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.

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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.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



2 Comments on “Important Recruiting Lessons from LeBron, Stephen Curry, and Other Game Changers

  1. The lessons that can be gleaned from the sports world for recruiters is limited and should always be taken with a grain of salt. While companies should always try to attract the best talent possible, what they should take away from the sports world is not “do what it takes to sign Lebron,” but rather do what it takes to build a dynasty in the most cost efficient way possible! While I won’t go through all of the points, here are a few I particularly take issue with:

    1. Lebron is a once-in-a-liftetime player, and to gauge your quality of hire off of a player like that would be erroneous because it would skew your KPIs and would have a negative affect when you trie to use these metrics to make future hires. Apple doesn’t compare every hire they make to Steve Jobs, and declare any who don’t match up to be a less-than-quality hire. Rather, corporations would be more successful in making quality hires if they could identify quality sources, regions or vendors that produce top quality hires. A better sports reference would be for corporations to try and find their Bukom. Bukom is a small tribal locality in Ghana, Africa that has produced more than a handful of world championship boxers. Today, it is considered the mecca of boxing, where the next Ali might emerge from. If you’re a recruiter, you’d want to have your sights set on Bukom, rather than scanning the world for the next Lebron.

    2. Top talents are magnets, the author is absolutely correct, but let’s not forget that magnets work both ways. They attract as well as repel. Lebron might be the reason why Kyrie and Love have stuck around, but to group Shumpert and Smith in their is, again, erroneous. Sumpert and Smith landed in Cleveland before Lebron announced his return. They were running from the sunken ship that was the Knicks and the fact that they landed in Cleveland is just coincidental to Lebron’s return. In the meantime, Lebron has been consistently been ranked the most loved AND the most HATED player in the NBA, which is why many Americans find themselves root against Lebron and not for him. Corporations must take into account their corporate culture and employer brand before hiring talent comparable to Lebron and must consider the business impact of hiring such a large presence into their company. Will the hiring of this individual cause me to alienate half of the marketplace? It’s a question that should be asked.

    3. In sports, recruitment might be done with a grading system, but that system is arbitrary at best. In the sports world, recruitment is usually carried out by scouts, who often rely on said grading systems and “gut feelings”, as was made famous by the book (and eventually blockbuster) “Money Ball.” With that said, recruiters should be taking a Money Ball approach to recruitment marketing. They should be understanding the key skills and professionals needed to drive their business, and hire based on the data, to create a lean and mean business. At Recruitics, we are always talking about optimizing recruitment marketing strategies–spending money where it needs to be spent, and allocating funds away from where it doesn’t. This helps our client’s drive their hiring initiatives efficiently and effectively and make sure that they’re not having their budgets whipped out by job advertisements that look to attract the next Lebron. These businesses are smart, because they understand that their organizations need to look past the “win now” mentality that cities like Cleveland live by. Let’s not forget, that when Lebron left Cleveland, they became the laughing stock of the league because they had no farm system in place, no talent in their system, that could fill the void left by one of the greatest players of all time.

    4. Prioritization IS important, but not in only as far as hiring “game changers” is concerned. Top talent should always take priority to its antithesis, but you wouldn’t spend 80 percent of your hiring budget, trying to hiring for only 2 percent of your open positions, would you? Funny enough, many companies are already doing this with their recruitment marketing strategies, and worse, most are woefully unaware. Rather than investing all of your resources into hiring the next Lebron, companies should be looking into their hiring processes throughout all levels of their organization to determine where they can cut wasted spend, get more lean and increase their ROI. At Recruitics, we provide our client’s with campaign- and job-level data so they can glean actionable insights to accomplish just that. And now, with end-to-end recruitment analytics, we can let our users see the exact cost-per-hire which will allow them to futher optimize their strategies, make more quality hires, and begin to build a dynasty like we see with the New England Patriots, who, even when their Hall of Fame QB Tom Brady goes down, can still make the playoffs and continue on a run to compete in another Super Bowl. (Full disclosure–I’m a New York Jets fan.)

    5. Let’s not put all of our eggs in one basket. Hiring the next Lebron might not be enough to affect the kind of change you might need to see. Lebron is a basketball player–a sport that only fields 5 players per team, at a time. In basketball, it’s easy for one player to take over the game, but unfortunately, corporations are more like baseball or football teams. The way they operate is much more interdependent and complicated, and therefore, require a much larger, much more complex, supporting cast (and that includes managers). Hiring, still, very much needs to be about the whole and not the individual. Poor management can still cost games, especially when that game-changing player is actively working against management, as Lebron often did in the 2015 NBA Finals, a series his team lost.

    6. The idea that “game-changing talent” alone can give your team a competitive advantage is a farce. Lebron, again, is the exception and not the rule. If we are to look at some of the most successful franchises of all time, they 98-01 Yankees, The New England Patriots of the last decade and beyond, The St. Louis Cardinals, the Spanish National Soccer team, etc. they all have been built from the ground up. They all took the time to look at the data, and to build great talent into every single level of their organizations. Let’s not forget, no one knew Steph Curry would turn out to be Steph Curry, even after his coming out party that was his story book NCAA Tournament campaign with Davidson. When Steph Curry came into the league, he was nothing more than an average player. But anyone who has watched Steph Curry evolve into the player he is, remembers an ESPN Sports Science segment that broke down Curry’s mechanics and said his were the most perfect of all time. Golden State was privy to this, they looked at the data and saw a super star–Curry was not Lebron who had the hype behind him, and who was crowned “King” right out of high school. Without this type of attention to detail, without looking at the data, Golden State wouldn’t be poised to take back-to-back championships, especially after setting the most wins in regular season history. Again, it’s more important to look at recruitment on a holistic and granular level, than it is to seek out the Lebrons of your industry for short term gains.

    I might be pegged as a Lebron hater after this, and to be honest you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, however Lebron is a poor recruitment example. While talent like his might only come along once in a lifetime, there are plenty important players that can be critical to a corporations success, whom might be looked over if recruitment’s focus is only geared toward finding the next Lebron. If companies were to look at their data, they would quickly see that many of them are already creating a ton of wasted spend in their current recruitment marketing strategies, simply because they lack insight into their processes and have strategies that are focused on the wrong goals. If more organizations were to pull back the hood, assess their “recruitment machine’s” current capabilities and better understand the goals they’d like to accomplish with it, they would have the tools in place to optimize and drive business through recruitment, at a much lower cost. This will allow companies to build better teams, with higher quality talent from better sources, and by cutting wasted spend they will free up important budget dollars that will come in handy when they finally find a Steph Curry of their own that they want to build a winning dynasty around. However, without the campaign- or job-level analytics (such as those provided by Recruitics), your organization could be wasting money through recruitment, which would hamper your ability to hire quality talent throughout your organization, and limit the resources available to you when it’s time to finally add a big name talent.

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