Recruiting Lessons From the Olympics: Learning From Outside Your Box

You will never become a world-class recruiter if you restrict your learning to benchmarking against other similar corporate recruiting functions. Great recruiters can and do learn many things by studying completely different business functions like sales, marketing, branding, supply chain management, quality control, and customer relationship management. In addition, great recruiters proactively try to learn from non-business industries as well, including universities (top student and sports recruiting), political campaigns, and even cloudsourcing initiatives.

Olympic teams are one of the top five recruiting “centers of excellence” that reside outside of the corporate world.  The others include professional sports franchises, entertainment production firms, not-for-profit organizations, and the U.S. military.  Even firms considered recruiting superstars like Google, Zappos, DaVita, Deloitte, and Microsoft can learn valuable lessons by studying the recruiting process used by Olympic teams.  Obviously these “outside your box” Olympic recruiting strategies and tools must be modified to fit your own business situation, but it takes pure arrogance to automatically assume that great recruiting is restricted to the corporate world.

Narrow-minded People Instantly Dismiss Sports Analogies

Many leaders/managers in HR hate sports analogies; it’s one of the key differentiators between them and other corporate leaders.  Maybe it’s because in sports there is such a strong emphasis on competing and delivering results, and softer factors like values, effort, equal treatment, and “giving poor performers another chance” are relegated to the sideline. Senior corporate leaders outside HR realize that success in sports requires more than physical talent. It requires great managers, excellent training, a winning strategy, great tools and technology, and mental toughness. Books written by CEOs routinely include sports analogies, and their speeches are frequently peppered with sports terms like teams, coaching, “crush the opposition,” “give me the ball,” etc. Successful sports heroes and coaches also see the similarity because they frequently write books on leadership targeted exclusively for business consumption.

Olympic recruiters successfully attract the very top performers away from their careers, their families, and even their professional sports team salaries for an opportunity to literally “work for free” in a job with a less than a 5% chance of earning a shiny medal with zero resale value. Whether you like sports analogies or not, the Olympic recruiting model warrants your attention.

Valuable Recruiting Lessons That Anyone Can Learn From the Olympics

The four main lessons that corporate recruiters can learn from the Olympic recruiting include branding, sourcing, assessment, and top grading.

Let’s begin with lessons that can be learned in the area of branding. There are two basic approaches to branding any employer. The first approach is the “what we say” approach.  It’s named that because in the vast majority of organizations that employ it the brand position and subsequently all brand messaging is developed by a relatively clueless group of HR committee members who paint the organization as they would like it to exist versus how it actually exists or how it would need to exist to attract the right talent.  Organizations practicing “what we say” branding place messages in highly controlled situations including on billboards, paid advertising, glossy brochures, and on corporate websites. The weakness of the “what we say” approach should be obvious…the messages are not credible among the target audience and are dismissed as nothing more than traditional corporate propaganda.

The second approach to branding is the “what others say” approach, where organizations accept that employment brands are developed through direct/indirect experience with the brand, and that the most credible brand messaging is developed and spread by the target audience itself. The Olympic team relies on “others,” namely former Olympians, spreading the word about the prestige of becoming a member of the Olympic team. Their message is spread virally and is not controlled.  Just as with any major corporation, some former Olympians share their negative experience.  Relying on others to spread your message is cheaper than an advertising-supported approach, but more important, virally spread messages are viewed as more credible, more believable, and more real by the people the brand needs to influence most.  (Viral messages are rarely perfect, pristine, PR packaged, fluff pieces!)

The U.S. Olympic Committee has done an exceptional job influencing a brand that positions becoming an Olympian as an opportunity to do “the best work of your life.”  As a result, young athletes line up for the chance to become one, often investing every penny earned into training to become even better.  Once a team member, they dedicate hours to working hard, often with little or no pay and a miniscule chance of success.  A few go on to earn big endorsement deals, but a much larger contingent work hourly jobs with companies like Home Depot to earn a living.  In the corporate world, Zappos is a great example of how an employer brand message can be effectively spread using the “what others say” approach.

Olympic Sourcing Excellence

Attracting or sourcing athletes to apply to the Olympic team is also a practice that corporate recruiters should learn from. The Olympic team doesn’t post openings on or procure booths at job fairs; instead it uses referrals by current and past team members, and uses sports association teams as farm teams. Olympic recruiters recruit for positions that offer no pay, require hours of intense work, provide few benefits, and offer little chance of reward.   (There isn’t much demand for curling champions in the advertising world!)

Olympic recruiters focus on the excitement of the work and the thrill of the competition. They highlight the opportunity to work with and compete against the very best.  The pitch is simple: becoming an Olympic athlete isn’t a job, it’s an honor, a privilege, a dream, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In the corporate world, although many know of Google’s free food and perks, it’s actually the excitement and challenge of the work itself that is the most under-sold attribute of the job.

A Candidate Assessment Approach That Everyone Should Copy

The Olympic assessment process for selecting candidates for the team is a process that every corporation should strive to emulate. You can classify the two basic approaches to candidate assessment as either “word-based” assessment or “performance-based” assessment.

Almost all corporate assessment uses the word-based approach. People often use the phrase “anyone can lie with statistics,” but the fact is that most people prefer to misrepresent or lie “with words” as opposed to numbers. The vast majority of corporate assessment processes rely on analyzing words in every stage of the process from resume screening to interview to reference checks. Candidates who successfully use the right words, tell the right stories or give the right examples, are often selected without ever having to prove they are the best performer.

Behavioral interviewing is a commonly used tool that relies heavily on candidates weaving a tale about past reaction to specific circumstances, discounting the multitude of factors that render the circumstances completely incomparable to those the candidate will likely face on the job.  Overall, relying so heavily on words to make your assessment probably means that those most skilled in the use of words are likely to get the position, even if the position itself doesn’t require a great deal of wordsmithing.

The Olympic assessment process is superior because its assessments are based solely on performance under actual job conditions. The “job content” or results approach doesn’t care if you are eloquent, if you went to Harvard, if you have 10 years of experience or if your mom is the head coach. You only get on the team if your performance exceeds that of all others. In order to ensure consistent performance over time, some of the Olympic teams even require outstanding performance over a series of events in order to be selected. Because the Olympic assessment approach is clearly laid out in advance (there are no surprises during it), and because it is almost 100% objective, an extremely high percentage of candidates are willing to fully complete the assessment process without complaint.

There are several lessons that the corporate world could learn from this performance-based assessment process, namely:

  • Allow zero tolerance for hiring errors. The performance of every new hire must be assessed and a failure analysis must be conducted whenever you hire someone who doesn’t end up performing to team standards.
  • Spell out the assessment process so that candidates know what to expect and what is being assessed.
  • Use real job content simulations to assess actual probability of performance.  Give candidates a real problem that everyone has agreed on in advance as to what constitutes poor, good, or a great performance. The problem should be selected from among those problems that the new hire would face during their first few months. In cases where it’s not possible for safety reasons to put the candidates through an actual problem, verbal simulations should be used to ensure that the candidate can at least “walk you through the complete steps” of an excellent solution. In the corporate world, almost all airlines already assess pilot candidate performance via virtual simulators.

Firms like Toyota and GlobalEnglish make potential hires actually work on problems with a real team. These tryouts serve a dual purpose. They allow the candidate to demonstrate their results, as well as giving the candidate a better opportunity to more accurately know what they are getting into.

“Top Grading” Really Works

In Olympic recruiting and selection the goal is to have 100% top performers in every role.

In the corporate world, “top grading” is the term that many use for this strategy of staffing. A significant number in HR argue against the top grading approach, proposing that it is too expensive, that there are not enough top performers available, or that managing a whole team of top performers is simply too difficult. I find it interesting that I have yet to meet a single top performer who doesn’t support a top grading approach where top performers who are also team players are the sole recruiting target. Top performers almost universally want to work alongside and learn from the very best and they see average performers as a distraction from overall team excellence. In the corporate world, Google is the next example of a corporation wanting to put top performers in every role and to drive away average candidates.

Final Thoughts

If you are watching the Winter Olympics, it’s easy to view the games as merely entertainment. However, if you look behind the scenes at the processes that support the teams, you’ll see an extremely sophisticated recruiting approach that rivals any in the corporate world. It’s a long-term process that literally started years ago and that will begin again as soon as the Olympics end. The process is so effective, that in the case of the U.S. team, it will most likely result in the most medals of any team in the world. Their talent acquisition process really is that good and it is certainly worthy of being copied by any corporation that strives to be world-class in recruiting.

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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