The Secret to Recruiting According to the Best Recruiter in Sports: Make It About The Candidate

August 25, 2015

Since 2009, there’s been no better recruiter in sports than University of Kentucky Basketball Head Coach John Calipari. During that time, more than 20 of his players went on to make it into the NBA, including three who were drafted number one overall.

Since 2009, no coach in men’s college basketball is even close to that.

What’s his secret? He doesn’t have some special spiel he gives or a line that always works. Instead, his philosophy is an adaptation off the John F. Kennedy approach: he doesn’t ask what the recruit can do for him; he asks what he can do for the recruit.

“You have to know what (the recruit’s) dreams and aspirations are, and chase those with them,” Calipari said in an interview with LinkedIn. “I’m trying to help them succeed, so we become one of the places where everyone wants to work.”

However, one thing Calipari avoids is promising anything to a recruit or their family. While he tries to do everything he can to help his recruits succeed, the last thing he wants is for their expectations not to be met.

“With social media, (all the recruits) talk to each other,” Calipari said. “So we don’t promise outlandish things. Because, if you do and they don’t come true, you are going to run out of people pretty quick.”

Selling the future and ensuring you treat both candidates and employees right? Sounds like Calipari’s words apply not just to college basketball, but to business as well. And the deeper you dive into his philosophy, the more you realize that’s true.

Calipari’s first rule of recruiting: you have to know the people you recruit

When he was an assistant coach at Kansas University early in his career, Calipari used to tell prospects how great it is to go to a big university like Kansas, because you can major in anything. To hammer home his point, he would say the only three majors Kansas doesn’t offer is forestry, farming and veterinary medicine, three majors few recruits were interested in.

One day, he was sent to recruit a player named Roy Brow, and gave his speech about the (almost) unlimited opportunity at Kansas, except for those three majors. Of course, after hearing the spiel, Brow was quick to tell him what he wanted to major in: veterinary medicine.

Calipari hasn’t made the same mistake again. Now, before he meets with a prospect, he finds out exactly what they are looking for in a career. And then, when talking with them, he offers a path on how exactly that can happen.

“I ask them, what do you want out of your college experience, where do you want basketball to take you?” he said. “And then, from there, I’m doing everything I can to help them succeed.”

LinkedIn research shows that selling the future is a great way to recruit in the corporate world as well. A recent survey of more than 10,000 people who just changed jobs revealed that what drove them to switch was not more money or a better work-life balance, but because they wanted to advance their career.

Calipari’s second rule of recruiting: honesty is key

That said, Calipari never promises playing time or NBA stardom to his recruits, only opportunity. In fact, since Calipari gets so many great players to go to Kentucky, often some of the best players in the country play less on his team than they normally would.

Calipari is also admittedly hard on his players and added that playing at Kentucky can be difficult; as there’s so much media attention it’s like “being under a microscope.” If Kentucky doesn’t win a national title, the season is considered a failure, despite dozens of other great college basketball teams sharing the same goal.

Despite those obstacles, he consistently lands top players because he strives to be as honest as he can with them regarding his personality and playing at Kentucky, so they trust him. And sometimes that honesty means directly telling a great talent they won’t be a good fit for Kentucky, and the reasons why.

“The last thing you want is someone who isn’t going to thrive in your system,” he said. “The more they fail, those results begin to hurt your recruitment.”

Again, there are obvious correlations here with the business world as well. With sites out there where employees can rate what it’s like to work at your company, lying to people or having people fail at your company is a sure-fire way to destroying your employer brand.

Calipari’s third rule of recruiting: if someone moves on, don’t forget about them

Calipari won his only national title in 2012, when his Wildcats defeated Kansas in the title game, 67-59. And yet, he said he’s more proud of the dozens of players he sent to the pros than his one championship victory.

That fits in line with his general attitude of doing what he can for his players, even after they leave Kentucky. He related it to the business world, saying a company should be “ecstatic” if one of its employees got a great job somewhere else.

Additionally, Calipari often hires his former players and coaches to his own staff, years after they ever played or worked for him. Of course, the bigger reason he does that is because he believes they’re right for the job, but he also knows that loyalty will pay off down the line.

“Are you taking care of people on the way out?” Calipari said. “Or is all just about what they can do for you? That’s all part of recruiting.”

This practice falls in line with companies like Hubspot and Google that have set up “alumni” groups highlighting people who have left the company and done great things. Rather than shun the people who left for better jobs elsewhere, they promote it, which increases both the chance of those people coming back some day and goodwill among candidates looking to apply there.

Calipari’s fourth rule of recruiting: social media is your friend 

Calipari has more than one million Twitter followers, more than 500,000 Facebook followers and frequently updates both accounts. Why?

For him, it’s a way to get the real Calipari out, without the filter of the mainstream media. Going back to his point of being honest, the more he can show the world what the real John Calipari is like, the more likely he is to get recruits who are a good fit.

“Social media, if you are not doing it, you are already losing,” he said. “If you are doing it, it’s more or less to be transparent.”

That advice certainly applies to recruiting as well, as social media is your way to talk to candidates directly. Smart companies like Lego, Nike and hundreds of others are using Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and more to help tell their story of what it’s like to work there.

Calipari’s fifth and most important rule of recruiting: follow the golden rule

Ultimately though, what it` comes down to is treating people the right way, Calipari said. If you are honest, if you legitimately help people achieve their dreams and if keep a good relationship with them after they leave, you are going to have a successful organization.

When Calipari first started as a coach at the University of Massachusetts in 1989, he obviously had no reputation to point to. So, he “sold hopes and dreams,” and managed to have a relatively successful tenure there.

However, as his career progressed, his reputation for getting players to the next level began to spread. Twenty-five years later, he’s the best recruiter of talent in the country, largely because of his skill for helping players achieve their goal of getting into the NBA.

“It’s bigger than me just coming in and I’m going to sell you,” Calipari said. “It’s about the relationships I’ve had with the players who have come through my program. And that’s going to feed off itself.”

This advice rings true in the corporate world. LinkedIn data shows 50 percent of professionals talk to their network when considering a job offer and a person will trust what a friend tells them about a company three-times more than what the CEO says about the company.

So, just like what Calipari says to recruit is going to have less of an impact on them than what a Kentucky alum says, what your recruiters tells a candidate matters less than what your employees say about your company. Bottom line, the real key to a great employer brand is treating your candidates and employees great.

Tying it all together

After analyzing Calipari’s philosophy, you realize it’s eerily similar to the one outlined in the book by former LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman entitled The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age. 

Essentially, what Hoffman says in the book is that people don’t spend their careers at one company anymore. So, the best way to manage them is to build a mutually-beneficial relationship – i.e., an alliance - where the person obviously helps the company, but the company helps the person reach their next career goal.

Calipari does the exact same thing. When he recruits players, he does what he can to help them reach their career goal, which is usually reach the NBA, while they play hard for him in return.

By doing this consistently, he’s built a reputation as someone who launches careers, and therefore is highly attractive to ambitious, great talent. In return, that talent repays him and the university with SEC championships, Final Four appearances and the 2012 national title.

“Some people have criticized me for talking too much about the success I’ve had getting players into the NBA, as opposed to what I’ve done at Kentucky,” he said. “And yet, what I noticed is that when I focus on achieving their dreams and making our players the best they can be, the byproduct of that is winning a lot of basketball games.”

* image by Getty

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.

talent trends 2015 what candidates want