Isn’t LeBron Amazing? Imagine the Impact of Hiring a Similar ‘Game Changer’ Into Your Firm

Corporate executives don’t have to be sports experts to realize the incredible value that LeBron James has added to the Cleveland Cavalier NBA team in a single year. Consider these amazing impacts since his hiring.

The value of the team went up an astonishing 78 percent ($400 million); its operating income doubled; every seat in the arena was suddenly filled; it received dramatically more TV coverage; its winning percentage went from .402 up to .646, and after finishing 10th in the conference last year, the team made the NBA finals.

But his impact will go beyond the team itself, because it’s estimated that the economy of Cleveland area will be improved by up to $500 million simply as a result of his return. And for all of that, he received only $20 million in pay. Now that’s a high ROI (a $20 million cost vs. a minimum benefit of $410 million), whether you are a sports executive or a corporate leader!

Game changers can be players or coaches. And neither must be seasoned veterans with multiple years of experience in order to have a major impact. Tbhis is illustrated by the fact that the two head coaches in the 2015 NBA finals successfully managed their teams to the championship level, despite the fact that both started the season with zero years of NBA coaching experience. Time magazine even placed a name on the economic impact of hiring a game changer. It named it “The LeBron Effect.”

Corporate Recruiting Leaders Need to Take Notice

LeBron illustrates how hiring a single game changer can transform an entire organization. And the lesson for corporate recruiting executives is that if you want to maximize your business impact, you need to supplement your traditional recruiting with a program that hires exceptional game-changer talent.

Game changers in the corporate world are called that because they literally change the game= by being pioneers in a product area or industry. And be aware that their impact goes beyond the exceptional capabilities that they bring to the firm because they will also transform your employer brand image and their presence will act like a magnet for attracting other top talent.

The Top 10 Benefits of “Game Changer Hiring”

Most recruiting managers focus their efforts on hiring volume (a large number of average employees). But if you want to maximize your business impact, you need to do the exact opposite. Focus on hiring a handful of high-impact individuals (game changers and innovators) like LeBron. Some of the benefits that can result from hiring game changers like LeBron in the corporate environment include:

  1. Transformational performance — when you hire a game changer, you first and foremost get their amazing performance and skills. But beyond that, you also gain their experience, contacts, their reputation/image, and their ideas and product innovations. If you want exceptional performance, innovation, and industry recognition, hire exceptional game changers.
  2. They attract additional top talent — perhaps the most obvious benefit of acquiring a game changer is that when you hire one notable game changer, you will also likely be able to recruit many of their former colleagues to also join your firm. In addition, others who only know them by name and reputation will also be attracted. Imagine the drawing power that a Warren Buffett, a Steve Jobs, or an Elon Musk-level person would have if they joined your firm? In the case of LeBron and the Cavaliers, his persona allowed the team to attract at least four players who are now team stars (Love, Smith, Shumpert, and Mozgov).
  3. They provide leadership — obviously game changers are leaders in their functional area. But because these game changers are admired and looked up to, they are generally also strong leaders (just like in the case of LeBron). And because many employees will readily follow their lead, the changes that they inspire or make themselves are more likely to be well accepted by the rest of the organization.
  4. They make other employees perform better — game changers in sports — Magic Johnson and LeBron — are known to energize, inspire, and improve the performance of others around them. Hiring a game changer means that other employees will likely adapt their work ethic and copy their learning and execution approaches. Which taken together will likely improve overall team and individual performance to previously unattainable levels.
  5. Improved retention of current employees — if you have current employees who were thinking about leaving, hiring a game changer will at the very least cause most to rethink quitting because they see the possibility of a transformation coming. The added talent that they bring with them and their innovative ideas are also likely to excite your current employees and make them want to stay in order to be part of this exciting new team.
  6. Positive customer impacts – these individuals are so well known that even current and potential customers will notice that they have joined your firm. This is especially true if your game changer hire writes a blog or is active on Internet forums and social media. When customers hear about it, your product brand is likely to also improve. And finally, the game changer is likely to have strong and well-established customer and vendor contacts which simply can’t be matched by the average hire.
  7. Your ship raises up while theirs sinks — if you hire a game changer directly from one of your competitors, your firm’s performance improves while your competitor’s goes down. As one executive once said to me, “you mean our performance goes up, while simultaneously our competitor’s performance goes down markedly? I really like that.” In the case of LeBron, his previous team the Miami Heat was in the NBA finals four years running with him on their roster. This year without LeBron, it had a losing record and  didn’t even make the playoffs, so it wasn’t there to challenge its conference rivals and block its path to the championship.
  8. They build your employer brand — with the power of social media, everyone in your industry is likely to know immediately whenever a game changer new hire joins your firm. It may even be talked about in the mainstream and the local media. Taken together this increase in prestige, visibility, and publicity will strengthen your employer brand and that will make it much easier for your employees to make successful top-quality referrals.
  9. Boomerang rehires are known quantities — because LeBron previously played on the Cleveland team, he can be classified as what is known as a boomerang or (coincidentally), “a rebound rehire.” Rehiring former employees with a history of having a highimpact means that you already know their capabilities, which are even more enhanced and diversified now that they’ve worked at another firm.
  10. A high ROI — firms like GE have found that game changers can produce 10 times more than the average employee. And because there added recruiting and salary costs are likely to be no more than 50 percent above the average, the result is a recruiting effort and extremely high ROI. And incidentally, because recruiting costs are onetime costs, the ROI continues to improve each year that the game changer stays with your firm.

Action Steps for Successfully Recruiting Game Changers Into Your Firm

In part 1 of this article that was published on 6/8/15 I showed how the performance of LeBron James illustrated the value and the transformational impact that hiring a single “game changer” could have. I also highlighted the top 10 benefits that can accrue to corporations that successfully recruits game changers. Given these many positive business impacts, it makes sense for recruiting leaders in medium to large corporations to develop a plan and a distinct process for recruiting corporate game changers, (aka pioneers, icons, or purple squirrels). In this part two, of the series I cover the action steps that I have found to be necessary in order to successfully recruit a game changer of the caliber and capability of LeBron James into your firm.

Finding Game Changers Is Easier Than You Might Think

You may initially think that it is difficult to identify game changers, but in an Internet world, you might be surprised to learn that they are easy to find. Yes, it’s true that because game changers are rare and unique, they are sometimes called “purple squirrels.” But that doesn’t mean that they are hard to find, because like a purple squirrel, they are so unique that they stand out in a crowd.

In a world full of social media, it’s actually pretty hard for anyone to hide. But it’s almost impossible for game changers because they are well-known in their profession and industry. They are well-known and visible because they have won awards, they speak at conferences/webinars, they write articles, books and blogs, and finally, everyone talks and tweets about them and their work, ideas, and accomplishments.

Yes, most can easily be found using a simple Google search or visit to LinkedIn. However, hands down, the best way to find the few that qualify as true game changers is by asking your own game-changer and top-performing employees to identify them. Simply ask your top employees these key questions:

  • Who do you learn from?
  • What influencers do you follow on social media?
  • Whose work and ideas do you benchmark and copy?
  • Who in your function do you admire?
  • Who is the most amazing innovator who you have ever worked with?
  • Who is a “thought leader” or best practice leader in your functional area?
  • Who is the leading author or consultant in your functional area?

Even though finding game changers is easy, because they are likely to be currently employed and well treated, and they are extremely difficult to approach, and then sell on changing jobs. So the next important task is to develop a recruiting process tailored toward attracting these game changers.

10+ Action Steps for Convincing Game-changers to Join Your Firm

The first rule for recruiting game changers is that standard corporate recruiting processes simply have no chance of successfully recruiting them (That’s zero chance in case you missed it the first time). So if you expect to successfully land these superstars, you will need a recruiting approach more akin to executive search in order to succeed. Here are the action steps to consider when designing your recruiting effort:

  • Determine the jobs where a game changer hire would have the highest impact — in order to maximize your business impact, you need to work with your COO to identify the few jobs that when filled with a game changer, would have the highest business impact. This list might only include a handful of jobs. However, don’t be surprised when not all of the prioritized jobs are executive positions because typical game-changer jobs can also include product development jobs, design jobs, monetization jobs, and strategic planning jobs. For each targeted job, you also need to specifically define the characteristics that must be met before a potential recruit can be classified as a game changer in that job.
  • A personalized approach — recruiting leaders need to put together a “strategic hire” recruiting strategy and team capable of attracting and hiring these game changers. From the very start that because game changers know their economic value and their importance, they realize that they hold the power in any potential recruiting relationship. As a result they expect to not have to go through the often-tortuous traditional recruiting process. Instead they expect one closely resembling the approach that is already used to hire executives. They expect the recruiting approach to be personalized for them and they certainly anticipate being treated differently than the average applicant. In effect, they expect to be courted (I call it “personal courting”). This courting and wooing process must also focus on learning, sharing and professional growth, long before any conversation about a job can occur. The interview and assessment process should require little of their time and the process cannot include a single turnoff or deal-breaker element. Because they are only likely to move if they are offered their dream job, they will also likely expect that their new job will also be customized to their interests and strengths.
  • They must be approached subtly by someone they trust — they are incredibly busy and there is a constant demand for their time. As a result, most develop numerous barriers that would prevent any stranger and certainly recruiters from even approaching them with opportunities. So, in order to make an initial recruiting contact, you will probably need direct assistance from someone who they already trust. That means that the most effective approach is to assign one of your top employees to turn them into a referral. Obviously the selected employee would ideally already have a relationship with them. And if not, the selected employee must be at the same level or higher and be almost as well-known and respected in their own right.
  • Offer the two most impactful attraction factors — realize up front that the factors that attract an average employee will literally have no impact on a game changer. After years of research, I have found that game changers, innovators, and top performers almost universally care about two things. The first is that they want to to do the best work of their life. “Their best work” usually means that the work that they will be doing must be compelling and on the leading edge, they must be given an amazing amount of freedom, and they must be working alongside great coworkers and under a great manager. Second, game changers want to have a major impact, so you must be able to demonstrate to them how their work will have a major impact on the product, the industry, and even the world.
  • Start recruiting long before you need them — one of the most effective recruiting approaches for game changers is “a pre-need” strategy, which requires you to begin recruiting them as much as one year before you expect to land them. This longer-term approach provides sufficient time to build the needed relationships and trust, to identify their job switch criteria, and to slowly interest them in your company and a job. Some firms even create a most-wanted list, where they begin in January with a list of game-changer talent they hope to attract. Then they spend as much time as needed to recruit that named top talent, even if it takes all year.
  • Wait for the right day to bring up a job — because they are stars, they are employed and likely well treated and happy at their current firm. This means that they are not active jobseekers and that they would never respond positively to any mention of a job. However, that all might change quite quickly if something dramatically negative happens to them at their current job. The negative events that can quickly increase their interest in a new job might include having a major project idea turned down, a dramatic cut in their budget, their boss or favorite colleague left, a major merger or acquisition is planned, or a major scandal occurs at their firm. Your employees should have a relationship with prospects to continually monitor their company in order to identify when one of these negative events impacts them. This approach is called “right-day recruiting” because during the right days immediately following one of these negative events their normal “no I’m not interested” response may almost instantly shift to “I’d like to hear more.”
  • Who does the actual recruiting matters — when one of your game-changer targets expresses an interest in changing jobs, it’s a mistake for a standard recruiter to approach them alone. Instead, realize that 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.
  • Identify the criteria they will use to decide whether to begin an initial job conversation — because they are not actively looking for a job, game changers routinely turn down every opportunity to interview for new positions. So if you expect them to even consider a job conversation, fully understand the criteria they will use to assess whether they are willing to enter into a conversation about changing jobs. Obviously you must develop a ranked list of their criteria and be prepared to show that you meet each of them before you directly approach them about an opportunity for an interview or a professional conversation.
  • Hold a professional conversation not to interview — game changers don’t like traditional job interviews. And because they frequently have a strong ego and POV, in many cases they simply don’t perform well during them. 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 assessment period, should barely be needed).
  • Find their decision criteria and what they need to accept a new opportunity — consider the recruiting process similar to the sales process for selling a house. Successfully making a sale requires understanding the individual customer’s buying criteria and by providing a product that meets that criteria as closely as possible. So before you even attempt to make a job offer, directly or indirectly identify your candidate’s job acceptance decision criteria. Periodically ask them during several points in the hiring process “are we successfully meeting your decision criteria?” And finally, provide them with an exceptional candidate experience that they enjoy and that they learn from.
  • Influence their influencers — and finally realize that game changers are guaranteed to seek the advice of friends and colleagues before they accept any job offer. As a result, make an attempt to identify and then proactively sell those “influencers” who will impact the candidate’s final decision. You must also expect that their current boss will also attempt to influence their decision by making a counteroffer, so have a plan to deal with it already prepared.

Final Thoughts

Many in HR have a history of not liking sports analogies, which I find to be a mistake. In direct contrast, I have found that CEOs and executives love them and fully understand their value. Cynics might also be thinking that this idea only has limited value because there is only one LeBron James. But don’t forget there are numerous other game changers including Steph Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard Anthony Davis, and Kevin Durant. And in the much larger corporate world, in some industries there may be as many as 100 game changers. If you don’t like the application of the LeBron example, in the business world, there are numerous corporate examples where a single game changer hire transformed a company and its products (Tony Fadell the iPod creator at Apple comes to mind).

I understand the corporate recruiter leaders have a primary responsibility to fill jobs with qualified individuals but if they realistically expect to maximize their business impacts, they need to go further and hire a handful of game changers, pioneers, or serial innovators. Start with working with the CFO’s office to calculate the potential ROI resulting from the hiring these individuals. And once you get approval and funding, simply follow the action steps spelled out in this article that cover how you can go about successfully finding and recruiting them. The sole remaining requirement is courage, which covers your willingness to do something different in an area that will initially be uncomfortable, because it differs so much from standard recruiting practices.

As seen on ERE Media on June 8, 2015 and June 15, 2015.

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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