How hiring ‘athletes’ creates a more accomplished workforce

The office ‘athlete’ has many intangible skills.
The office ‘athlete’ has many intangible skills.
Image: WB Digital
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By John Palmatier | @JohnPalmatier

If you want to build a high-performance team, then hire ‘athletes’–people with the ability to be successful in a variety of roles.

The concept

Let’s use LeBron James to illustrate the concept. His combination of size, strength, speed, and agility make him freakishly athletic–the 6’8” basketball star has a 40-inch vertical leap and reportedly runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds.

His pure athleticism would enable him to be successful in a variety of sports. He could be the ultimate tight end in football or the ultimate outside hitter in volleyball. Sure, he wouldn’t have the formations, the plays, or the subtleties of the game mastered at first, but those things can be learned.

If you want to build a high-performance team in a business environment, you should be looking for athletes as well.

Sometimes it comes down to two candidates. One is the perfect fit–the right degree, the right experience, the right industry. The other is an athlete–maybe not the perfect fit, but stacked with intangibles like leadership ability, business acumen, judgment, adaptability, and street smarts.

Hire the athlete. Why?

Business problems typically don’t jive perfectly with your org chart. You want someone who can drive a cross-functional initiative. You also want someone who is able to adjust and learn new skills as the business issues change. A ‘perfect fit’ that can’t think or act outside of their box won’t cut it anymore.

In addition, 18 months from now, the candidate will most likely be in a different role anyway–and he’ll probably still be on your team. It’s not ideal to work with someone who is a perfect fit for the role they don’t have anymore.

What to look for

So how do businesses separate the wheat from the chaff?

Look for experiences in which the candidates have helped to solve large, cross-functional business problems. Athletes usually gravitate to the biggest issues and organizations tend to put their best talent on their most significant problems–regardless of what the org chart says.

Over time, the ‘perfect fit’ will not want to leave their comfort zone while the athlete will say, “put me in coach.”


What’s the biggest challenge to building a team full of athletes? Keeping them.

In order to build a high-performance team, you must be able to quickly and effectively identify issues that may be prompting your best employees to look elsewhere.

May I suggest a simple question to ask your employees: How would you rate your job satisfaction on a scale of 1-10?

Most of the time, they won’t give it a 10, so your follow up questions should be geared towards understanding why it’s not a 10 and what would need to happen to get it there.

Assuming you have developed trust with your employees, they will be honest with you and this is your opportunity to head off potential issues.

In my experience:

  • You may have to dig a little to understand core issues.
  • While many of the answers will be predictable, others will totally surprise you.
  • Oftentimes the issues are simple things that are easy to address. For example, one of my employees recently said that being cross-trained in another area would get them to a 10. Done.
  • Sometimes the answer will be that they want more money or more responsibility. Perfect–be a good leader and set some time aside to show them what they need to do to get there.
  • Your team will talk and if you develop a reputation for addressing at least some of the issues your team brings up, they will be more likely to discuss them with you. But remember–most people don’t enjoy taking surveys over and over again if you don’t do anything with the data.

Don’t assume that you understand what drives your athletes–you need to ask them. Uncover any issues your team may be facing now. Don’t wait until the exit interview.

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