Important Recruiting Lessons From LeBron, Stephen Curry, And Other Game Changers

LeBron James and Stephen Curry are without a doubt both great basketball players. However, those in recruiting should also realize that these two game changers can also provide many valuable recruiting lessons that are adaptable to corporations.

Let’s start with LeBron. If LeBron James was a corporate hire, he would literally be the “hire of the decade.” He would qualify as an exceptional hire because of his performance because he has amazingly brought his team (two different ones) to the NBA championships six years straight. Corporate CEOs love sports analogies, so if you want to learn to think like a CEO, here are some critical recruiting lessons related to hiring game changers that every corporate recruiting function should learn.

The Top 15+ Lessons for Recruiting Game Changers

  • Without a quality of hire measure, you wouldn’t recognize your recruiting success — most corporate recruiting functions don’t measure the performance of new hires (quality of hire). Therefore, if they hired a LeBron, they would never actually know that one of their hires turned out to be extraordinary, while other hires were complete failures. And without a quality of hire measure as a data point, you wouldn’t know which selection criteria accurately predicted on-the-job success, so that you could use those criteria for future hires.
  • Magnet hires attract others and strengthen your employer brand — when an under-the-radar team like Cleveland publicly brings in a game changer, everyone else in the industry notices. And that single hire makes it significantly easier to attract other top talent. And in some cases (like with LeBron’s return to Cleveland), a single game-changer hire may also literally turn around the employer brand image of the organization. In LeBron’s case, his persona allowed the team to attract and retain at least four players that are now team stars (Love, Smith, Shumpert, and Mozgov).
  • Top grading is the recruiting strategy of champions — in sports, the recruiting strategy of champions is similar to the top grading strategy that firms like Google, Apple, and Amazon use in the corporate world. Rather than focusing on the average hire, the strategy is designed to get top talent in every critical position. It might be more obvious in professional sports, but it’s also true in corporations that game changers simply expect to be supported by a cadre of high-quality players and support personnel. Corporate recruiting leaders should realize that even a single weak link in the talent chain frustrates top performers and degrades overall performance.
  • Prioritization is essential — unfortunately few in corporate recruiting formally prioritize their jobs and then focus their best recruiting resources on those with the highest impact. Obviously, we know from both LeBron and Curry that a game changer hired into a mission-critical position produces an exponentially higher impact, compared to a quality hire in an overhead or other lower-contribution position. Corporate leaders can also learn that individual star candidates must be prioritized, because you have to act quickly if you expect to land a game changer like LeBron or Stephen Curry. Obviously, if you prioritize, it makes little sense to outsource the highest visibility and highest impact positions, like executive recruiting.
  • Game changers are also active leaders — in the case of both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, with game-changer players, these teams have been winning and dominating despite having inexperienced coaches with no previous head coaching experience. You have to attribute that success at least in part to the leadership provided by the game-changer players themselves, both on and off the court. Have great managers, but with game changers, you get an extra leader.
  • Game changers make others around them perform better — a true game changer doesn’t just become a top performer; they also make others around them perform better. Whether it’s their drive or their passion for continuous improvement and winning, clearly the team itself performs better when you have a game changer. In the case of LeBron, with each individual move (initially to Cleveland, then to Miami, and then back to Cleveland) the team’s performance improved dramatically.
  • Game changers also improve retention — when you have players like LeBron and Curry, not only will your ability to attract improve, but so will your retention rate. Your retention improves because every current employee wants to win, as well as to play alongside and be associated with game changers.
  • You get transformational performance — obviously with a game changer hire you get their amazing performance and skills. But you also gain their experience, contacts, and their ideas. And with someone like LeBron or Curry, you show other employees what is possible. Yes, having a game-changer player doesn’t guarantee a championship, but it does seem to assure that you will at least get close.
  • Game changers also bring innovation — Stephen Curry has not only transformed the performance of his team, but he has also taught his teammates how to dramatically improve their three-point shooting. Game changers are invariably innovators, and in a world where everything is rapidly copied, continuous innovation is essential for corporate success.
  • You gain a competitive advantage — hiring a game changer not only improves your firm’s performance, but it also degrades the performance of the firm that lost the game changer. In the case of the Miami Heat, after being in the NBA finals for four years straight with LeBron, since he left, they didn’t make the playoffs the first year and they failed to move beyond the conference semifinals this year. Clearly if you want to hurt the performance of a competitor, recruit away their top talent.
  • Customers notice when you hire a game changer — game changers are usually well-known in the industry. And with the strength of social media, the hiring of someone with a notoriety that is equivalent to LeBron or Curry in the corporate world will also have measurable impacts on the corporation’s product brand image and sales.
  • You must meet the attraction factors of game changers – game changers are bid on and they know their value, so recruiting them is obviously more difficult. If you want to recruit someone like LeBron, first identify their list of “attraction or job acceptance factors.” And then your offer must clearly meet each of them if you expect to win the recruiting battle against many other organizations.
  • The offer must be made at the ideal time — obviously professional athletes can’t leave until their contract expires. However even in the corporate world, you can expect to successfully recruit a game changer unless you approach them at the ideal time. An ideal time might mean when they have a major project ending when a key colleague departs, or immediately after a major budget cut or a corporate scandal. The key is to build a relationship with them over time and then to act quickly when they give any indication that they might entertain an outside offer.
  • Who approaches them makes a difference — game changers have been recruited many times, so they might have learned not to trust traditional recruiters. Instead, game changers expect to be contacted and recruited primarily by professionals of a similar stature and level, but also with the direct involvement of a “senior executive sponsor.” Only recruiters with an executive search background should even be tangentially involved in approaching and landing game changers.
  • Hold a professional conversation, not an interview — game changers expect to be treated special, and many think that they are beyond the need for traditional job interviews. A better option is to offer a “professional conversation.” This conversation differs from an interview in that there are no scripted questions and it occurs in an informal setting, where both sides are treated as equals. The focus of this conversation from the corporate side should be on answering their questions and providing the information and the interactions that they need in order to make a decision. Obviously influencing, courting, and selling should be paramount, rather than assessment (which after a long courting and evaluation period, further assessment should barely be needed).
  • Influence those who influence game changers — game changers are guaranteed to seek the advice of friends and colleagues before they accept any job offer. So make an attempt to identify and then proactively sell those “influencers” who will impact the game changer’s final decision. You must also expect that their current boss will also attempt to make a counteroffer, so have a plan to deal with the counteroffer already prepared.
  • Boomerang rehires can have an instant impact — LeBron was a boomerang rehire. And boomerangs are a known quantity. And as a result, you can expect a boomerang game-changer new hire to get up to speed almost immediately, because they already know the culture, the goals, and the organizational processes. And with outside experience under their belt, these boomerang rehires also bring with them the best practices from their last organization.

Final Thoughts

The very best proactively learn from every industry, and sports shouldn’t be an exception. In fact, there is a term for it: cross-pollination.

Now, some corporate cynics might be thinking that this hiring-game-changers approach only has limited value because there is only one LeBron James or Stephen Curry. But the key thing to remember is that you don’t have to attract more than a few game changers because they will act as a magnet to attract others. And once you attract them, they will make other employees and managers around them much better. And one final advantage, if you attract even a single game changer, it may be enough to dramatically improve the visibility, the image, and the ROI of your corporate recruiting function.

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As seen on ERE Media.  

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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