Recruiting Lessons From The Olympics

The Summer Olympics start soon and most will be focused on the athletic achievements, but the Olympics can provide many valuable lessons for recruiters. Recruiting leaders often say that they’re looking for “outside-the-box” approaches and it’s hard to argue against the fact that the Olympic recruiting approach differs significantly from the corporate recruiting model.

London 2012

What better example to emulate is there than a system that motivates and convinces thousands of individuals to make extraordinary sacrifices and to develop themselves beyond the capabilities of the athletes who preceded them? This Olympic people-management model routinely brings out world-record-breaking human performances.

So, while you’re watching the events, think about the powerful way that Olympic teams recruit and how their strategy and methods differ from the traditional and more conservative corporate approach.

Top Recruiting Lessons That Should be Learned From the Olympics

Corporate recruiters should consider the value and impact of the following top eight most impactful Olympic recruiting practices.

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  • Employer brand building — National Olympic committees do an extraordinary job of building their brand image. Making the team alone creates a level of prestige that remains with the individual for their entire life. The Olympic committees effectively build their “brand pillars” of exposure, competition, challenge, nationalism, and the opportunity to do the best work of their life. Not only does their employer brand attract and recruit the very best athletes, but it also results in a team of highly engaged and motivated individuals who actually work for free. Rather than relying on advertising, the Olympic teams spread their brand virally, relying on athletes and coaches to spread authentic messages and to make referrals. The corporate lesson to be learned — your employer brand is an extremely powerful recruiting tool that can attract and engage the very best without relying on active sourcing. A strong employer brand can overcome many corporate weaknesses including a stressful work environment, a bad location, and low pay.
  • “The work” is the most powerful attraction tool — Rather than offering perks or high pay to attract, Olympic teams focus on providing the opportunity to do “the best work of your life.” Rather than unambiguous results, every team member is guaranteed that their results will be measured, quantified, and ranked, so that it is crystal clear to everyone who produced the highest level of results. The corporate lesson to be learned — recruiting traditionally relies on managers to design jobs, even though they might not know what aspects of the job are most attractive. Instead, because the work itself is such a powerful attraction tool, recruiting needs to work with individual managers to ensure that the work itself and the position description are exciting, challenging, and even compelling. It turns out that if your firm produces world-changing products like Apple, the work itself becomes the most powerful recruiting tool for top talent. Managers and recruiters should realize that using quantified performance metrics is also a powerful attraction tool for top performers.
  • Performance results over credentials — Instead of relying on academic credentials, loyalty, or even past experience, candidates for the trials are selected based on their actual quantified performance immediately before the formal tryouts. In order to get selected, candidates must be a top performer during the trials. The corporate lesson to be learned — those with the best credentials might not turn out to be the best performers and those who have performed in the past might not be strong current performers. Corporations can hold tryouts or Internet contests to identify “hidden” performers and problem-solvers that might not have the highest level of credentials.
  • Assessment and selection of finalists using a work sample — Olympic teams use “performance-based hiring.” Candidates are required to perform in an actual event that directly mimics the Olympic event. Instead of their ability to write a great resume or perform during an interview, their performance on the actual task is the primary selection decision point. The corporate lesson to be learned — candidates should be given actual work problems or tasks to assess their current capabilities in your work environment. Interviews and reference checks can be important first steps but performance on actual work sample should be the final screening criterion.
  • “Top Grading” is essential — In Olympic recruiting, the goal is to have 100% top performers in every position. There is no room for average performers either as athletes, coaches, or in supporting roles. Top performers universally want to work alongside and learn from the very best and they see average performers as a distraction from overall team excellence. The corporate lesson to be learned — in direct contrast, many in HR are the misguided “champions” of the average. But the fact is that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so recruiting can never be satisfied with average hires. In order to dominate your industry, you must use the “top-grading” concept and target recruiting top performers in every job.
  • The recruiting and selection process is transparent — The recruiting and selection processes for Olympic teams are clearly spelled out, objective, and transparent. There is no mystery involved, and every recruit knows exactly in advance what process and criteria will be used for selecting the final athletes. The corporate lesson to be learned — In direct contrast, corporate candidates are kept the dark about the steps in the process, what is being assessed, and why. This subjectivity can unnecessarily scare away potential applicant and put unnecessary stress on recruits. A superior approach is to follow the example of the firm Research In Motion and clearly spell out what you’re trying to do and what to expect on your corporate website.
  • Quality of hire metrics allow for continuous improvement — after the Olympics are over, team leaders compare their actual results produced at the Olympics by their individual team members to their results produced during the Olympic tryouts. This comparison allows leaders to determine the predictive accuracy of their recruiting and selection process. The corporate lesson to be learned — Most corporate recruiting managers fail to take the time to link recruiting with the actual on-the-job performance of new hires. If the on-the-job performance scores of new-hires don’t directly correlate with the assessment scores during hiring, recruiting managers can then work to identify the flaws in the selection process. Quantified quality of hire metrics are also essential if recruiting is to prove and quantify its business impact and if it is to continually improve its recruiting and selection processes.
  • Revealing the business impact of recruiting — the failure of the security firm G4S to effectively recruit enough security personnel at the London Olympics demonstrates the tremendous impact that recruiting can have on operational success. If military personnel were not available to substitute for private security guards, the entire event could have been put into jeopardy. And even with this last-minute substitute, the recruiting failure definitely damaged the image of the London games. The corporate lesson to be learned — Extensive position vacancies, slow hiring, and low-quality hires can have a multimillion dollar impact on your product brand, your operational results, and your bottom line. Recruiting leaders need to do a more effective job in demonstrating the business impacts of both weak and great hiring and then recruiting must deliver on its promises.

Final Thoughts

The goals of corporation executives are similar to those of the managers of Olympic teams. They are both not satisfied with simply getting a strong performance; instead, they want to elevate to the next step so that they dominate their competition. In both cases, it takes recruiting top talent (that have many career choices) with both physical and mental toughness and great training in order to dominate. Of the two recruiting approaches, it’s obvious that the Olympic model is much more valid, reliable, and scientific.

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. So if you are a corporate recruiting manager who is always spouting off that you want more “outside-the-box recruiting solutions,” closely examine and benchmark against the Olympic recruiting model. Even if you are reluctant to accept sports analogies, this model has proven itself in the exceptionally competitive global talent competition that is the Olympics.

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.



6 Comments on “Recruiting Lessons From The Olympics

  1. Thanks, Dr. Sullivan. I think the 2012 Olympics is example of big business at its most typical (if not at its best):
    From my understanding, private businesses in the UK have put up ~$1.5G (my keyboard doesn’t have the symbol for “pounds”) of the total Olympic cost of more than $17G, with the British taxpayers funding the balance- this at a time when the Conservative/LDP Coalition government is pushing austerity measures on public services. Meanwhile, the official sponsors may make out like bandits, while the 10,000+ competing athletes are prohibited from making anything from it (with clever exceptions like *Nick Symmonds, who pointed out that a number of Competing athletes live below the poverty line). A great example of public/private partnership- the public get the losses, the private gets the profits, and the people actually doing the work get nothing.

    For a very funny mockumentary miniseries about the organizing of the 2012 Olympics, watch 2012 on BBC America .
    Some of the things they joked about in the show (like the busses getting lost on the way to the Olympic Park) have subsequently happened!




    When American Olympic athlete, Nick Symmonds, runs the men’s 800 meter competition in the 2012 London Olympics, he’ll be sporting a temporary tattoo on his left deltoid. Why temporary? Because Symmonds sold that little piece of skin for advertising space available to the highest bidder on e-Bay. The only thing is you won’t be able to see this body art during the London Olympics, because it will be covered with tape.

    At age 28, Nick Symmonds is a media-savvy runner with an entrepreneurial spirit and a chance to win gold in the 800 meter race. The winner of the e-Bay auction, Hanson Dodge Creative, is a marking and advertising agency in Milwaukee. What did they get for their $11,100? A temporary tattoo of the Hanson Dodge logo and Twitter name on the runner’s deltoid. While he can’t show it while running in London, it has been on display as he trains. The company considers the money spent well worth it. They’ve increased media exposure and have already been featured in The New York Times.

    Why will the tattoo be covered?

    Since it’s Symmonds’ body, and he chooses to wear the tattoo, why does it have to be covered when he competes in the 2012 Olympics? It seems Symmonds started the auction to draw attention to what, in his opinion, are outdated sponsorship policies by USA Track and field. The current restrictions require him to cover the tattoo during the races. Other limitations prohibit him from appearing in ads for brands or companies that aren’t Olympic sponsors, from July 18-August 18. Symmonds has used the temporary tattoo and auction to challenge the highly-controlled branding rules he and many others feel are outdated.

    Symmonds is currently ranked first in the United States and sixth in the world. When he competes, tape will cover the temporary tattoo during the races. Something paid for by a sponsor. “Domestically, I’m allowed to display the tattoo, but internationally according to IAAF and IOC rules, I have to tape over it,” Symmonds told CNBC. He hopes this effort may help make it possible for athletes to control their own sponsorship in future Olympics.

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