To Recruit Top Talent for Your Organization, Follow the Advice of a D1 College Basketball Recruiter

Growing up, basketball was everything to me. While I worked toward a Master of Social Work at the University of Louisville, I had the opportunity to serve as a graduate assistant with the women’s basketball department. That opportunity launched my basketball career, and I went on to become the assistant women’s basketball coach and co-recruiting coordinator at Furman University, then director of operations for Xavier University’s women’s basketball department, and later the assistant basketball coach and recruiter for Xavier’s women’s team.

My transition from a college basketball recruiter to an executive search consultant strikes some people as perplexing, but to me it makes perfect sense. My job was—and is—about helping organizations find the very best talent, and it doesn’t matter whether that organization is a college basketball program or $100-million private company. Here are just some of the key strategies I’ve used as a recruiter in both environments:

Really listen to the job requirements.

As a basketball recruiter there were times my mission was pretty straightforward—to recruit a point guard who’s a superb ball handler and floor general or a stretch forward who can shoot the three in transition. But more often than not, I was looking for players who could fulfill additional roles, too. I spent a lot of time listening to my head coach talk about his goals for growing the program or filling in the gaps left by graduating student athletes. I would find myself listening for the intangibles. For example, not only would the coach communicate he was looking to recruit a point guard with a tremendous skill set, but through listening I discovered he also really wanted a talented recruit who could be a program ambassador and represent the team in the community as well as mentor teammates. At the end of the day, a big component to me being a successful college recruiter came down to listening to what was being said as well as to what wasn’t being specifically articulated.

Likewise, as executive recruiters we spend a lot of time listening to our clients to get a strong understanding of what each organization needs. Our job is to help sort the must-have requirements from the nice-to-have skills and help the hiring managers paint a robust picture of their ideal hire. It takes a lot of listening—and sometimes a lot of digging—to get the full picture. Hiring for culture fit is also a critical component. A great player who doesn’t tie into the culture isn’t going to play to her maximum ability and you lose when you recruit the best player instead of the best player for your team.

Start with a wide funnel of candidates and narrow it down.

It doesn’t matter what kind of recruiting we’re talking about—if you sit back and wait to see who comes to you you’re missing out on a massive amount of potential talent. You have to start out with as large a pool as possible and turn every stone in the search. Every team and organization wants the best players. You just have to be willing to work harder to find them.

Recruiting is a two-way street.

Let’s be honest. High-performers have options and they won’t be on the market for long. Top basketball players always have more than one school recruiting them so it’s important to establish trust and rapport very early in the process. By doing this, you strengthen the lines of communication. Communication is critical because it’s important to stay in touch and let them know where they are in the process. They shouldn’t wonder if you’re interested in them or when you might reach back out with a decision.

A company’s candidate experience needs to be equally accessible. Be available to applicants and keep them up to speed on how the process works and what to expect. If a candidate isn’t right for the position—tell them. It takes extra time but it’s the right thing to do and will foster goodwill moving forward.

Evaluate talent from different perspectives.

Evaluating top talent is where sports recruiters spend a majority of their time because it’s critical to develop a good sense of who each player is and how he or she would fit into the program. I spent a lot of time not just looking at stats or watching game tape, but seeking out friends, coaches, family members and teammates who could help me paint a more robust picture of who a player really was. The more information I could provide my coach, the more he trusted me and the more comfortable he felt signing an athlete.

In talent recruiting, it’s critical to look beyond the skills on a resume. Recommendations help paint a clearer picture, but you can also take advantage of tools like culture assessments, cognitive evaluations, and writing tests. When we present a slate of candidates to our clients, we try to include individuals with a mix of professional backgrounds, skills, and strengths so they can make an informed decision and ultimately make the best hire for the company and culture. 

Garry Horton