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How to Recruit LeBron James...a Case Study on Recruiting a Game-changer Employee


Recruiting history was made this past summer. You may not be aware that last July marked the culmination of the most sophisticated recruiting effort executed in this century, one that will go down in history as a case study on how to recruit "game-changers." The approaches used and the lessons to be learned are almost without comparison. If you want to recruit the best to your organization, don't miss this opportunity to learn how "game-changer" recruiting differs dramatically from typical recruiting.

"Game-changer Recruiting" is Needed in All Organizations

You do not have to be a sports nut to realize that for the last two months, numerous NBA teams have been pulling out all the stops and spending unlimited amounts of money to recruit basketball star LeBron James to their team. Simultaneously, almost-as-intensive recruiting efforts have targeted other game-changing stars including Dwyane Wade, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Chris Bosh.

Sports teams and corporations alike need all the game-changers (individuals who can change the entire direction of an organization) they can get. While you might think that sports recruiting is not comparable to corporate recruiting, that notion would be erroneous. This sports-superstar recruiting effort is ultimately an illustration of world-class "game-changer recruiting."

If like most organizations, yours could use a few more "game-changers," innovators, or exceptional performers, consider the lessons that can be gleaned from the events last summer.

Lesson #1--Calculate the Economic Value of a Game-changer

The first lesson to be learned is to calculate the dollar impact a game-changer can have on revenue. Most recruiting managers focus on the cost of recruiting individuals (i.e. cost per hire), ignoring the potential return or the economic impacts that recruiting a game-changer will have. The LeBron case study illustrates a superior approach, one focused on return on investment.

Historically, the largest economic game-changing recruit was Michael Jordan. One study conducted by Fortune estimated that Michael Jordan had a $10 billion dollar impact on the NBA. LeBron will have a similar impact, not just on team revenues, but also on complimentary businesses in the greater metropolitan area. One economist recently estimated that impact could be as large as $3 billion.

Unfortunately, few corporations invest in calculating the dollar impact of recruiting a game-changer on their organization. Those that do often find that focusing solely on cost to recruit is silly. Google, for example, has estimated that a top performer generates three hundred times more revenue than an average performer. What would be the dollar impact if Warren Buffett joined your investment firm or Steve Jobs joined your technology firm? On a less grandiose scale, can you imagine the impact on your organization if the inventor of the iPod or the iPhone were to join the organization?

When doing calculations, remember that the economic impacts of acquiring a game-changer are not limited to their direct contributions, but also include the attraction of investors and other high-caliber recruits that will also impact the performance of the organization. In addition, recruiting a game-changer from a direct competitor may significantly impact their ability to compete. Once your executives understand the startling economic value, they will support the use of a game-changing recruiting approach.

Lesson #2--Realize That Game-changers Are Different

The second lesson to learn from the LeBron case is that game-changers, innovators, and top performers truly are different and must be recruited in a unique manner. The traditional corporate recruiting and executive search models will not work when recruiting most game-changers because those models do not accommodate superstar personalities, unusual expectations, and an unbelievable array of decision-influencers. To get the attention of a game-changer, you must understand exactly how they are different. While game-changers are not all alike, in general, they exhibit the following characteristics.
  • Not looking for a job--they are probably currently employed and they are almost always well treated where they currently work. As a result, they are not actively looking for a new job and if they did hear about an ordinary opportunity, they would not pursue it.

  • Power--they fully understand their value and their importance and as a result, they expect to be treated differently than the average applicant. They know that they hold the power in any potential new relationship or recruiting opportunity, so they expect to be courted.

  • Difficult to approach--they are incredibly busy and there is a constant demand on their time. As a result, most erupt numerous barriers that would prevent strangers from even approaching them with opportunities. In order to make an initial recruiting contact, you will probably need direct assistance from someone who influences them.

  • Trust is required--experience has taught them to be cynical of strangers and promises. As a result, you will need a strong relationship built on trust before they will seriously consider any offer from you.

  • A triggering event required--because they are successful and well treated at their current position, they are generally satisfied with their current situation. As a result, it will likely take a major negative career-impacting event at their current firm to shift them into job search mode. In the absence of a negative event, it will take a major "WOW" jaw-dropping positive opportunity before they would even look at a job opening.

  • A game-changer recruiting approach is required--the final thing to understand about recruiting any individual who is in high demand is that they almost always have an intense dislike for standard recruiting processes. Instead, they expect and require a "tailored" or personalized recruiting process that requires little of their time, that meets all of their expectations, and that contains not a single turnoff or "dealbreaker" element.

Lesson #3--Shift to a "Game-changing Recruiting Approach"

The primary differentiator between a game-changing recruiting process and all other recruiting processes is the level of effort that is put into truly understanding the candidate and their needs. Most recruiters would argue that they already understand the needs of their candidates; however, heavy workloads force most recruiters to generalize and make numerous assumptions about what candidates need and expect.

In direct contrast, the game-changer recruiting approach is tailored to the individual who is being targeted. It is a market research/sales-driven approach that puts together a sophisticated candidate profile that covers the candidate's job search process, how best to contact them, and their job acceptance decision criteria. This in-depth profile takes a significant amount of time and resources but is necessary if you want to have a realistic chance of success.

Final Thoughts

Some people viewed the recruiting process used to attract LeBron James as a circus. However, on closer examination, it was unique, targeted, and comprehensive. There were numerous WOW factors, including the city of New York crafting a customized video including a message from the mayor, and several cities organizing mass public recruiting parties to show their commitment. Teams used high profile individuals including Jay Z and even the President of the United States to influence the process. Numerous websites were created, blogs were written, and literally millions of tweets were shared on the topic.

To further highlight the importance of this recruiting effort, LeBron's offer acceptance was televised in an hour-long TV special (a first). During the special, his decision criteria were disclosed, including the probability of winning a championship, a new coach, a choice of teammates, team chemistry, supportive owners, a large fan base, broader media exposure, and lifestyle considerations including the interests of his entourage, and of course hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.

While millions were spent to recruit him and millions more will be spent to pay him, the economic return (likely to be in the billions) will far outweigh the costs. Believe it or not, the same dramatic results can be obtained by recruiting a single game-changer in the corporate world, although the fanfare would likely be less dramatic! If you are not landing your share of game-changers, the process that corporate executives must follow has been spelled out, all they need to add is...courage.


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