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The LeBron James Generation Of Talent Strategy

Do you remember LeBron James' “I’m Taking My Talents To South Beach” moment? LeBron did take his talents elsewhere for a few years to get what he actually wanted out of his professional career -- namely, a championship. But in the end, his values and sense of purpose brought him back to his roots in Cleveland. In the current job market, skilled workers are in such high demand, they can theoretically go anywhere they want. Surviving and thriving in the age of disruption means learning to retain the best talent, and that requires actively measuring and monitoring culture.

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The LeBron James Generation Of Talent Strategy

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images / Via nba.com

LeBron James has become a sublime sports talent of his generation. Sure, LeBron has lost a few times in the NBA Finals, but for the past decade he’s been one of the most consistently great players across all sports -- and he continues to reaffirm this, most recently with his latest Finals MVP award and the Championship he just brought home to Cleveland.

Do you remember the “I’m Taking My Talents To South Beach” moment? It became a broad pop culture touchstone -- chances are you even remember where you were when LeBron announced he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in a Greenwich, CT gym, back in 2010. He did take his talents to South Beach, won two NBA Championships, and then ended up returning to Cleveland.

LeBron was broadly destroyed for that moment, so much so that NIKE made campaigns with him transparently addressing it in later years. We’ve forgotten some of that initial outrage now, though; it’s been washed away in the championships and the return to Cleveland.

LeBron’s logic at the time of “The Decision” was that he left for a better chance at a championship. You can’t put yourself in the same legacy discussion with guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant if you are without “rings,” and Cleveland didn’t seem close to capturing a ring; they had been swept in the 2007 NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs and lost repeatedly in the Eastern Conference playoffs to teams like the Boston Celtics.

LeBron took his talents elsewhere for a few years to get what he actually wanted out of his professional career -- namely, a championship. But in the end, his values and sense of purpose brought him back to his roots in Cleveland.

I was recently reminded of the whole LeBron arc when I had dinner with a millennial developer who is a core member of the founding team at Waggl, the company I currently spearhead. We’re based in the Bay Area, but this team member is based out of Philadelphia. He’s a young, passionate and super talented. Since Waggl focuses on helping organizations actively manage their culture and stay on the authentic pulse of their employees, I decided to ‘drink our own champagne,’ (which is much better than eating your own dog food) so to speak, and have a conversation with him about these topics.

When we got to the idea of “Why work here (as opposed to anywhere else)” -- he said something that stuck with me: “I have a set of skills that the market needs right now. I’m not meaning to sound cocky but I could take my talents to a lot of different companies but I choose to work here because I believe in the problem we are trying to solve, enjoy working with the team, feel like I’m making a difference, and am able to contribute every day.”

My first thought was, “Wait, did you just throw down a LeBron line?!” But after thinking about this a bit more, I realized that this millennial team member I was having dinner with had just told me he could theoretically go anywhere (within reason), but he chose to stay at Waggl because he was engaged, liked the experience we were providing, connected with our mission and values, and liked the environment (people and the culture).

Let’s think about this a little more broadly, in terms of today’s workforce. Hiring is back up considerably since 2008. There are, generally-speaking, jobs available. This is more true in certain technology fields when you can speak today’s romance languages like Ruby and Python. Talented and driven people have more choices than they did even a few years ago.

The power dynamic has shifted from the hiring managers to the employees. That creates a context where employees with needed skills can take their talents to South Beach, the Bay Area, NYC, or Texas … or wherever they want.

We have been treating our millennial employees a bit like enigmas, although we shouldn’t. We should treat them just like we’d treat any generation working with us and delivering solid performance; be respectful, realize they have lives outside of their jobs, and empower them with transparent and authentic conversations about what’s really going on inside your organization.

That’s what most employees want -- and deserve -- although we’re still in a business mindset, broadly-speaking, where executives tend to be more concerned with the customer than their own internal employee.

Consider this: Your organization probably takes the pulse of your consumers every day, if not every hour. Their actions on your website are analyzed, their time in your brick-and-mortar stores are parsed down, you re-target content to them and respond to their tweets. Companies do this all day, every day, often in 24-hour cycles.

Now think about your employees: You evaluate them probably once a year, and you might also offer a completely anonymous (even if eyebrows get raised about that idea) survey to see “the state of the workplace.” To say it again, you think about your customers and whether they’re happy hourly. You think about your employees about once or twice a year.

That’s a massive disconnect. Consider this: 33 percent (1 in 3!) of young new hires look for a new job within six months of starting another one. Why? Because within a half-year, they’ve already realized it’s not the type of culture they want, people they want, purpose they want, etc. So they’re ready to take their talents elsewhere.

Here are two key things business leader consistently do:

1. Actively measure and manage your culture. The most important thing to do is replace and/or augment your once-a-year survey method with something more real-time and authentic. It's important you know how your employees are feeling during times of change and throughout the year, instead of just once a year.

2. Leverage your people to help improve. Instead of hiring expensive external consultants, open up an authentic dialogue with your people and empower management and employees to take ownership and decisive action on the solutions required to improve your culture and organization. The wisdom is in the system. Organizations simply need a better way to tap into it and make sense of it rather than having it filtered through the inefficient layers of management.

The point is you can gain a significant competitive advantage through this deliberate and active management of your culture. And the flip side is costly -- if you are not actively focusing on these things today, your superstars and most talented people will be taking their talents elsewhere, rather than winning for their home team.

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