HR Insights

LeBron James? He’s Just a Glimpse at Your Employee of the Future

LeBron James, now of the Miami Heat

By now, most of us have come up for air after being submerged in LeBron James fever over the past few days. I, for one, could really care less since I’m not much of a sports fan, but I love the passion of the fans in both cities and around the world. So to the two cities — both Cleveland in anguish and Miami in joy — my hat is off to both of you.

As is my wont however, I viewed this decision by LeBron through the microscope of human resources, and I came away with a totally different view.

I read the reactions in several newspapers and on more blogs than I can think of. LeBron’s decision was described as (among other things): Worst PR stunt, act of a selfish player, an ungrateful employee, an ungrateful team, and the list goes on and on.

There was a time when professional ball players started with one team and usually spent their formative years there. Sometimes some did leave, but their careers and fame was built with one team. Think Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Magic Johnson, and Jim Kelly, among others.

The employee of today is NOT the employee of yesteryear. The employee of yesteryear can in no way be measured to today’s (or tomorrow’s) worker.

Long-time job tenure is gone

Our parents generation, for the most part, worked at one job and after 25-30 years, the big day came for retirement with the accompanying dinner and (if he or she was lucky), the “gold watch.” I have attended numerous retirement parties over the past few weeks, and these new retirees had all worked in public education and, generally worked in that job since graduating from college.

Folks, that will never happen again. I can’t even imagine my daughter who finished college this year getting a job and working there anywhere close to 25 years. Those days are long gone and will never return. The LeBron James decision, depending on which way you view it, is a glimpse at the employee of the future, albeit on steroids.

According to a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute:

  • The median tenure for all wage and salary workers age 25 plus was virtually unchanged from 1983 (5.0 years) to 2006 (4.9 years). However during that period, tenure for male workers decreased from 5.9 years to 5.0 years, and tenure for females increased from 4.2 years to 4.8 years.
  • The median tenure for private-sector workers held steady from 1983 to 2006 at 3.9 years. However, the median tenure for public-sector workers increased from 6.0 years to 7.0 years.

This survey was taken in 2008. If it was done today amidst the accompanying mindset resulting from the current economic turmoil, trust me, the employee of the future would not think twice about leaving if the right job offer came through.

Everyone will play the free agent game

Recently here in New York City, there was the same type departure of a prominent employee but on a somewhat lower scale. David Carey, group president at Condé Nast, was snatched away by Hearst Corporation to become president of the company’s magazine division.

In the publishing world, this was the talk of the town. Carey was the group president at Condé Nast and fully marked for the top job tomorrow, but Hearst came along and offered him the top job today. Guess what? He took it.

Most all of the members of this new generation of employee will play the free agent game at some time during their career. It’s a game that not only your superstars will play, but all employees will become intrigued by it and will play it at different levels and outcomes.

In every industry, key players will be courted, wined and dined, and there will be a real “war on talent.” So what is it that talent management leaders can do to reengage this talent to prevent this from happening?

Disengaged managers = departing employees

I have always counseled managers that when and if an employee walks into your office and resigns, and you find yourself in shock or it caught you by surprise, that translates into you not being engaged with this employee. The signs were there all along leading up to this, but you missed all the signals. Not only that, but the employee probably did not feel comfortable in having a conversation with you about how they were feeling.

There was a great interview in The New York Times a few weeks back with Linda Heasley, president and chief executive of The Limited, who said that managers must re-recruit their team every day. This is one of the key principles of employee engagement. If your managers are disengaged, the employees will undoubtedly mirror that reaction and also become disconnected to the company.

Yes, it is a viscous circle, but it need not be. Everyone — and I mean everyone — must be involved in engagement to make it work. From the boardroom to the mail room, the lines must be connected.

This may have not mattered in the Lebron James case, you say. Well, maybe or maybe not, but if you are in HR you should give some thought to the LeBron episode. Are your key players in place and engaged? What happens if a few of your high potentials were to accept a better offer? Have you reviewed your succession plan in a way that allows for defections? More importantly, would you be surprised if a key player were to exit?

For all my fellow HR professionals, think about the LeBron James decision and about the impact something similar would have on your company. More importantly, think about all your key players and whether they are engaged. If they do depart, their announcement will surely not make ESPN, but it will cause you and your executive team lots of sleepless nights

Ron Thomas is CEO of Great Place to Work-GCC countries, based in Dubai. He formerly was Chief HR Officer of the RGTS Group in Saudi Arabia. Ron is also a senior faculty member of the Human Capital Institute. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as a Master Human Capital Strategist (MHCS) and Strategic Workforce Planner (SWP). Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living. Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia. Contact him at or on Twitter.
  • Mary Rosenbaum

    The real question is how do you keep your managers engaged? There are many answers to this question but here are a few I know that work: make them part of the decision making process, allow them to be creative, lead-don't control, allow for individuality in how they do what they do. Having autonomy and being able to be creative are key to greater engagement and job satisfaction.

  • Angel Biz Advisors

    While I agree that the employee of today is more like free agent and will go wherever he finds opportunity; there are things companies can and must do to keep the star employees from leaving. The situation is even more difficult and serious for small businesses where employees an jump ship at a moments for few bucks more. I recently wrote a blog post on what companies can do to reduce employee turnover –

  • craig zabransky

    After 10 years with a corporation on the same team and with a single boss for 9 of those years… I can say that when I learned I was let go and they also asked to make that day my last (no two weeks) I was stunned. Not that it happened, the firm and industry were in dire straights, more at the way it occurred. After nine years, it was just matter of fact. I learned that's the new economy.

    So I see it that we are all free agents, all the time. As an employee or even in freelance (what I do today) you need to focus on your skills and being talent. Lebron is talent, so is David Carey, that is why they can go where they choose.

    stay adventurous,

  • Maggie

    Having worked for a manager who did his best to recruit me back to the job everyday, I can attest that this strategy works. People aren't loyal to companies, they are loyal to people. And that boss is someone I still to this day will help whenever asked (and we don't even work together). Even great free agents need talented managers and coaches to help them with their careers. Given what I've learned from my boss, I am now a coach to others to succeed in their careers. Thanks Ron!