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Volume 21 No. 30
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Creating new skills and culture for young talent

Employee recruitment, retention and training is constantly discussed and analyzed. Like many, I value stability and consistency in the workplace, and have strived toward creating an environment that allows for that. As we start a new year in our respective offices, I reached out to executives from various backgrounds and asked them two questions I’d seen recently:

1) What is the best approach to attract and retain employees?

2) What’s the skill that you want your most junior talent to learn or obtain?

Not surprisingly, the theme of culture was pervasive. Chris Zimmerman has held senior positions with Nike, Easton Sports, the Vancouver Canucks and, currently, the St. Louis Blues. He stressed that the most critical element in recruiting and keeping talent is a great internal culture. “For me, culture is driven by establishing the values and the fundamental operating principles that drive the day-to-day work and decision-making,” he said. “Working in sports, we have a great opportunity to give our employees the chance to develop an inspiring work environment that reflects the same championship goals of our on-ice team. Creating an environment that empowers staff to step forward and make a difference both in their functional role and as a contributor to the larger team objectives is key to both attracting and retaining top talent.” Brian Cooper, CEO of Toronto-based S&E Sponsorship Group, talked of the culture he’s been trying to develop at his agency. He noted regular social events, volunteering as a staff and also “lunch and learn” sessions put on by employees for their peers that help foster a positive culture. “We also do a weekly ‘Team Knowledge Share’ meeting where our team talks about what is current, what inspires them and what our clients and company are up to that given week,” he said. When it comes to creating a culture, Dionna Widder, vice president of ticket sales and service for the Cleveland Cavaliers, believes in providing staff the opportunity to shape the vibe of their department through various methods. “When you give ownership to the members of your team to create the culture and environment they work in, they are more invested,” she said. “When we share with candidates our culture and bring them into our environment, they buy in if they are the right fit.”

But where can one mistake creating a culture with just cosmetic tactics? I’ve admired what Engine Shop President Ed Kiernan has built with his hot New York City agency, and, for him, it comes down to creating an “honest” rather than “forced” culture. “Our culture has grown out of focusing on our ‘work family,’” he said. “On who we are and on what we are trying to accomplish. It wasn’t about throwing a pingpong table and beanbag chairs in the lobby. Because of that, I think the agency exudes an attractive vibe to anyone walking through our halls. This saves us the trouble of putting on some synthetic ‘we’re awesome’ vibe that would more than likely scare away potential employees. What’s more desirable in a company than genuine internal camaraderie? Nothing, in my opinion.”
MLS Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler brings more than 25 years of leadership to the work place. He acknowledged that the sports business easily attracts top talent, so his focus is on retention. “Retention of staff, and overall job satisfaction, is about three things to me,” he said. “Autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy: Do I have a clear direction from my boss, my partners? Can I focus my energy properly and get things done? Mastery: Am I learning new things? Am I getting better as a leader? Purpose: Can I see the bigger context into which my job fits?” Pac-12 CMO Danette Leighton also stressed giving staff autonomy while focusing on the individual. “Empowerment, autonomy, and a customized approach to meeting goals will build a culture that attracts and retains employees,” she said.

Over at SportsNet New York, President Steve Raab focuses his retention efforts on his major achievers. “The more growth experiences and promotion opportunities we can provide high achievers, the longer we’ll be able to retain them,” he said. “To create opportunities for high achievers, we have to be cognizant of clearing the runway for them, and not stymie their growth behind underperforming employees. We spend considerable time analyzing our turnover, looking for patterns about why valuable employees leave and what, if anything, we can or should do about it. Strong performers are attracted to companies where they believe they will have the opportunity to excel. If a company has real examples who are working throughout the company, that’s a very attractive selling point.”

Finally on this topic, I liked Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade’s often overlooked point in retention: “Work is hard, so celebrating success together can make everyone’s workday more enjoyable,” she said.

When it comes to the skills that junior staffers should learn or obtain, opinion was mixed, but a number stressed seeing the big picture. “Listening, as opposed to ‘hearing,’ so junior staff can truly understand the mission of the organization,” McGlade said. Raab is also a proponent of exposing junior talent to the broader business. “If they understand what drives the business, they can better understand how their roles fit within the company and have some criteria for making their day-to-day decisions, no matter how small they might be,” he said.

Cooper stresses collaboration. “The best idea can come from anywhere,” he said. “It takes a humility and openness, but also a spirit of competition to rise to the challenge and make your voice heard. Collaboration ultimately drives each team member to learn from each other.” At the Cavaliers, Widder wants her junior talent to work on interpersonal skills, as she believes they don’t focus on those skills early in their career. “What I have found is that once a new sales rep gets started and goes through sales training, they lose the ability to naturally communicate and listen to their prospects,” she said. “They are too focused on what they are going to say next. But when a rep becomes more comfortable with the sales process, practices, and builds in interpersonal skills, they begin to see success.” For Zimmerman, it’s about a willingness to learn. “I look for a strong sense of curiosity and interest in continuous learning,” he said. “The long-term winners will be those that have an insatiable appetite to digest and interpret new data and behaviors in every consumer market.” For Handler, it’s about getting young people to focus on “great preparation and follow-through.” Specifically, “Have you done your homework and research? Have you spent enough time with your work to make sure it is compelling, accurate and error-free? Is it well-written, well-packaged?” At Good Karma Brands, CEO Craig Karmazin wants junior talent to be accountable. “There are always going to be mistakes made, but those that can own them become the easiest for us to coach and help grow,” he said.

Engine Shop’s Kiernan focuses on passion and stresses that junior staff show executive management where their passions are. “If you have a bunch of energetic young guns on a project, but they don’t have any emotional investment in what they’re doing, the creative advantages that come with their insights and understandings are completely nullified,” he believes. “We try to remember that as enthusiastic and excited as these kids are, they’re oftentimes equally quick to emotionally remove themselves from a job if they don’t feel a connection to it.”

Other — more emotional — skills were also touted. The Pac-12’s Leighton focuses on emotional intelligence and humility. “Emotional intelligence is a skill that every employee should understand and its value in the work place,” she said. “It is a powerful tool that the earlier you begin to master, the more success you will have. I also believe it is imperative to recognize the importance of humility, no matter how junior or senior you are. Making decisions, handling challenges, building strategies through the lens of humility gives people and organizations an unseen advantage.” Raab wants young talent to learn to be “properly” aggressive. “Properly aggressive means pushing to be their best while still being respectful of others,” he said. “Somebody else doesn’t have to lose in order for them to win.” Finally, he touts work ethic, adding, “Nobody in our business is going to distinguish themselves solely by intelligence or intellect.”

Good perspective as we begin a new year. Let me know if you have additional thoughts to these questions, and I’ll share them in a future column.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at