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

by Jul 12, 2010, 5:22 am ET

Recruiting history was made this month. You may not be aware that last week 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 of the past eight weeks.

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. There are 10 activities involved in developing a deep understanding of your target and creating a candidate profile. They include:

  1. Identify factors that trigger a job search — a job opportunity by itself will not be enough to trigger a game-changer into job search mode. Instead, a combination of a positive job opportunity and the simultaneous occurrence of a negative factor that makes the target uncomfortable in their current situation is needed. To time your recruiting effort precisely, you need to be aware of what negative triggering events could arise and when they are most likely to occur. You must conduct research and interviews with those who know your recruiting target extremely well in order to compile a list of the specific events likely to trigger a desired change. Such events might include a corporate merger, management turnover, corporate scandal, or a significant cut to their budget.
  2. Map their job search process — whenever a game-changer does begin to consider change, you need to understand and map out the process they will use. If you fish using bait, you understand that to catch a trophy fish you need to understand how a trophy fish searches for food. Likewise, recruiters must find out how their target found opportunities in the past, how and where they research opportunities, and what factors get an opportunity on their “short list” of opportunities to consider. Once you fully understand how, when, and where they find opportunities, you need to customize your approach to mirror their activities. Additionally, there must be a process to reevaluate the quality of your recruiting process against world-class standards, because a game-changer will likely judge your entire organization based on the experience they receive. It is quite common for recruits to assume that their candidate experience is a direct reflection on how they will be treated when they become an employee.
  3. Determine who must do the recruiting — in many cases, game-changers expect to bypass traditional recruiters and instead be contacted and recruited by professionals of similar stature (or even by senior executives). As a result, you must identify their expectations and shift the initial contact and much of the recruiting to individuals who they respect and trust. Leading off with the wrong person can result in your opportunity being filtered.
  4. Identify the best way to communicate and to reach them — if you want prospects to respond to your messages, you need to understand their communication preferences. That means you must research their most-favored way to communicate (i.e. in person, telephone calls, text messages, e-mail, on Facebook, etc.) and what must be in a message for them to respond to it. You must also identify other opportunities to communicate with them, including events they attend, publications they read, and websites and blogs regularly visited. If you do not know precisely where they “lurk,” you dramatically reduce the chances on reaching them. It is also important to note that the sites game-changers frequently are likely to be learning on content sites related to their professional growth, rather than job or career-oriented sites.
  5. Identify the factors that will grab their initial attention — due to the volume and level of competition for their attention, if you expect to get on their short list, you need to identify the factors that would cause them to initially consider your opportunity. Once you identify the factors that will get their initial attention, you must make sure that compelling information on those factors is clearly visible on the sites they routinely visit. You may also have to educate their friends and colleagues about your organization, so that they will know about you and as a result, may speak highly of your organization during their interactions with your recruiting target. If you are an unknown organization or if you have a weak employer brand image, this step is even more important in order to prevent them from immediately ignoring your opportunity.
  6. Identify the decision criteria they will use to accept an interview — game-changers routinely turn down opportunities to interview for new positions, so understanding what it takes to excite them about a particular interview invitation is a critical factor in the game-changer recruiting process. Identifying interview acceptance criteria requires extensive research and benchmarking and some guesswork. In the end, you must develop a ranked list of the criteria that they will use when deciding whether to accept an invitation and make sure that you convincingly communicate each of them in all of your initial recruiting and interview-related communications.
  7. Identify “deal breaker” or knockout factors — in addition to positive criteria that game-changers will use to filter opportunities, there are also negative factors that will influence their decisions. Your research must identify each of these “deal breakers” (i.e. a weak boss, no budget, restricted decision-making, a lack of control, etc.,) and ensure that there is not even a hint of one of them present within the organization.
  8. Identify their decision criteria and the information they need to accept a job offer — this is without a doubt the most critical step in the overall process. Consider the recruiting process similar to the sales process for big-ticket item. In both cases, successfully making a sale requires understanding a customer’s buying criteria and a product that meets that criteria as closely as possible. Some identify a candidate’s job acceptance decision criteria by asking them directly at the beginning of the interview process, or by interviewing friends and colleagues. Typical decision criteria include their degree of independence, the extent of their authority, their ability to build their own team, their ability to select projects, and the availability of ample resources. The entire interview process must be geared toward convincing them that this job meets every one of their acceptance criteria. It is also important to periodically ask them during critical points in the interview process if you are successfully meeting their criteria.To ensure that the target candidate remains engaged in the process, give them some input into it, so that they do not view it as inflexible. Ask them what specific information they need and what questions they need answered before they can make an affirmative decision. You should also ask them who they must meet and talk with before they can make a final decision on your offer. The overall interview process should provide them with an excellent candidate experience and you should use it not just as an assessment tool but also as an opportunity to provide a comprehensive sales pitch.
  9. Identify who will influence their decision — game-changers are much more apt to consult with and seek the advice of friends and colleagues than the average candidate. As a result, make an attempt to identify and then proactively “sell” those individuals who will influence the candidate’s final decision. Incidentally, the process of identifying and educating “influencers” on the powerful selling points of your firm needs to start at the very beginning of the interview process.
  10. Develop a counteroffer strategy — it would be highly unusual for a game-changer not to get a compelling counteroffer from their current organization. Because the normal reaction of a game-changer is to “stay put in a known environment,” you need to proactively research what that counteroffer is likely to be and to prepare a compelling strategy to overcome it. In addition, you should anticipate that the game-changer will get several external offers, so you need to do your research and benchmarking to ensure that your initial offer is clearly superior and most closely aligns with your candidate’s dream job.

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.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • http://www.johnstonsearch.com/about.php Brian Kevin Johnston

    Dr. Sullivan- Great article… I LOVE sports, and LOVE recruiting, so I was so excited to read this article… I am also learning to LOVE marketing, and that is exactly why I read it.. You tied a “headline” story into content directly correlated to our recruiting… BRILLIANT!

    “Identify factors that trigger a job search” This is the difference between recruiter’s who “spin there wheals” and the ones who are “Sharp shooters”.

    Like hunting for Elephants (prospects) we must use a rifle, NOT a shotgun….

    Best, Brian-

  • Fred Mitchem

    Dr. Sullivan
    I think the Game Changer concept is a great. Personally I enjoy the challenge of competing for top performers and this article has given me additional ideas as to what it will take to win them for my employer.

    Thank you for this insightful perspective.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thank you, Dr. Sullivan.

    1) Most organizations aren’t in a situation where there are only five individuals providing vital services to the company, and each of them needs to be a superstar in order for the organization to thrive.

    2) What’s a superstar accountant, or office manager, or field-service tech? How is “superstar” defined except in terms of sales?

    3) “Google for example has estimated that a top performer generates three hundred times more revenue than an average performer.” How do they calculate that? Again, what’re their definitions of “top performer”? What says that applicable to Google is applicable to other companies?

    4) ISTM that a company that is filled with indispensable individuals is very vulnerable.

    5) I’m always running across companies that want “the best”, but aren’t able to afford even “the rest”.

    Thanks again for the stimulating article.

    Keith

  • Martin Snyder

    A good article grafted to a flawed premise/headline.

    1) its clear as day that LBJ was going to play wherever Wade and Bosh were going to play. There is a recruiting lesson there, but it was not approached in this article.

    2) LBJ has not met sky-high expectations, and his brand has taken a huge and possibly fatal hit with this circus everywhere but South Florida.

    3) All the focus and work on LBJ left his employer a shell, with no plan B and no repeatable, sustainable advantages or positioning.

    4) He puts a ball in a hoop and prevents other men from doing the same for a living. I’m never one to underplay how important entertainment is to a well-lived life, but “recruiting” and this whole deal seems a little degenerate, even for the USA in 2010. I dont think its going to be seen as a positive example of *anything* down the line.

  • Jim Doherty

    Imagine if we did take the TIME and EFFORT to apply this process to every recruiting assignment. Imagine the gains in candidate experience and our brand, not to mention the outcomes produced by the quality of hires.

    We also need to realize that by deploying this level of recruiting effort success is not guaranteed, the recruit can only accept and start one opportunity. We need to have a Plan B to maintain our brand and committment to recruiting at this level if we are not successful in signing our #1 choice.

    Now that we have signed our top recruit the real challenge begins. How do we ‘win’ the championship? More pieces of the puzzle need to fall into place and may be even more difficult to assemble.

    There are more chapters to this case study.

  • http://www.brandeblog.com Jody Ordioni

    Love the update John. Now I will have to change my blogpost to take out Michael Jordan.

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