A Lesson on Employee Loyalty from LeBron James

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.

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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.

  • Robert Dromgoole

    It is no surprise that employee loyalty has diminished … EMPLOYER loyalty to employees has all but gone away. I think LeBron's deliberate act of self interest is perfectly in alignment with his values. He wants to win a championship. He believes he can accomplish that in Miami so he went there. Miami in turn has made the right moves to attract the right talent to surround him in that journey. I think this is great for employees. LeBron gave everything he had every night on that basketball floor and earned his salary. He doesn't owe Cleveland anything more than he has already given. During that ESPN event he was humble, donated all proceeds to charity and was a class act. I hope he inspires all the corporate LeBron-like leaders who want to win their own championship to make moves that are right for them. His message to me was, “Go win your own championship, do what's right for you.” That helps the others around him also accomplish their goals. I wasn't that much of a LeBron fan prior to that event–but I am more so now. I hope they win a few titles. It speaks to the power of an individual talent and the influence and choices they have to accomplish their goals. I think it's inpirational.

  • John

    If I get what you're saying here, Lance, it's that you're advising NBA franchises — and employers outside the entertainment business — not to build a team around a single person.

    On its face, that sounds like good advice. And certainly, if the star becomes a king (King James?) and everyone else exists simply to support him or her, you've doomed yourself to an uncertain future.

    But (and so you knew a but would be in here somewhere), where I get confused is when you say “In what can only now be seen as short-sighted moves, they (the Cavs) made trades to put the team in a position to win the last four years…”

    Isn't that what they should have been doing? Isn't that exactly what every team does? Assembling the best team is certainly what most employers try to do. Smart hiring managers look at the skills and learning capacity of their teams, then try to bring in new hires to fill gaps and complement the team. It is certainly not unusual to build a team around a single star player; in fact, it's probably more common than not. But only an inept manager would hire a mediocre supporting cast on the expectation that the team's equivalent of a LeBron James would alone, do all the heavy lifting. Everyone is always looking to improve their bench depth.

    The Cavs did that. The Lakers did that after the Bryant and O'Neill feud. Who did it better?

    Once last word, read the farewell letter (http://bit.ly/9MjmNZ) from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and think if you were a prized future free agent whether this is the kind of man you want to work for.

  • http://modite.com Rebecca

    It will be interesting to see if LeBron actually succeeds in his next position, as research often shows that when top performers leave companies they often can't replicate the same success in new companies.

  • John Hollon

    To John's comment about Dan Gilbert, I've met Dan and feel is one of the better owners in the NBA. He's a soft-spoken guy and hardly the egomaniac so many peoiple like him tend to be. He did whatever he could to surround LeBron with other players, and coaches, to help him win. I can certainly understand Dan Gilbert's frustration.

    Problem is, Dan had a lot of advantages Miami didn't — LeBron's hometown, the ability to give him more money, they love of longtime friends and fans — but none of that mattered in the end.

    If Dan's bitter, it's because he knows there is no Plan B — at least no good one. Cleveland isn't a magnet for star players (now or ever), and the Cavaliers are probably going to sink to mediocrity, at best.

    LeBron was an abberation; a great star from the Cleveland area who got to play at home. There's no way Dan Gilbert can find anyone to replace him, now or in the near future. LeBron WAS the Cleveland franchise, and now he's gone. Gilbert knows what is ahead of him — an arena that is never more than two-thirds fall, a huge drop in merchandising revenue, and a disallusioned fan base.

    No wonder he's bitter. Wouldn't you be too? He did everything he could to keep LeBron, but it was never, ever going to be enough. Too bad LeBron didn't recognize that and tell his former owner upfront. At least the honesty would have been refreshing.

  • Nick Fishman

    I agree with John, that Dan Gilbert is one of the best owners not only in the NBA, but in all of sports. I also agree that Cleveland is not a mecca for attracting the best talent (I left 15 years ago 🙂 ) However, I disagree that Dan can't find a way to make them competitive again in short order. As long as he remembers not to make moves out of vengence or impatience, he has the passion and dedication to see this through.

    The fans of Cleveland also owe it to him to give him time to do it and not to turn their back on the team. Since he has owned the Cavs, he made every conceivable move to win championships. The fact that they didn't happen wasn't his fault.

  • http://rehaul.com Lance Haun

    If I've learned anything from the NBA, it's that winning championships is about more than an owner's actions. There are a lot of uncontrollable factors. The Cavaliers were a terrible team at the right moment to pick up LeBron. A couple years later and they could have been picking Andrew Bogut instead of LBJ. The Spurs were helped in getting high draft choice Tim Duncan when David Robinson was injured for a full year. Both the Lakers and Boston were simply teams in the right place at the right time to pick up acquisitions.

    Having an owner like Gilbert is good for a smaller market NBA team. You need that sort of dedication.