A Lesson on Employee Loyalty from LeBron James

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Jul 9, 2010

The NBA’s LeBron James is done in Cleveland. One of the biggest stars in the NBA didn’t just reject his hometown team that he has been with for six years, he did it on the biggest sports network in the world, ESPN.

As I watched the spectacle unfold on live TV, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the city, team, and fans that poured so much time and money into LeBron James. A city that worshiped the ground he walked on. A team that was constantly looking for ways of building around his abilities. And devoted fans that donned jerseys, made fan videos and to the very end, believed that their Ohio son would return once again to try to win.

If you’re in HR, you’ve been in that boat before.

Maybe you’ve had an employee you’ve dumped thousands of dollars into and they’ve done great things. As they get closer to the top, expectations change and competition becomes more fierce. Now simply being the most talented isn’t everything. They’ve got to make the best of the people around them, despite their deficiencies.

Now they are looked upon as leaders rather than up and comers. And as the going gets tough, your star shrivels and grabs the next attractive opportunity at a competitor — a place where they can be the talk of the future and get a couple more years of leeway.

I know in this age of layoffs as the overwhelming staffing strategy, it is popular to trash employers. It is completely understandable.

The death of loyalty

But let’s also recognize that the age of employee loyalty is also dying as well. If the NBA is any measure, see if this sounds familiar: We’ve seen the average tenure on NBA teams drop. If James has any measure of success in his new role with the Miami Heat, it will be interesting to see if any of the league’s top stars will be as active in the future. In the past, the NBA’s greatest players stayed with their teams, minus the early and late career moves.

Similarly, we used to see many employees spend their peak years with the same company. As they would steadily move up in both skill and position, they would be rewarded. Now, people are leaving mid-career or their companies are laying people off. And even in the NBA, where his former team could have offered him $30 million more dollars over the course of a contract, James left at a peak time in his career productivity.

Did the Cleveland Cavaliers always make the right moves to try to keep James happy? No, but let’s also not kid ourselves. They did everything possible to put the right pieces around him to win immediately because of the threat of him leaving after this season. And now where are they? Most likely, back in the draft lottery for teams that don’t make the playoffs.

You need more than your top 5 percent

In the end, all of us who focus on talent management should give serious thought to what just occurred here. The Cleveland Cavaliers had advantages of proximity to his home, more money, and knowing James inside and out through his entire professional career. In what can only now be seen as short-sighted moves, they made trades to put the team in a position to win the last four years, only to see their chances crumble in the playoffs. They sacrificed their future flexibility to try to win for the one piece that they truly prized.

Let’s treat our employees right. Whether you have a roster of 15 or a business of 15,000, you can’t just do it with your top 5 percent. And if all your business actions are focused on appeasing those one or two superstars, just remember that when they leave you need a Plan B (or even Plan C).

An NBA team can survive a star leaving. There are ways to get back into the game quickly. There aren’t any guarantees that will happen with your business.

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