What LeBron James Has to Do With Succession Planning


Your company’s top performer would be hard-pressed to approximate the value of LeBron James. But losing that person might be no less damaging to your organization if it is caught unprepared for that possibility.

James stunned many observers when he left the star-studded Miami Heat–after winning two championships and making four consecutive National Basketball Association finals—to return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. To make a UK soccer analogy, it’s a decision akin to when Alan Shearer snubbed mighty Manchester United to play for his hometown Newcastle United squad.

Planning for the possibility of losing the world’s best basketball player is not exactly something you can draw up in an employee handbook. But the extent to which a team is ready for the worst-case scenario can tell a lot about its organization.

The same still holds true when grappling with the departure of a top-level scientist, computer programmer or a popular manager. While it is much too early to tell how James’ now former team will fare next season without him, the early indications are that LeBron’s career has already provided case studies of what to do—and what not to do—when it comes to advance planning.

Miami Heat

Just days before James’ July 11 departure, the Heat agreed to a contract with former Indiana Pacers star Danny Granger. The move was made both to entice James to stay by providing him with a stronger supporting player and as a hedge against his possible departure.

Within four days of James’ announcement that he would be taking his talents back to the shores of Lake Erie, the Heat moved decisively to shape its future. The team not only quickly re-signed its two other key players, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but also reinvested some of the money not spent on James into a two-year contract for talented free agent forward Luol Deng.

None of these moves means the team will be as good as it was with James. However, it should ensure the Heat will remain a solid contender and avoid the dreaded fade into irrelevancy.

A Blueprint For What Not to Do

In contrast with the Heat’s adept maneuvering, the Cleveland Cavaliers blundered badly when James left them in 2010 to join Miami. The team had massively overpaid underwhelming supporting players to the point that it had little flexibility under the league’s salary cap to replace James. The very next year, the Cavs dropped from having the NBA’s best record to having its worst. Three more losing seasons with flagging fan interest followed.

James’ return to Cleveland should finally end the suffering.

What This Means for HR

Cleveland recovered from its blundering because James grew up in Northeast Ohio and longed to return. Most employers cannot count on such good fortune when a highly-valued employee leaves for a competitor.

While a career planning policy may not have meant much for these teams, it certainly could help more typical employers to retain top performers. No system is fool proof, but it is crucial for organizations to try to predict and control employee turnover before it happens.

There are also lessons LeBron’s decision can teach us about hiring, says fellow blogger Jim Roddy. He writes that employers should offer jobs to candidates whose family or spouse’s family in or near the city where the work will be performed. Otherwise, Roddy claims, the employees will eventually move back to their hometowns for any number of reasons.

That’s not to say the Heat regrets its decision to hire LeBron James for four wildly successful years. But it does suggest the team surely had to realize its investment might not be forever.