6 Hiring Lessons from the NBA Lakers’ Clumsy Recruiting Efforts


The best people are very discriminating, and those with multiple opportunities are not comparing your job to no job; they’re comparing your job to other comparable and competitive positions.

In a blog post last week I was high on the Lakers’ approach to hiring until the results were known. They got 80% right, but couldn’t close the deal. LaMarcus Aldridge was targeted as their next big man to help return the luster to this once storied basketball franchise. Instead he went to the Spurs for the same money but a better career move.

Like so many managers who can’t attract the best talent, the Lakers have a recruiting problem. They talk too much, don’t understand the candidates’ motivating needs and sold the sizzle, not the substance of the job. Whether it’s basketball or any other important job, when a hot prospect has multiple opportunities, recruiting matters.

Every manager who wants to hire a top person can learn some valuable lessons from the Lakers’ inability to land a top player. Here are a few you might want to consider.

Use a consultative recruiting approach for hiring.

Recruiting the best active and passive candidates is equivalent to solution selling. This involves the sales rep (the recruiter and hiring manager team) conducting customer needs analysis as part of the discovery process and, based on the findings, crafting a competitive proposal. In the case of a candidate for a job, it’s a great career move and one that’s superior to the competition.

Stop the selling and start listening. Hard. 

When you first meet a prospect, determine what the person is looking for before selling the open job. Hiring the best person for any job is a consultative recruiting process, not a transaction. Forget the employer branding sizzle and the generic hyperbole. The best people are very discriminating, and those with multiple opportunities are not comparing your job to no job; they’re comparing your job to other comparable and competitive positions.

Start with an exploratory career conversation.

If the person is not actively looking for another job, start the recruiting conversation with a potential prospect with something like, “Would you be open to chat about a career opportunity if it were superior to your current situation?” Most people will say yes. Sell the conversation, not your open job. This is a lot less threatening, more professional and far more appropriate when dealing with passive candidates.

Put the vision statement into the initial high-level overview.

When a person says they’re willing to discuss a possible career opportunity, don’t describe your open position with details and jargon. Instead, provide a one-minute high-level overview of the position including its purpose, why it's open and how the job relates to an important project or company initiative. When a job is part of an important mission candidate interest increases, since this is what drives on-the-job satisfaction and motivation.

Conduct a 10-minute needs analysis by getting the candidate to talk first.

Once some basic interest is established, don’t go into sales mode; ask lots of questions instead. Find out the candidate’s job hunting status and ask the candidate to describe his or her current job, some of the big projects worked on and what he/she likes most and least. As part of this, look for gaps between what the person is doing and what your job offers. You need to find 4-5 factors that collectively represent a potential career opportunity which sets up the next step.

Establish a 30% non-monetary increase as the threshold for a career move.

Aside from compensation, the big differentiators for a person with multiple opportunities are job stretch (a bigger job with more impact), job satisfaction (doing work the person finds more intrinsically motivating), and job growth. Mention to the candidate that for a job to represent a career move the sum of these factors needs to be at least 30%. This is referred to as the opportunity gap. Then describe the 4-5 factors areas you believe meet this threshold and suggest another meeting to get more information.

Put money in the parking lot.

Don’t negotiate the job before it’s fully understood. Too many candidates and recruiters alike filter each other in and out by discussing compensation before they’re willing to get into specifics about the job or reveal too much about themselves. If a candidate asks me about compensation too soon, I just suggest we should first see if the job represents a career move, then we’ll see if the compensation is appropriate. If the non-monetary factors are over 30%, compensation becomes much less important.

There’s more to recruiting top prospects than what’s described here but what’s described here will set the stage for what comes next. Hiring managers need to recognize their role in recruiting top candidates. It starts by understanding real job needs, understanding the candidate’s motivating needs and crafting a career solution. It doesn’t happen by force-fitting a person into some ill-defined job and hoping for the best.

This is what the Lakers tried to do, and failed. If you’re a hiring manager or a recruiter, the Lakers’ approach will fail for you, too.

5 Hiring Lessons from the Lakers and the NBA


Being a disappointed Lakers basketball fan these past few years, I’m watching the NBA draft and free agency season more closely than usual. Whether you’re a basketball fan or not, how the Lakers went about identifying whom they wanted to hire and then assessing and recruiting them, offers great advice for any manager who wants to build a great team.

Here are my five big hiring takeaways from the NBA Lakers hiring process.

One: Understand the team needs before hiring a bunch of similarly skilled individual contributors.

The Lakers need a big man in the center for defense and rebounding. They also needed a point guard who could quarterback the floor. They got one in the draft and hope to get the other through free agency. Each hiring decision impacts the next one.

Hiring Lesson: Too many hiring managers focus too much on a narrow set of skills and experiences, ignoring the fact that some people need to be great organizers, some need to think creatively and strategically, and others need to bring a multi-functional and user perspective to the team.

Two: Define the job before defining the person.

For any professional athlete the parameters of success are known. In basketball, the best players jump higher, run faster, shoot and pass better and put in more extra effort to improve. The job description doesn’t say they must have 5-10 years of basketball playing experience, have attended a Division I school, be responsible for scoring 15 points a game and have high EQ. Just because someone meets the skills criteria doesn’t mean the person will be a great pro NBA basketball player.

Hiring Lesson: Define the job as a series of performance objectives, not years of experiences and a list of required skills. Focus on outcomes and how the best people use their skills on the job, not the skills themselves. For example, some of the best coders know how to use off-the-shelf tools to quickly create robust applications and the best people on the help desk know what questions to ask harried customers.

Three: Make sure the person is performance-qualified first and a good cultural fit second.

For the Lakers a great number of players were invited for a pre-draft workout. They were then put through the paces to see if they met the minimum standards of performance. Those who passed these challenging tests were paired with others to engage in a series of 3-on-3 games to handle specific on-the-job challenges. A smaller group of these people then spent a few spent hours meeting with the coaches and team management to understand the person’s character and motivation.

Hiring Lesson: Before making any judgment about fit and personality, determine if the person can do the actual work in the actual situation. To get at this in an interview dig deep into the person’s major accomplishments, then have the person present the solution to a problem likely to be faced on the job. Cultural fit will emerge from these performance-based questions.

Four: Consider talent an investment, not a transaction.

What I found most surprising was how much time was spent with each prospective player off the court in meetings, social sessions and having meals together. In addition, previous coaches were called to better understand the candidate’s character, work ethic, learning ability, how the person dealt with adversity and the person’s leadership ability. These are not soft skills. They’re the foundation of the person’s character and ability to succeed

Hiring Lesson: Hiring the best is not a transaction that can be delegated, it’s an investment in each hiring manager’s future success. Given this level of importance, as much time as necessary should be invested in making the right decision. The reason most managers never have enough time to do it right is because they didn’t do it right the first time.

Five: Recruiting matters.

Think of the draft as the active candidate market and free agency as the passive talent pool. In the NBA, drafted players have only one choice. The best free agents normally make the same amount of money on any team that’s interested in them, but select the one that’s the best fit. The team that wants the best of any season’s free agents does the most recruiting. Everyone is involved in this including coaches, management and other key players. Those who do the best job of recruiting land the best passive candidates. FYI: The Lakers dropped the ball on this factor and lost a great opportunity to hire a great player.

Hiring Lesson: Hiring the best passive candidates and the best active candidates who have choices requires strong consultative recruiting skills, extraordinary recruiters and fully-engaged managers.

These are good hiring lessons whether you want to hire an elite NBA player or just one extraordinary person to improve the performance of your entire team. It starts by fully understanding the job and then finding someone who can do it extraordinarily well.