I spoke with an HR executive yesterday who shared with me and a couple others that really, the job of him and his teams is to get the right people in the right jobs at the right times with the right support, and the rest will take care of itself.
A big piece of that is getting people in the door, which is a process the Lakers are currently navigating for their vacant coaching roles and their president of basketball operations role. They’ve followed questionable process in the past to fill roles. Today, I want to cover what they should be doing, from my perspective as someone who has 3 degrees, a thesis on the topic, and years of working experience around these concepts.
That’s all in the business world and not for an NBA team, but hiring is hiring. And I’ll emphasize that while nothing among the best practices that I’ll share is a carbon copy, no matter what the profession is. Just like with anything else, you adapt those principles to match your needs and industry.
I cover this topic today not just because the Lakers should be in this process today, but because we’ve seen poor process in the past. In recent years, we have hires to key positions (like Luke Walton’s) where, from what we know, very little investigating was done into other candidates. We’ve heard again and again how LA will look within their own circles to find replacements to positions, or “within the Lakers family” to fill roles. At its face, none of that may seem egregious. But there are reasons I’ll outline below to avoid such practices in order to achieve the most sustained success over time.
And while basketball is fun and a passion of mine, this type of work is my profession and I’d love to share some of what I believe this should look like. So here we go…
There are two big parts to the hiring process: recruitment and selection. Recruitment is getting people to apply. Selection is evaluating them and picking your person.
There are several things to keep in mind when trying to get qualified people to be interested and ultimately apply for a position.
Your communications, actions, and media coverage all espouse values that may not be aligned with what you want to be representing, but to candidates will shape their perspectives (signaling theory). It’s smart to self assess, or hire a management consulting firm (and it better be from McKinsey, BCG, PwC, EY, Deloitte, or KPMG) to profile those values being espoused. This would be critical to understand and take corrective action to control if misalignment exists (which it likely will to some degree) and can be groomed back into line. That critical nature is augmented this time of year when you’re looking to hire for key positions that’d be executive-type roles if we were to translate the basketball world to the business world. At the very least, you can shape your pitches and be prepared for questions ahead of time around potential trouble areas or misaligned values being projected from your organization.
This isn’t a situation where you put a requisition/job posting up with a job description and wait for people to apply. The caliber of of quality candidates needed to fill PoBo, GM (if LA is looking to fill this role), and head coach positions is such that the best candidates will either recently fired from other top level positions for whatever reasons (Casey, Budenholzer, and Clifford last offseason) or will be passive job seekers.
Very few corporate entities handle headhunting of passive job seekers internally, necessitating executive search firms or “ executive headhunters.” Unlike an active job seeker, who will apply for roles and actively be looking for their next opportunity, a passive job seeker is someone in a role currently who may be content or even very happy with their current situation. These people won’t be applying to a job posting, not that job postings would be appropriate for these level of positions. But regardless, it takes tact and an executive search firm to most effectively source these candidates. Unlike in the business world, it’s standard practice (required?) to request permission to interview someone currently under contract. That doesn’t keep search firms from gauging interest from candidates ahead of time to formulate a slate for the client organization.
What Not to Do
A big no-no for this sort of process would be to cut down on your potential candidate pool for reasons that don’t matter. For example, only looking at candidates for a job from a certain school can make sense if you have a recruiting partnership with them to form a pipeline and they have a highly ranked program (or I guess a program ranked about where the caliber of your org is), but having it as a requirement for jobs like these would make no sense and unnecessarily cut down on whom you can hire.
The same goes for only looking at people with ties to the Lakers organization, based on the arbitrary idea that they’ll “know what it means to be a Laker,” which is a vague and antiquated idea more focused around “they know how to win,” which can better be assessed by looking at competency levels and actually seeing who knows how to win and do well at their job than by cutting down on your potential pool of people by like 90%+ and thinking someone who was in an org that was succeeding will somehow perform like the coach or GM did in those days even if the person at the time was a player, janitor, whatever. That pool is much smaller if it’s based on who Jeanie Buss knows personally and trusts. For the Lakers, they should be focusing on just getting the best person available.
Evaluate people on their merits, not their allegiances. This is especially impactful for LA, who should be able to garner interest from massive quantities of candidates from all backgrounds due to the organizational value and brand, not to mention having LeBron James, cap space, and some attractive young assets.
How I’ve described this effect in the past is this: imagine you’re playing a game of cards where the goal is to pick the highest card possible. You get to pick a couple cards and choose from those which one you want. If you’re only willing to consider less than 10% of your deck of cards, we’re looking at maybe five or six cards to choose from. Maybe four or five have interest and are able to apply. And if you’re looking to get a higher card than me with your options being four or five cards and mine being dozens, more times than not I’ll end up with a better result than you. You might beat me occasionally, but you have to get lucky. And if LA can just fix some of these processes, we can increase our belief in whomever they do end up with and feel much better about how this will turn out before we do know the outcome.
Along with this idea, it’s not a great practice (or even allowed at many companies) to only interview one candidate. If your slate doesn’t have at least five or six qualified candidate and you don’t interview at least three, you’re looking at either a really week candidate pool, some weak recruiting, or bad decision making on the part of the selection team. For a team worth billions, I would expect at least three interviews of highly qualified candidates. Evaluate based on process, not results, in order to find sustained success.
When sourcing and selecting candidates, KSAs are very important. KSA stands for knowledge, skills, and abilities. Knowledge is the learned understanding someone has developed. The difference between skills and abilities are that abilities are innate, while skills are learned. It’s never completely black and white, but one could assert that a coach’s Xs and Os skills are something developed, while their abilities as a leader of men are something more aligned with the “either they have it or don’t” designation, and won’t be something developed with nearly as much effectiveness over a couple years.
The role of KSAs is to evaluate candidates against the desired baseline for the role, as determined by (likely) the search firm in consultation with the client organization through a job analysis, for part of which is around what is needed to successfully perform the essential functions of the job. That phrase at the end is HR talk for what the key roles/responsibilities the job are. First, you identify those. Then, you figure out what KSAs are needed for each of those roles and responsibilities.
On the idea of KSAs for the Lakers, you may adapt your search parameters to include having the leadership abilities to lead LeBron James as a criterion. These are adaptable, but the idea is to figure out what’s important to you for the position to succeed, then find people that match those traits.
For a head coaching role, you’d want to be evaluating candidates’ KSAs for in-game management, offensive and defensive scheme, offensive and defensive tactics, personnel/locker room management, front office relations, and media relations.
If you’ve done your work correctly here and your headhunters know what they’re looking for, I’d hope to end up with preliminary slates of ~6-8 interested candidates to then look to evaluate.
A preponderance of factors can go into the winning record a coach has at various levels, so digging much deeper into why they found success or failure will be critical to truly understanding the value they’d bring to your position. Much of what we see is just the tip of the iceberg of the daily decision making and leadership they need to be performing, so figuring out the proper way to assess candidates once you have your pool of qualified applicants is imperative.
There are many different ways to assess candidates to positions. Resumes of experience and performance help, especially if individual contributions can be captured. In this realm, however, this is very difficult for coaches and front office positions are mostly performed in the shadows other than several public moves.
If your analysis of a candidate is just to bring them in for an interview or two and looking at their record of success elsewhere, you’re missing a lot of key pieces of information. Generally, those who are highly capable will have records of success, but if you don’t do your due diligence you’ll have misses on both ends, with some getting hired who were propped up by their old orgs or circumstances and not hire some who do have the KSAs/competencies needed to perform the job but for whatever reason were held down by situation (injuries, front office, etc.). Assessing competencies (KSAs) is they goal, and for executive type positions that have millions of dollars of either positive or negative influence on an org’s future, you shouldn’t be operating like a mom and pop shop. You should be selecting like you would for a CEO or other C-suite position at a Fortune 100 company needing a great hire.
So what should go into selecting a candidate? It really comes down to formulating a plan around the desired competencies you developed from the essential functions of the position, broken up into what can be done through pre-work research and what needs to be done with the candidate in-person.
Among pre-work items that I’m willing to share for assessing coaches, it doesn’t require massive amounts of capital to task a couple video coordinators with pulling scheme film from teams the coach has been part of, look at their ATO plays, look at out of bounds plays, late-game situations, and pull info on their rotations. You won’t make your decision based on who has better sideline out of bounds plays, but you want every piece of important info available for these kinds of hires. In many cases to help set the selected candidate and your organization up for success post-hire, which I’ll touch on later.
Among options for in-person candidate evaluation, we have: unstructured interviews, structured interviews, assessment centers (not currently developed, but may be something a basketball consulting firm wants to pursue), knowledge or aptitude tests, integrity tests, personality tests, and samples of work (“bring me a 10-paged proposed playbook for this roster). Each have varying degrees of predictive validity (helping you predict who will perform well in the job) and cost, so figuring out the right mix of those to get you what you need without going overboard will be key.
For whatever you use, you want your measures to have high content validity and relatively high face validity. Content validity means that what you’re asking in an interview question or what you’re assessing with an assessment are what you’re actually meaning to assess. Face validity is the degree to which your selection method can be tied to what you’re looking for “at its face,” meaning that if I’m wanting to learn about leadership but asking someone what type of animal they’d be, it’s hard to draw from my question that I’m assessing leadership and that question would have low face validity (and content validity). You want the right amount of face validity so that candidates don’t leave the assessment or interview thinking you’re crazy and don’t know what you’re doing, but also don’t want face validity too high to the point where it’s easy to fake or manipulate answers because it’s so transparent what answer you’re looking for.
Behavioral questions are used in structured interviews based on the idea that past behaviors can predict future behaviors. Instead of a “what would you do” question, it’ll be a “what did you do” question.
Predictive validity is another important concept. If you look at a way of assessing candidates and compare with their results on that method with later-scored results in the position, you can generate R values to see what correlates well. Taking the square of these values (R-squared) can show us the amount of variance in job performance that can be explained by the variance from those specific methods.
Here is a chart from a meta analysis from the British Psychological society, since I can’t find my SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) notes with the same data (but you can read about a lot of these same topics in their packet here).
|Method||Predictive Validity (R)||R-squared||Tim Recommends Here|
|Ability Tests||0.53||0.28||Yes (for head coach)|
You can read the R-squared values as: 5% of the variance in future work performance could be explained by the variance seen in evaluations from candidate references (which is crazy low).
My takeaways would be:
- Unstructured “traditional” interviews are a waste of your time. Go with structured ones that leverage behavioral questions. Every question should have purpose and be asked to every candidate, with follows ups as needed. None of the relaxed, “let’s just get to know you” style interviews. Those don’t help predict success. Later in this piece I’ll give example questions I’d be asking.
- References are usually not worth the time it takes to find and talk to them, which is why most companies have done away with them entirely. Nobody is going to provide references that won’t speak highly of them. Companies also greatly restrict the info they allow leaders to share about former employees for legal reasons. In the basketball world, this looks more like calling up the candidates’ former athletic directors, coaches, GMs, or other key stakeholders that could provide input. I’d still do it for this level of a position, but understand that you’re unlikely to find people bad mouthing former employees or coworkers, the same way you’ll see coaches turned analysts on TV never talking bad about other coaches’ scheme due to unwritten coaching rules and norms.
- Personality tests wouldn’t really apply for these roles. I’d stay away.
- Work samples, particularly for these roles, could be very valuable. That would be a sort of take-home assignment for the candidates to bring with them for you to assess, perhaps around scheme, player development, or a sample offseason plan.
- Tests of ability or knowledge would be well worth a look, particularly for coaches. I’ll assume this would be out of the norm of the industry, but wouldn’t be hard to develop and test for validity and could provide a lot of insight in areas that are harder to judge from afar, particularly around scheme and tactics.
- Assessment centers, while providing the best predictive value, likely aren’t something the infrastructure is in place to execute for a team or basketball consulting firm (although I have thoughts on specific things you could do in-house to emulate that value). These are typically 1-3 day simulations for C-suite executives that are pretty pricey, but are very effective in literally simulating the types of situations you’ll want to evaluate performance within. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in an executive leadership simulation as a participant and get graded, which gave the firms looking to hire me a lot of what they needed to know and left me with great info on where I stood and even how to improve. I’ve also been on the other side of things at a later date, which as a neat experience as well. The fact that I left that assessment with my results in-hand thinking that they knew me better than I knew myself should speak to the potential power of well-run assessment centers.
You can argue that these results aren’t for basketball, and thus don’t at all apply. I’d counter by saying that these methods, if adapted for the basketball positions being hired for the same way they would be for literally any other profession, would have the same relative value and there’s enough science backing the results across different professions that it’d be smart to recognize the value potential.
Based on the positions and info we have, for a coach I’d be doing structured interviews, work-sample tests around scheme and player development (“show me a playbook/plan for this roster/player), an ability test to gauge scheme and tactical ability at a deeper level, and check some references. For front office positions you could drop the abilities test and alter the work-sample to be an analysis of several prospective offseason plans for what holes to fill in the draft, what free agents to target, and thoughts on trade value and willingness to trade specific players on the current roster.
A key difference between NBA head coach roles and assessing an accountant or engineer is that much of how coaches can be assessed from afar is assessing their staff, not them as an individual. It’d be important to understand when conducting structured interviews who does what for their staff, which can then be matched up with the assessment of KSAs for the head coach and their assistants in each pertinent area, identifying perhaps that a specific assistant may not be adding value, or that one specific assistant or two are really the key players for success in several of the essential functions and the org will view retaining them as highly important moving forward.
Designing Your Structured Interview
In general, you want to be looking for the STAR format in behavioral interview responses. The candidate should describe the Situation they were in, their specific Task to accomplish, the Actions they (not their team) took, and the Results of those actions and the situation at hand.
Behavioral interview questions that may make sense in the context of the Lakers’ head coach:
- Can they adapt: Tell me about a time you had to make a significant adaptation to the way you approach doing your job.
- Get buy-in from players: Tell me about a time when you made a decision you knew would be unpopular with your players. How did you attempt to gain buy-in, and what was the result?
- Buy-in from LeBron: Tell me about a time you had to obtain a key player’s buy-in.
- Work w/front office (tanking wink wink): In this industry there may often be conflicting goals among different levels within the organization. Tell me about a time when you modified your goal for another group’s benefit.
- Innovation/or possibly coaching/teaching ability: Tell me about a time when you knew that a process was being done poorly.
- Decision making: Tell me about one of the most difficult coaching decisions you made in the last year.
- Changing staff: Tell me about a time you needed to make a change to your coaching staff. What went into that decision, and what did you learn from it?
For the answers of each of these, you’re looking to identify what they did, not what their team did. You want to see what their thought process was like, and identify how their actions led to results. Just looking at results without the rest of this doesn’t tell you much about how likely the person is to find those same results in the future.
Other structured prompts/questions I’d ask every candidate to better understand their philosophies and gauge abilities at a high level in a couple areas would be:
- Staff breakdown: Describe to me the important functions your staff would serve in this role, and how you’d be breaking up the roles and responsibilities associated with those functions.
- Player Development: What would be your development plan moving forward for Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram? What specific skill sets and in what order would your high level plan encompass for the next two seasons?
- Philosophies: What would you consider your core coaching philosophies?
- Scheme: What do you envision the team’s scheme looking like after a full preseason and month of regular season play to get installed what you want to install? (and I’d have them bring a sample playbook of like 10 sets and a couple out of bounds plays as homework to have an actual shot at assessing this)
- Tactics: What would your adjustment be to X coverage on Y player for play Z provided in the sample playbook? (and I’d ask several questions around this with someone there that could assess responses and ask follow ups if needed)
Those are just some examples, but I think you can see how those sample questions hit at key competencies you’d be looking to assess and can give you a deeper look at how the person thinks. Combining that with your pre-work research through film, references, and results from the ability tests and you’ll have a better sense of how well you’d expect the candidate to perform in each area.
That sort of analysis clearly hasn’t been done for the Lakers in the past and would be almost impossible for them to, on their own and with no background in this realm, determine they need to do and then conduct effectively. If they had done so, they most certainly would have seen the gaps Byron Scott and Luke Walton’s staffs had schematically and been forceful around supplementing the staffs those individuals were bringing in with skills sets from elsewhere to cover those gaps.
And by no means for essential functions as key as scheme and tactics should an organization acquiesce to a candidate asserting they won’t adapt or change their staff to fill clear gaps in KSAs. They’re less important than the people side of things and leadership, but are also an area that can be addressed through extra hires in a way a head coach unable to lead is more of a complete deal breaker than an area to supplement. But an unwillingness to change may also be a glaring sign that a coach isn’t cut out for success in an environment that is highly competitive and necessitates change over time to stay on top (or even get there in the first place).
In addition, identifying gaps in skill sets and knowledge bases enables not just the ability to hire assistants or assistant coaches to fill holes the front office member or coach may have, but it also enables thoughtful planning around growth for those individuals if they do want to be more well-rounded. It’s a massive misunderstanding to view people in these specific positions like young drafted players that need to develop substantially over time, but smaller improvements can be made. Someone not cut out for one of these jobs isn’t a prospect, they’re unqualified and shouldn’t be in the role in the first place.
The place to develop isn’t in roles of this degree of leverage to an organization’s success. For players you have them under contract hoping that they’ll grow to where you want them, but their role is also matched to their skill set until they’re ready to step up. Likewise, front office or coaching prospects should be assistants or in those roles at far lower levels until they’re ready for that jump.
This is all pretty high level, but I hope you have a better sense of why a search firm would be important, why it’s key to keep the search broad and not focused on personal connections, how the search firm and the teams should be evaluating candidates, and how that process would also enable thoughtful moves post-hire to help coaches and front office members succeed.
LA should look externally to get help in this search, and do what they can to attract and correctly evaluate a healthy number of qualified candidates in each area that’ll impact performance in the positions they’re hiring for, then make a decision for a hire based on those evaluations and let the candidate’s tenure begin while having a good gauge on where they (and their staff) may need assistance and where they can add the most value.
A Couple Notes/Caveats:
1. I will note that in general, coaches are an extremely stubborn group. Many former players know and hold the grind dear, and see “sticking to my guns” as their grit that will eventually win out. Among many non-former high level players, they’re at that level because they’ve won everywhere else doing what they do.
At lower levels, the environment of scheme in particular isn’t such that you need to be above average with it to succeed, resulting in some coaches making it to the NBA level with deficiencies in their staffs around scheme or tactics. And “sticking to my guns” is sometimes the right answer, but the unwillingness or inability to look outside yourself to benchmark against best practices and innovate is the true crime.
Sometimes that research will reaffirm your own beliefs, but many other times it’ll help you identify something you can do a bit better to find more success. I’ve seen firsthand how the difficulty in getting coaches to accept new approaches with scheme and analytics has risen as the level of competition has risen. So if I ever mention finding an assistant to add to a staff to enhance scheme as being an “easy” fix, that’s used in a very relative sense.
2. I don’t know exactly what goes into front office and coaching selection processes for different teams across the league. All I can do is provide what from an HR best practices standpoint combined with the basketball knowledge I do have would point toward being some of the right questions to ask and areas to assess.
3. I’ve pondered this exact basketball hiring topic for about four years, and have far more developed assessments put together to gauge these areas. For obvious reasons, I won’t publicly publish everything I have. But, ya know, give me a call if you’re the Lakers and I’d be happy to share if you compensate me with sending out contracts this offseason to some of the players I mention in this article.