Learning from a Parallel Universe: What Sports Agents Can Teach Us

Parallel universes–universes that mirror our own but add some reflection and distortion–help us look at ourselves in a different way. One of these parallel universes is that of a sports agent/talent scout. What they do is observe, evaluate, and recommend talent to various general managers and coaches. By traveling to high school and college games, by chatting with high school and college coaches, and by constantly being tuned in to the sport they recruit for–be it basketball, football or tennis–they consistently come up with winners. Even though not everyone they recruit ends up being a Michael Jordan or a Joe Montana, most of their recruits form the solid, everyday list of players that make up most teams. Every once in a while they find a Jordan or Montana. Why can’t the majority of corporate recruiters do this? I think they could, if they would follow the precepts below:

  1. Be “out there” looking for talent all the time. Good recruiters never sleep. Go to where the talent is and spend the time necessary to develop relationships and get to know key influencers and those people candidates respect. Knowing where to look is probably half the recipe for success.
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  3. Develop a way to evaluate the people you see. What rules of thumb do you have to judge whether or not a person would be good for your company? Talent scouts have checklists and informal but effective ways of deciding whether or not to pursue a person. These checklists–formal or informal–can be drawn up from conversations with managers who have hired great people. They can be put together from personal observation or from analysis of competencies. Some recruiters can relate the skills a person shows on the job back to things in their resume. Whatever works is good. What is important is to have a process of evaluation that is constantly checked against reality and perception.
  4. Back in the office, build an understanding that you will be focused outside the organization a lot. You have to sell this concept in most companies I work with, because it is not natural to have people spending half or more of their time at events and activities outside the company. Yet this is exactly what is needed in a successful recruiter. The recruiter that stays inside all the time cannot possibly be meeting the people that will form the next generation of employees. The reason that agencies are often used is simple: they have the connections and contacts outside the organization that internal recruiters don’t have. Remember that effective talent scouts are never found in one spot. They spend 80% to 90% of their time on the road, at games, traveling and evaluating–at least during the season. Even though a corporate recruiter has a longer season, they can still be focused externally more than internally.
  5. Become a friend and coach to the candidates who have potential. A good talent scout befriends prospective candidates, stays in touch throughout their school career, gives advice and counsel, and acts as if it is inevitable that a player will come to the minors or try out for the team. This relationship building process is what I am constantly preaching about because IT WORKS. Yet, too often I find that recruiters are consumed with paperwork and internal politics–to the point that their ability to recruit erodes. Finding candidates who have the right skills is much more important than finding the candidate who is willing to work for your firm right now. While both are important, the supply of fresh candidates can only come from this process of relationship building.
  6. Talent agents in the sports world have been working with a constrained supply of talent forever. There are always more sports positions to fill than talented candidates to fill them, so the scouts have become adept at assessing talent and at developing it by leveraging the relationships they have with candidates. A really effective talent scout is an agent who does more than just recruit. He or she helps the candidate develop the necessary skills to play (interview/work) successfully and steers the candidate to the right manager at the right time. Corporate recruiters ought to do the same thing. They need to work on finding potentially great candidates, developing a relationship with these candidates, and then helping them get whatever skills they may need to be successful. Then, when the timing is right, they can steer the right candidate to the right manager–a manger who has developed respect for the recruiter because of past success.

All of what I have just written about requires two things: thinking and observing what people in parallel occupations do in their situations, and then experimenting by applying some of the parallel principles to their own situation. While it sounds easy to do this, it is very difficult in practice. It is much easier to do everything the same old way and not challenge existing paradigms. But by observing how things are done in parallel worlds, a recruiter can open new doors to success.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.


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