Why Sports Recruiters Are Heroes, and Corporate Recruiters Aren’t

Have you ever noticed that in the sports world, recruiters are treated as heroes? They have huge budgets and their managers spend a great deal of time and resources on the continuous identification of top talent. Everyone on the team knows who recruited Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Shaq. In sharp contrast, corporate recruiters are treated like dogs. Their methods are less aggressive and their results are often mediocre. Perhaps a side-by-side comparison will help you understand the dramatic differences between sports recruiting and corporate recruiting. But don’t stop with just a comparison. Rethink your approach and shift it to be more like the sports recruiting model. The results will amaze you. The New York Yankees vs. Corporate Recruiting For this example I’ve chosen the New York Yankees, a sports team with a continuous record of excellence in both recruiting top talent and subsequently winning championships. Making Recruiting an Essential Function

  • The Yankees’ approach: The Yankees have quantified the value of recruiting and retaining top performers. As a result, recruiting has been elevated to an essential function and a critical success factor in winning. Top players are paid as much as 30 times more than the average player (because the performance differential between the top and the average player has been proven to be so great).
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  • The typical corporate approach: The recruiting function is “stuck” in HR. Top performers get 30 percent ó not 30 times ó more in pay, because HR has failed to demonstrate the economic value of recruiting and retaining top performers. Making Recruiting a Continuous Process
  • The Yankees’ approach: They take a “talent scout” approach to recruiting. Pre-identifying, pre-assessing and pre-selling top talent is a continuous process for them. Recruiting top performers begins well before they are needed (what we call “pre-need hiring”). Because the candidate screening process takes place over a longer period of time, assessment errors are less likely to happen.
  • The typical corporate approach: Corporate recruiting is a reactive short-term process that only begins after a requisition is approved. We recruit “strangers,” who are much more likely to fool us during the relatively short interview and assessment process Focusing on Employed Top Performers
  • The Yankees’ approach:The Yankees recruit only currently employed top performers from competitors (we call it poaching). Direct poaching helps their team immediately, while hurting the competitor.
  • The typical corporate approach: Corporate recruiting primarily recruits the unemployed, or “active,” job seekers. Because they’re unemployed, they’re less likely to be superstars (sorry, but that’s a fact). Corporate recruiters are afraid to focus on poaching because of “ethical issues” and their concern that the competitor might in turn raid them. Hiring When “They” Are Available
  • The Yankees’ approach: They hire top talent whenever it becomes available. They hire top performers even if the position is currently filled. Even after winning the championship, they are still likely to replace up to 20 percent of their talent with new recruits.
  • The typical corporate approach: We hire only when we have a position vacancy. We typically fire less than two percent of the workforce. Ensuring Continuous Funding
  • The Yankees’ approach: Whether they are winning or losing they still spend the same amount of resources on recruiting, because they realize that in order to remain successful they must continually attract top talent and drop average talent.
  • The typical corporate approach: The budget for corporate recruiting is cut back dramatically when corporate income drops. Even though managers know they will need different talent with new skills in the future, they don’t begin recruiting until the company begins an economic turnaround. Corporations do not routinely drop average performers for any reason, but certainly not just because top performers become available on the market (a talent swap). Hiring All Top Performers
  • The Yankees’ approach: Sports recruiters identify and hire all of the available talent in order to get an “unfair share.” This strengthens their team and weakens the competitor.
  • The typical corporate approach: Corporate recruiters only hire enough talent to fill today’s requisitions, and then they inexplicitly stop. Recruiting is done independently based on budget without any attempt to weaken the competitors. Starting Early and Using Referrals
  • The Yankees’ approach: Talent is identified everywhere and starts as early as high school. Most recruiting is done through referrals and watching players in action. Teams have a continuously updated list of “who’s who” in every position.
  • The typical corporate approach: Corporate recruiters, in contrast, concentrate on sources like newspaper ads, job fairs, and job boards that don’t produce near the quality of candidate as referrals do. Using these sources and strategy is paramount to admitting that we start out the recruiting process ignorant of the available talent, without already knowing who the top performers in the field are. Measuring the Performance of the Hire
  • The Yankees’ approach: Teams measure the performance of their hire. They use this information to continuously learn and to improve their hiring processes.
  • The typical corporate approach: Corporate recruiting measures the cost and speed of hire, but seldom measures the performance of those they hire. There is no feedback loop to ensure that we learn from both our good and bad hires. Firing Bad Managers
  • The Yankees’ approach: Great managers are hired and fired based on their ability to recruit and win. Bad recruiting managers are fired.
  • The typical corporate approach: Mediocre managers are allowed to stay even though we know that A players will not work for C managers, and that C managers can’t recruit A players. Hiring Fast
  • The Yankees’ approach: Hiring decisions are made within a week, because the candidates have been pre-identified and pre-screened. Decisions are made rapidly because top talent might only be available for several days.
  • The typical corporate approach: Hiring decisions take up to three months and, as a result, top talent often goes elsewhere. Prioritizing Positions
  • The Yankees’ approach: Resources and time are spent recruiting for top talent to fill key positions. Lesser positions get little or no resources.
  • The typical corporate approach: All positions are treated equally and the same identical tools and recruiting strategies are used for nearly every position. Rewarding Success
  • The Yankees’ approach: Recruiters are rewarded and praised for great hiring. The recommendations of recruiters with a higher success rate are weighted more heavily than those with weak track records.
  • The typical corporate approach: There is no pay for performance…and recruiters are treated like “dogs.” Identifying Their Needs To Make the Sale
  • The Yankees’ approach: Because top talent is in high demand, top players are hard to convince. Sports teams treat top recruits as individuals and identify their specific needs. They tailor the recruiting approach and the offer to their specific needs.
  • The typical corporate approach: Corporate recruiters craft standard offers. Most recruiters are unaware of the decision criteria that top performers use before they make a job switch. Conclusion By comparing and contrasting the two approaches it is easy to see the difference between them. The sports approach looks at recruiting as the essential function in winning. As a result, they expect everyone on the team to be a talent scout. Huge resources are put into recruiting because the economic value of hiring a top performer is obvious in sports. Unfortunately, corporate recruiters have failed to quantify the value of hiring a top performer. As a result, they suffer from continuous cost cutting. Reduced resources means they are destined to use a recruiting process that focuses on recruiting average performers. Sports recruiting is so advanced because the consequences of the hire is much more obvious. A single bad hire will result in an unending barrage of criticism on talk radio, TV, and in newspapers, so sports teams take recruiting much more seriously. On the corporate side, politically correct HR people reject the “sports analogy” out of hand without examining the facts and similarities. Because most corporate recruiters have never met a sports recruiter (they are at any major college) they’re missing a golden opportunity to see how the best recruiters in the world approach their jobs. The difference is startling!

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," Staffing.org 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 www.drjohnsullivan.com and on staging.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.



2 Comments on “Why Sports Recruiters Are Heroes, and Corporate Recruiters Aren’t

  1. Nice article, finally someone stepping up without trying to over analyze and over glorify recruiting. Human capital management is a nice catch phrase but it’s meaningless. Recruiters have forgotten basic fundamentals about sourcing / poaching and diluted the profession into a reactive administrative function.

    This is the reality check to the article that recently questioned recruiting ethics (and I quote):

    2. “Talent theft.”

    Some staffing agencies are notorious for “penetrating” companies via the “backdoor” to reach particular company employees to literally entice and steal them from specific organizations. Sometimes entire departments are wooed. More often than not, getting through the “backdoor” involves lying, stealing of phone lists, and knowingly violating that corporations policies on solicitations. In my opinion, this activity is no different than the felony of breaking and entering to steal a corporation’s very critical property.

    This paragraph shuns a fundamental job function in a futile attempt to over value our responsibilities. That article attempted to increase the value by lessening the abilities of the recruiters. Dr. Sully candy coats nothing, basically saying that to add value we must add top 10% talent to our clients.

    It’s an interesting contradiction of philosophies, haven’t we all learned our lesson from the pipers of the “new” economy? Doesn’t pure fundamentalism, as boring and hard as it sometimes can be, work?

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  2. I just read Dr. John’s article, and as always, he is so On-Target, and as a big Yankee fan I really enjoyed the comparison.

    As a former corporate recruiting VP that left to manage a retained third party firm, many of the key points of the article really hit home. My guess is that the majority of third party recruiters fully understood the Yankee?s methods, and is glad to see that many of their corporate clients don?t since it will keep them rolling in fees. My guess is also that the corporate recruiters who read this article will think that Dr. John is way off the mark or at least very unrealistic.

    From my experience, the majority (but not all) of corporate recruiting teams are staffed with HR folks that found ER, Comp, O&D or Bennies weren’t their cup of tea after all and somehow fell into the recruiting game. The temperament and disposition of these HR people is diametrically opposed to what is needed in an effective top-flight recruiter. Making calls directly into a competitor to isolate and develop rapport with a top performer is not only viewed by this HR recruiter as unethical, but it also goes against their personality type. They aren’t suited to this type of work and need to have the candidate flow fall into their laps as opposed to going out and getting it. It?s not their fault; they?re just in the wrong job. Their best path to top talent is usually aligning themselves with a third party recruiter who will do this for them. As long as this persists in the corporate recruiting ranks, the TPR side of the industry will continue to cheer!

    Finally, without a doubt the inactive or semi-active (employed but under challenged) candidate should be major criteria for anyone under consideration. The top 10% that we talk to on a regular basis are not found on the beach. They’re found working like crazy for a company they enjoy being associated with and are more interested in their next challenging project – not their next company. These people are the best and the brightest, and we rely on their smarts to listen to us for the opportunities that exist so that a small percentage will be intrigued enough to throw their hat into the ring. It’s not easy work, but success never is, and we’re counting on many in our industry to continue to take the short cut so we’ll continue to be in demand. To Dr. John?s point, there is a reason that the sports industry calls their recruiters “scouts!”

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