
"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 learning and growing from that standpoint. That's an education that I'll never fully appreciate."
A growth mind-set
Adofo-Mensah is from Cherry Hill, N.J., just outside Philadelphia. He's the middle child of Emma, a former executive administrator and teacher's 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 Ashanti people.
His 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, consults companies on digital fronts at EY Design Studio in New York. Their mother set the tone.
"She always had this phrase, 'When something goes on in life, all I can do is work,'" Adofo-Mensah said. "That's all she would tell me; all I can do is work. So when I see problems now, I kind of get this smile on my face and I think of my mom. I roll up my sleeves and that's when I'm most comfortable."
His passion, with childhood Eagles and Randall Cunningham fandom, was football. He played basketball in high school but was cut from the team as a sophomore. A college growth spurt had the 6-4 freshman curious to see if he could get back in the game.
Mike Brennan was then the assistant coach in charge of the Princeton junior varsity team, a college practice squad where former high school hoopers walked on to push the Division I players. Twenty years later, Brennan remembered a hard worker whose intellect was what separated him from Ivy League peers.
"Especially JV, where it's not recruited guys, so they're 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 sector trading energy and coal derivatives before managing portfolios.
"It's just that growth mind-set," Adofo-Mensah said. "You'll see it about me, I enjoy it. I love pushing myself to get better. I think a lot of that comes from trading, where a lot of times you see at the end of the day there's a scorecard and it might be bad, and that's OK, because that gives you a reason to get better."
In 2011, Adofo-Mensah headed to Stanford, thinking about becoming an economics professor — "I was going to go wear a tweed jacket with glasses and teach students," he said.
His comprehensive exams in macroeconomics "didn't go so well," he said, and he was thinking seriously about getting into sports. He was courted by former Princeton roommate Mike Chernoff, now the Cleveland Guardians' GM, to join the growing ranks in baseball analytics. But Adofo-Mensah declined; 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 e-mails from 2012 when Adofo-Mensah first started picking Adler's brain about football analytics. He was curious about underutilized data from the NFL scouting combine and college football. He grouped and analyzed stats in ways many NFL teams weren't researching at the time, Adler said.
"The questions he was asking then have hopefully been answered by people in NFL front offices since, but they definitely were not answered at the time," Adler said. "They were really insightful, particularly for somebody watching the game as a fan and interested in getting involved."
Adofo-Mensah's break came at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where Adler introduced him to Hampton, who sought to hire a 49ers research analyst. About a month later, Adofo-Mensah had the job. Soon, he was managing an intern.
In his introductory news conference, Adofo-Mensah apologized for taking up so much time in Hampton's office, asking questions. Hampton said that is Adofo-Mensah's key to success. He was quickly exposed to higher-level meetings, and his duties grew, eventually rising to director of football research and development in 2017. He compiled studies on injury risks of free agents. He influenced organizational direction from off-field concerns to what department an open job should be allocated.
Adofo-Mensah identified Telemetry Sports, then a primarily baseball company, to remake the 49ers' data interfaces. San Francisco was the company's first NFL customer; now "about half the league" partners with them, Hampton said.
"Once he's in the room and he adds that value," Hampton said, "then you want him in the next room."
Adofo-Mensah's business acumen led to him teaching league-mandated financial literacy classes for young 49ers. He also taught scouts, starting a voluntary recurring class with a few students. Word spread, and before long they needed a bigger room. He formed connections across departments and was asked to bridge gaps; "he's the guy that gets invited to everyone's wedding," Hampton said.
"He asks why," Hampton said. "It's not a simple why; it's a very strategic, let me get to the bottom of this and find where the disconnect is, get people to understand that and solve that issue. I think that's really his strength."
'Fit like a glove'
Andrew Berry, now 34, was the youngest general manager in NFL history when he was picked to lead the Browns in 2020. He knew of Adofo-Mensah before seeing his name on scouting combine credentials in an Indianapolis elevator. The chance encounter led to a bond and Adofo-Mensah's first big NFL promotion. Impressed by his breadth of knowledge, Berry hired Adofo-Mensah to replace Eliot Wolf as the Browns' vice president of football operations.
Adofo-Mensah began his traditional "scouting boot camp," with two years of tape evaluation, school visits, writing player reports, and Browns free agency and draft meetings. He also led one of the NFL's biggest research departments in a progressive front office.
Adofo-Mensah said Berry was preparing him to be a general manager, adding that Berry knew it would be with the Vikings before he did.
"I could just tell with the way that Kwesi was buzzing after the interview," Berry said. "I was like, 'OK, this is really the right place for him. It seems like it's going to fit like a glove.'"
Adofo-Mensah learned organizational alignment from the 49ers and Browns, which will be critical from the Vikings' front office down to the new coaching staff. He relates to coaches as a former risk taker on Wall Street, Adler said, and not just a "pure academic."
"Saying, 'I've been there,'" Adler said. "'I can tell you it doesn't always feel good to take this shot, but when the numbers are in your favor, you want to make these favorable bets.'"
Andrew Miller, the Vikings' chief operating officer, knew Adofo-Mensah before the Vikings' internal search team interviewed him and seven others for the GM job. Miller worked for baseball's Cleveland Guardians from 2006-2015, overlapping with Chernoff, through whom Miller met Adofo-Mensah years ago.
Ties to Adofo-Mensah and the Browns, who are coached by former Vikings assistant Kevin Stefanski, led to further lessons about structuring a team that's on the same page about innovative problem solving.
"You learn a lot about their culture, their structure, how their decisionmaking works," Miller said. "Met a lot of people that have been over there over different points in time. Given our relationships with Andrew Berry and Stefanski, they were very open about Kwesi and sort of their approach to their culture and structure and leadership."
With Adofo-Mensah bringing his own twist on the Browns' progressive approaches to Minnesota, he's once again tasked with bringing together a room. This time as the leader.
"That word culture gets thrown around a lot, but it's so critical," Adofo-Mensah said. "Alignment doesn't mean having the same mind or thinking the same, but just general core beliefs, ways of solving problems, a constructive attitude towards mistakes. Those things really matter."