Lebron James on Losing Top Talent

There comes a time in every leader’s tenure when they lose a valued team member. These incidents are triggered by the individual and tend to be unavoidable. You may have done everything a leader can do – treated them well, compensated fairly, and maintained a positive culture. We just have to accept that there are many factors beyond our control…even when working with a big name like Lebron James.

If you have even the slightest understanding of basketball or you’ve seen any news for the last few days, then you’re familiar with NBA great Lebron James. Lebron has won two championships, four MVP Awards, two Olympic gold medals, etc. If you aren’t into sports, you can appreciate that his name attracts sponsors and fans, increases viewership, and increases the value of tickets and the many products he endorses.

For the first seven years of his career, Lebron was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was a hometown hero and the star of the team. In 2010, he left to join the Miami Heat. This was a controversial move that garnered venomous attacks from Cleveland. It’s one thing for sportscasters to provide rancorous commentary; it’s another when the owner of the team, Dan Gilbert, says things like:

…our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening.

You [the fan] simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal.

This shocking act of disloyalty… sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn.

So how, after four years in Miami, has Dan Gilbert convinced Lebron to return to Cleveland? How does any leader rebuild their reputation with the departing and current employees after saying this?

As leaders, we need to be above the fray. We do not have the luxury of saying whatever we think whenever we’re thinking it. Things do not always go our way and our best employee will not stay with us forever. In fact, if you’ve done your job as a leader, you are going to lose some top talent because you’ve trained them so well that they’ve outgrow whatever opportunities you can offer. When this happens, regardless of how you feel, you must maintain a sense of grace.

Here are a few tips on how to treat a valued employee when they resign:

Take a deep breathe. You are probably caught off-guard. Retain your composure so as to avoid saying something you’ll regret.

Offer a sincere congratulations…or the best you can do to make it appear sincere. They are leaving anyway; why should they leave with a negative impression of you and the organization?

Don’t try to bargain. In all of my experience, convincing someone to stay has never worked out. By looking, interviewing, and accepting a new job, they have mentally left your organization. Keep the door open for them to return, but they need to miss you to want to come back.

Give a loud public acknowledgement. You’re the leader, so act like it. Get ahead of the gossip and own the message. Announce to the organization that this person is leaving. Check out what Miami’s owner posted on Twitter when he learned that Lebron was leaving:

Short, sweet, and classy. When making your announcement, thank them for everything they’ve done and wish them the best in their next opportunity. If you’re culture merits it, throw a little party to show your gratitude and say thanks, not to celebrate their new job. While it’s nice for the person leaving, the party is really for those who are staying. It shows that you recognize hard work and are loyal to those under your tutelage.

The next time your star player decides to leave, take the high road. It’s a small world and none of us can afford to burn bridges….unless you are offering an $88 million dollar contract.