What LeBron James Can Teach You About Retaining Your Best People — And Advancing Your Career in HR!

by Alan Collins

LeBron James (pictured left with wife, Savannah) is a polarizing figure. You either hate him or love him.

These days the entire city of Cleveland is in the latter group.

They’ve embrace him because he’s a hometown kid, a world champion and one of the best basketball players that ever lived.

So what’s not to love.

Unfortunately, quite a bit!

Believe it or not, there are a few haters out there that still have not forgiven him for the horribly “insensitive” way he let his current employer, the Cleveland Cavaliers, know about his “decision” to leave the organization.

Just in case you don’t remember…

He fired them on national TV…and gave them no heads up.

He offered no forewarning.

He provided no courtesy phone call in advance.

He simply kicked them to the curb.

They found out when the rest of the world found out.

And when the smoke cleared, people were pissed.

Fans burned his jersey on the streets in Cleveland.

His posters were torn down.

Radio talk show phone lines were buried with calls from fans who raked him across the coals.

As bad as it was for LeBron’s reputation, it was even worst for his former team.


Because they were unable to replace him with someone as talented, and as a result…

The performance and the value of his former team
DROPPED LIKE A ROCK the minute he left the building!

As a result of LeBron’s decision, Fortune magazine estimated that value of the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise plummeted by $300-$400 million dollars overnight. But that’s not all. Revenues declined because attendance at games dropped by over 25% the next season. And, on the court, his old team went from first place to last place in one year.

All this happened…because of the loss of just ONE highly talented person!

Even though he’s now returned back to the team, some people haven’t forgiven him.

What in the world does this have to do with advancing your career in HR?

In a word:  Everything!

It’s been proven that losing any of the top 10% of your performers — whether they are your top mechanics, your top IT people, your top supervisors or your top vice presidents — has 5-10 times more impact on the performance of their team (or department) than losing their average performing peers.  It’s true in sports.  And it’s true in any organization.

All this presents an great career opportunity for YOU, the HR professional.

An opportunity to…

Step up to the plate and OWN the “talent retention” agenda in your company…to develop strategies with your client managers to retain the “LeBrons” in your organization …to keep them away from your competition.  And, in so doing, greatly enhance your HR career, reputation and promotability.

Obviously, this is not a new role for HR.

In fact, most of the best HR people already do this and do it well.  But there’s a great opportunity to dial this up and put much more energy against this initiative than you’re currently doing and become a hero/heroine in your company.

Most organizations need huge help here, even if they don’t believe they currently do.   Whether we’re in an up or down economy, there is always demand for the top 10% of your talent.  The poachers of top talent are always out there.

Historically, talent retention efforts, like everything else in HR, has gone through major change.

A generation ago, many companies believed they could keep an employee for 25 years or more – and many did.  About a decade ago it was 10 years. Now most experts recognize that many talented employees, right out of college are going to stay no more than 18-36 months before seeking out greener pastures.  And if you successfully keep them for more than 3 years then you’ve contributed a great ROI for your organization.  Anything less and you’ve lost money.

Today, developing strategies for talent retention is a lot easier said than done.  Here are just a few of the challenges:

With these challenges, comes opportunity.  And it is this…

If you want to distinguish yourself as an HR superstar yourself
(someone worthy of being retained)…then you don’t wait
for your company’s best people to walk out the door.  

You work with your leadership team to move heaven and earth to keep them.

When one of your superstars gives a two-weeks notice (do people still do that?), it’s too late then.  You can try the old-school “counter-offer” tactic, but that rarely works and generally only buys you only a few months at best to solve their real problem.    And frankly, it can backfire by pissing them off even more by raising the question about why you took so long to come forward with the goods.

If you already have retention strategy in place, that’s terrific!  However, if you don’t, he are a few actions you should consider collaborating with your business leaders on right now to start the process of keeping your best people.

1.  Make sure your “A” players report to great managers.

The number one thing any company can do to retain great people is to put them under a great manager.  If you can’t do anything else, make sure you do this!   It’s been proven that your all-stars don’t leave organizations as much as they leave…poor managers.  A great manager knows how to build strong relationships with his or her people through first, their example, then through open, accurate, and consistent communications.    Great managers are courageous, encouraging and inspirational.  They also stretch and grow their people.  A superstar working under an “encourager” who is helping to bring out their best will NOT want to leave.

If you can’t reorganize and put your best people under a great manager right away, then make sure you bring one into their life as a mentor.  If you do this, you’ll want to follow up regularly to ensure that there is consistent contact between these two individuals and that the mentoring relationship is  working for both.

2.  Go to your best people right now and do a pre-exit interview.

Don’t wait for them to get a call from a headhunter or to come to you saying that “I’ve decided to quit.” Be proactive and ask them in a one on one: “What are the factors that will cause you to stay?” Ask them to warn you if they become unhappy.

The more you can personalize and customize your retention strategy, the more chance you’ll have of keeping your top people.   Obviously, if you have organization with 3000 “A” players you can’t devise 3000 different A-player retention programs, but you can do your best to reach all employees through their managers.

The more you and your senior managers can personalize strategies to each of your superstars, the stronger your retention results will be.

3.  Verbally ask them to rate their current job on a 1-10 scale on the factors below…and then ask them what corrective steps could be taken to raise any problem scores to a 10.

(a) My job provides honest, frequent two way communication

(b) My job provides challenging exciting work

(c) My job provides opportunities to grow and learn

(d) In my job, I know my work makes a difference

(e) In my job, I’m recognized and rewarded for my performance

(f ) I have some degree of control over my job

4.  Ask them to describe their ideal job or where they would like to be in 1-2 years.

Then work with them to develop a plan to get them there…TODAY!

5.  Tie pay to staying with the company and their performance results.

You may not have total control over this — but give this your best shot! Money is never the only reason that people leave.  Generally leadership screws up something first…then money begins to get their attention.

Fix the job first or address their career concerns and then if you give them more money tie it to their results so that they don’t end up staying…”well paid but dissatisfied and uncommitted!”

6.  Develop programs that bond them to affinity groups.

One of the hardest things to do is leave in a job where many of your close friends also work.  By developing affinity groups (sports, professional groups, play, ethnic, gay and other shared interests) you help build bonds with your top employees beyond just their job.  And these bonds are difficult to break.

7.  Sponsor programs for their spouses, friends and kids.

Though these programs you positively penetrate their personal lives.  You subtly recruit more ambassadors  (namely their spouse, partner, friends or family) to your team working on your behalf to keep them in the organization.  During their personal time at home, you want these people saying to your high performing talent: “You work for a great organization, why would you ever consider leaving?”

8.  Develop a list of “motivators” for each employee you want to retain.

Non-monetary motivators are powerful but most managers are not aware of what motivates an employee. As an HR pro, help your managers develop a list for their best people that they can use to keep them satisfied.

Let me give you an example, when the Bulls were playing against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, one of my finance directors gave his two tickets to see this sold out game to one of his high performing financial analysts (and her boyfriend) who are both big Laker fans.

He asked that she not disclose to anyone else at that he had given away his free Gatorade tickets to the game because I didn’t want others to feel slighted.  However, he did want to make this high-potential, indispensable member of his staff to know that he thought highly of her and to encourage her to stay with us to build her career with our company.

Some managers would scoff at this practice, saying you should treat everyone the same.  I disagree.  Obviously, everyone in your organization deserves respect.  But, as a business person first, you should consider it acceptable to invest the most in assets that will return more to the organization…like high potential people .  This manager didn’t have enough Laker tickers to give to everyone, and he did want a  future leader of his team know she was valued and that he was going to take care of her.

This is what it takes.

By working with your managers to ensure ensure they know the motivations of each member of their  staffs you are adding tremendous value to your organization’s retention efforts.  Being able to leave at five o’clock to see their child in a school play may work for some employees, but it may not work for another employee who wants two extra days of vacation to run in the Chicago Marathon.  Or another who may want to go a technology conference in Florida.

9.  Use “pulse surveys.

If you have a large number of HR clients or they’re geographically dispersed, work with your managers to do periodic e-mail surveys of them to get a “pulse” of about how their people feel about the organization. This helps to identify new issues and pain points.

To sum up, obviously, you won’t save 100% your top people by following these recommendations. However, the secrets of keeping high-potential individuals on staff and not lose them to an 5-10% pay increase are very simple.  Treat people right. Develop them. Build their career. Challenge them. Make them feel special. Let them know where they stand longer term.  Make sure they’re paid well.

Because you can quantify and track turnover numbers, all this allows you to show off your skills in measurably improving your organization’s performance in an area most business leaders care deeply about — keeping talented people!

You might even want to collaborate with your finance counterpart to dollarize the value of your retention initiatives using some of the strategies contained in the book Financial Intelligence for HR Professionals.

This is a great opportunity to demonstrate “value add,”enhance your reputation as a “go-to” HR pro and elevate your HR credibility within your organization.

Also, your efforts can also go a long ways towards creating a better place to work for your best people.  And that’s not too shabby either.

What are you waiting on?  Go for it!

Comments, thoughts and push-backs?  Share them by commenting HERE.

Want more strategies for advancing your career in Human Resources…especially those your boss won’t tell you about?  Then check out:  UNWRITTEN HR RULES: 21 Strategies For Attaining Awesome Career Success in Human Resources featuring FREE EXCERPTS that can be downloaded HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals  including UNWRITTEN HR RULES.   He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

Feed your network: If you like this article, feel free to share it with your FACEBOOK friends by clicking the “share” and “like” buttons below…or share this with your TWITTER followers by clicking the “tweet” button below.

34 Responses to “What LeBron James Can Teach You About Retaining Your Best People — And Advancing Your Career in HR!”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    How timely…I have several “pre-exit” interviews scheduled in the coming days and weeks! Thanks, Alan!

  2. Alan Says:

    Stephanie — Great strategy. Highly under-utilized. Good luck with your “pre-exits.”

  3. Parnell Bryant Says:

    Great insight and I will follow your advise.

  4. Hazel Says:

    Great article– couldn’t agree more. “Pre-exits” and putting the best with the best managers seems so obvious but, often disregarded….Thanks for the advise!

  5. Rattan Says:

    Thanks Sir

  6. Jayan Sara Says:

    I would like to thank you for these great insights.

  7. Md. Sadequr Rahman Says:

    Thanks Alan.
    It is really a good idea to go for Pre-exit interviews.And a list for motivators for the top performers is also great! It is logical to treat special the best players through extra investment that produce extra ROI. Thanks again.

  8. Md. Abu Saleh Says:

    Dear Sir,
    Thanks for enlightening on different SWOTs of our HR career. I hope, an interview already left outs will also help retaining existing top performers, as because many ex-employees repent their decision of leaving past organisation and some even try to come back. Thank you again.

  9. Gaurav Kapil Says:

    So rightly said about equality. My own view is that if I treat everyone equally then I’m disrespecting people who perform better than average.

  10. mustkim shaikh Says:

    Use flexible strategy to retain talent people

  11. Krupali C Says:

    Thanks Alan.

  12. Bengü Gökalp Says:

    You broaden my horizons with every article you shared.
    Thank you so much Alan.

  13. Eunice Nzilani Says:

    Your articles are a resource.They would never leave someone the same.Great job you are doing to equip HR professional with such knowledge.

  14. Elena Says:

    WOW! something like that would sound like Sanskrit to HR Management in Italy!!!

  15. Kelley Says:

    I really enjoyed everything about the article. Great correlation between Lebron and HR. I think the problem is, that companies forget to reinvest back in their employees.

  16. Anne-Marie Dales Says:

    Thank you for sharing all your knowledge
    Allan, I hope to put some of the above in practice.

  17. Jayne Says:

    Alan, as usual, there are plenty of lessons to be learnt from your articles. This one is no exception.Talent retention is a crucial subject in this age where there is cutthroat competition for high performing employees. And as you have said, the young generation is always on the lookout for employers who will offer them the best conditions. Very good tips for HR!

  18. Wesley Says:

    Great post, and timely for me. I’m doing a training session in a few days on how to motivate/retain, and this reinforces points I’m making!

    I like the Lebron story. I’m a big Cardinals fan, and although I liked Albert Pujols, I did not want them to re-sign him at the price tag it would have taken. They’ve been fine without him, showing that good managers also need to be able to accurately evaluate all of their talent, and know when to let even an exceptional performer go when it isn’t practical to try and match an offer.

  19. Sebastian Igwe Says:

    Allan Collins,
    Grateful for leading us on different SWOT analysis of our HR career. Most interesting are the hints on the exit interviews, developing strategies for talent retention, motivating and managing the organization’s top performers.

    This is a must-read piece for all HR Practitioners.

  20. Diana Says:

    Thank you Alan, again and again for sharing such deep insights about retaining talent. This is a key issue, in the very end success depends on people and following your wave of evaluation, I would say Success depends on talented people. They are the great achievers and real drivers of change. As you mention, it is all about HR working and continuously advising managers about how to deal with TALENT, as it is true, talented people leave their managers not the organisations. Thanks for sharing some very good tips on how to advise managers to recognize and evaluate talent constantly, and specifically how to keep them motivated. I am always keen to read your valuable insights. Please, keep sharing! Thank you , again!

  21. Gregg Gabinelle Says:

    Great article. Showing an interest in your employees sends a powerful message that you are in this work environment together to help the company prosper.

  22. Jess Says:

    I worked at a company where the “two week notice” was not honored – which we all found out after one person “left” (or should I say was forced to leave) before her two weeks. She was also not paid for the two weeks. This left a bad taste in the mouth of so many in the large department, so when high performers were looking to leave, they gave no indication of such – because they didn’t want to be unemployed until the next job started.

    Our organization couldn’t do pre-exit or exit interviews because employees would come in one Friday and say, “today is my last day.” The employment relationship ends and the organization gathers no information on how to correct the problems.

    I wonder how the culture of the department could be changed so that when high performers (and anyone for that matter) have an issue or concern, they don’t feel as if they will be given the boot? Then, with viable suggestions, the HR department could come in with these strategies and make it work.

  23. Alan Says:

    Jess, thanks for,your insight – unfortunately cultures like what you describe exist more widely than most people believe. However, their leaders have to ask themselves how can they stay competitive treating people like crap. If they don’t think the answer is important. Then their best employees will answer it themselves…with their feet.


  24. Great Says:

    I have read a lot of articles on retention, and I wish this could be applied in a lot of organisations. I have just been offered an HR job, and I am still contemplating whether I take it up or, I still remain with my current employers.

    A lot of issues have not been addressed, and I wish I could apply these to the new job aam about to take up.

  25. Ernest Yaw Asare Says:

    Thanks a lot. A great insight.

  26. Emma Says:

    Thank you. Very helpful indeed.

  27. wilbroad Katema Says:

    Supperb post, can’t be any better. i have never really thought of an Pre-exit interview. It is a perfect risk determinant were retention is concerned For me, who is losing a good number of good talent year in year out, i cant wait to introduce it and implement it in our organisation.

    Thanks agian Collins

  28. Kelley Says:

    Great article!

  29. Regina Says:


    Fantastic Article…..

  30. Alex Pena Says:

    Good article on how HR should work on retaining good people. I am not a LeBron James fan and I believe his selfish ways can bring down a team.
    Being a fan of the San Antonio Spurs, one can see how their Team approach can work wonders with an organization. There may be a few super stars on the team – Duncan, Parker, Ginoboli – everyone on the team understands that they all rely on each other to be a success. I would recommend reading the following link on how a business can be a success by watching what the Spurs do.

    “8 ways the San Antonio Spurs play it smart – and how to translate that into business: http://t.co/jjvQaQ1xWd  http://t.co/U2AGAukoEI

  31. Alan Says:

    Alex, thanks for sharing the article on the Spurs — it’s excellent!! I love the Spurs’ teamwork and selflessness and LeBron’s
    superstar talent. I believe there’s room in a high performing organization for both.


  32. Yvonne Dwamena Says:

    Great Article!! I am in total agreement. Thanks for sharing. I left my Organization because of a poor manager and other great team member followed suit within six months.

  33. Ceo Says:

    Its. Great contribution to me

  34. Sunday Says:

    Alan, this is great and encouraging one to be a flier in the HR pro. Am glad to be exposed to these tactics on staff retention and mentoring the young ones coming up soon.