March Madness gives agencies a how-to guide to build championship HR teams

Commentary Liam Ackland
President of NGA.NET North America

When the NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament officially kicked off March Madness, all eyes were on the University of Kentucky, which dominated the regular season with a perfect 31-0 record. And if you know anything about Kentucky’s tourney success in recent years, then you know all about head coach John Calipari’s recruitment philosophy: He scouts for the most elite high school stars in the nation and plays them immediately as freshmen.

Never mind that these freshmen typically leave after their first or second year. (If they leave after the first year, they’re commonly referred to as “one and dones.”) Calipari will just go out and land new replacements for the following season. Indeed, of the 16 players on the Kentucky roster, only five are seniors or juniors (though the three seniors left are 6-feet-2 or under).

Liam Ackland
While Kentucky won the championship in 2012, it’s interesting to note that the last two tourney winners — Connecticut and Louisville — took a completely different approach: Upperclassman led the charge to a national title. This formula has proved to be a winning one over time. Sports fans here in the greater Washington area still remember the seasoned team that won it all for the University of Maryland in 2002, with seniors Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, and junior Steve Blake.

Yes, Connecticut, Louisville and Maryland had stars on their rosters, but they didn’t build their programs upon recruits who were considered as elites among the elite. Many flew just under that radar, but turned out to be better long-term prospects. This should inspire federal chief human capital officers (CHCOs) and their HR teams, which will bring on “stars” who sometimes only stay for one or two years. Oftentimes, HR devotes too much energy to the most exclusive and/or high-profile colleges and universities, attempting to hire “the best and the brightest.” Unfortunately, those graduates frequently join the government workforce strictly to pad their resumes and move on to the private sector.

I once worked with an agency that ran into this very problem. Its managers targeted graduates coming out of the biggest name schools with 4.0 GPAs. When this happened, the managers were thrilled. They thought they had “won” the recruitment game. But they actually didn’t. The 4.0 graduates stayed with the agency for only a short time, after seeking and receiving what they considered to be more appealing offers from outside employers. When talent-management analytics were used to gain visibility into the agency’s personnel makeup, it was discovered that the graduates recruited with 3.2 GPAs stayed for the long haul while earning superior performance reviews and demonstrating higher engagement levels. After a few years, the same staffers emerged as key agency leaders.

This is where vision and analytics come together to implement a talent management strategy — a lasting game plan to foster continuous improvement. In college basketball, storied programs of past and present such as UCLA and Duke serve as testimonies to enduring, outstanding performance. They come up with a “perfect candidate” model for recruitment, focusing upon players who exude the “just right” combination of skills on and off the court that align with their culture and goals to make valuable contributions over the long term.

Similarly, CHCOs and their HR teams must take advantage of analytics to create “perfect candidate” models for all positions, and then frame recruitment and talent-management efforts upon the hires and support that will advance organizational goals indefinitely.

When you do so, here’s how your agency will benefit:

  • Continuity Analytics enable HR managers to reveal the characteristics of employees who are likely to stay for many years and perform the best, while conveying ideal engagement levels. You identify which schools they came from and what their GPAs were and where they did their internships. Then, you turn to analytics to find out which onboarding, training, mentorship and other support programs brought out the best within these employees. With this, you leverage the ensuing knowledge to recruit and develop a workforce that will remain stable and productive for decades.

    This will serve your agency well during a crisis. In the tournament, teams going with the “one and done” approach often fold during the intense, final moments of a tight game. But, on the opposite bench, the coach with long-term vision knows he can put his seniors on the floor, and they’ll thrive with the ball in their hands because they’ve been through these situations before. Analytics and vision allow you to assemble similarly structured teams, with veterans who relish challenges that cause less experienced professionals to panic. And you can keep it going too, because the solutions will “tell” you when key contributors are likely to retire, and you can plan ahead to replace their skill sets in the interest of continuity.

  • Investment/ROI Continuity will make a direct impact on the budget. Since you’re not recruiting candidates who turn out to be “one and dones,” you don’t need to start from scratch every year with the same efforts all over again. You’re saving significantly on travel, agency branding and other recruitment expenses. And that’s just the beginning, as you don’t have to spend as much on onboarding, training and mentoring costs. Once the “perfect candidate” template is in place and you staff accordingly, you’re not constantly paying an IT employee to get new hires up to speed on an operating system, over and over again. Instead, the tech employee conducts a session once, and the trainees are good to go for years.
  • Leadership In basketball, getting to the Final Four isn’t always about having the best players. Inevitably, you’ll see a “Cinderella” make it that far — think of George Mason in 2006, or Butler’s back-to-back finals appearances in 2010 and 2011. In most cases, the compelling presence of commanding leadership drives such teams to rise above their skill levels. The unit becomes much greater than the sum of its parts, and anything is possible.

    At your agency, talent-management analytics can help you identify future leaders. Then, you can design training and support programs to accelerate their development, positioning them to lead sooner and better. As a result, you’re nurturing an environment in which they inspire peers to extend beyond their perceived limitations, delivering outcomes that surpass expectations.

  • Legacy Ultimately, CHCOs and other HR/talent-management senior executives seek to establish enviable legacies. As opposed to being perceived as bureaucrats who pushed paperwork and forms all day, they cultivate a reputation as leaders with a seat at the strategic table. Our greatest basketball coaches aspire to this as well. That’s how someone like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has created such an impressive legacy. He recruits and develops players who succeed not only on the court, but in the classroom, in business and in life. It’s all part of his long-term plan. It’s not by accident, after all, that “Coach K” is in great demand as a speaker within corporate circles. (Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey asked Krzyzewski to speak about leadership with Army officers, and Duke’s esteemed business school has named a leadership center after him.)

Sure, it’s thrilling to “win big” whether you’re on a basketball court or within a federal department. But the great ones know how to “cut down the nets” over and over again, deriving lasting and meaningful benefits that contribute to their legacies. Unlike those who pursue a Kentucky- styled plan, exemplary CHCOs and HR teams aren’t satisfied with “one good season.” They invest in a human capital strategy that’s built to last.

Liam Ackland is president of NGA.NET North America.

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