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The Story is Not About Sports; It’s About Talent

photo of people in professional outfits, lined up on a stadium running track and ready to race

Rob Thompson, Head of Thought Leadership, Allegis Group

People either love or hate sports talk on TV and radio. Whatever your persuasion, it’s impossible to ignore all the stories that feed the ESPNs of the world. Whether talking about Lebron James’ next move, an owner’s treatment of players, scandals, contracts, suspensions, or the new classes of players coming out of college, the news echoes through millions of conversations around thousands of real and virtual water coolers around the world every day. And yet, no one talks about the work that great talent acquisition organizations do for millions of employers and job seekers around the world every day – or do they?

None of the examples of sports topics mentioned above takes place on the field. They are about organizations, looking to attract and retain people with rare skills, and ensure that they deliver measurable impact to the business. With that in mind, here are several recurring themes that show the field of talent management is much more than a straight-laced business function. Its issues are central to the bright lights of the stadiums, fields, rinks, courts, and TV sets that make athletes an integral part of our culture today.

Employer Brand

When was the last time a player accepted a lower pay rate to play for a team with a larger chance of winning a championship? Think of professional basketball player Kevin Durant in late 2017, leaving a potential $9.5 million on the table to stay with the champion Golden State Warriors – employer branding in action. As part of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the organization must balance its promise of value and strength of its brand with the cost of talent. The brand promise for the Warriors was very simple: stay with us and win a championship. This message was not based on marketing; it was conveyed by last year’s history.

A strong employer brand is more than just a nice-to-have quality for attracting talent; it has real implications on the cost of talent and the ability to secure the best people for the job. In this regard, employer brand is about experience, not just messaging, as no amount of marketing can replace or alter a reputation for winning.

Sourcing Talent

In American baseball, some of the best athletes come from a “farm” system, where organizations commit to developing the people they need to deliver wins in the future. The 1994 Yankees AAA Columbus Clippers, a minor league team in Ohio affiliated with the professional New York Yankees team, featured Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera. These players went on to join the Yankees, who won five World Series championships with one or a combination of those players over the next two decades.

Sometimes talent is acquired in a gamble as a newcomer to the workforce. For example, the New England Patriots selected Tom Brady as the 199th overall pick in the sixth round of the 2000 National Football League (NFL) draft. Brady, as we know, went on to lead the team to five Super Bowl championships. Other times, talent is sourced from places outside industry norms – think of the success of Yao Ming (China), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria), and today’s phenome from Greece, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Where is the next great talent coming from? The answer can make the difference between a dynasty and an also-ran.

Screening Talent

How can an organization predict the success of the candidates it considers? Screening talent is a leading story for nearly every season and off-season in every major sport. Qualifications and experience matter. Hype matters. Performance on tests matters. However, the tests themselves are a subject of controversy.

Consider the NFL combine, a gathering where prospective players are assessed on physical skills, participate in interviews, and take aptitude tests. Here is one quoted assessment result for an NFL hopeful in 2000: “poor build, skinny, lacks great physical stature and strength … can’t drive the ball downfield … gets knocked down easily.”

That player was Tom Brady.

Every assessment system has its flaws, and in business, organizations continue to adopt new and better ways to gain a true picture of a candidate’s potential.

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I)

D&I is one of the more obvious crossover talent issues for sports and business. Think of Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and others who broke through barriers to inclusion. But also think of Chris Ernst and the Yale women’s rowing team, who protested because they were forced to ride the bus in wet clothes after cold, drenching workouts while their male counterparts could change in the male showers at the boathouse. The women’s team was part of a movement that brought women into the mainstream of college sports, bringing to life the famous Title IX law that, oddly, has no mention of sports:

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

The implications of every sports breakthrough mirror the issues that shape the D&I landscape in talent and business today. Companies recognize the performance advantages of diversity. They recognize the need to build an inclusive employee culture that advances great workers regardless of gender, gender orientation, ethnicity, disability, veteran status, or any other diverse background. Yet, the struggle to overcome the unconscious biases that stand in the way of opportunity will continue in every industry.

These themes are just a few examples of those that make sports one of the most talent-management focused fields in business and life. Professionals who strive to move their careers forward, and talent advisors who strive to connect talent with opportunity, are both on missions that shape lives. They don’t have the bright lights or standing ovations, but we do know that when it comes to meeting talent with opportunity in business, the equivalent of a championship is on the line every day.

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