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Talent Recruitment Lessons From the World of Sport


The world of professional sport offers great insights for the world of business. More specifically, concerning the identification, recruitment and development of talent.

Talent recruitment strategies in sports and business

If professional sports teams – from the NFL, NBA and MLB to Europe’s major football leagues – utilise a specialised talent recruitment strategy to exploit ‘marginal gains’, how can business leaders maximise the quality of the ‘human capital’ they recruit?  

Lesson One: finding talent and keeping it

Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s long-awaited sacking by Manchester United demonstrated an exemplary talent recruitment strategy. Opting not for the star-studded options of French footballing hero Zinedine Zidane or the perennially-successful Mauricio Pochettino, the club settled on Ralf Rangnick.

They chose the somewhat unostentatious, bespectacled ‘Professor’ of German football.

Ralf Rangnick. Source:

What makes Rangnick’s appointment so impressive is its calculated nature. He offers a unique footballing philosophy, a wealth of transfer-enabling European connections and a proven man-managerial record.

Crucially, he has agreed to become United’s interim manager for the remainder of the 2021/2022 season. He will then continue at the club with a two-year consultancy role. This is a surprising arrangement in the footballing world.

It illuminates a useful lesson for talent recruitment. Recruiting outstanding talent is obviously important. But, retaining these expert voices within the team cements these benefits in the long-term.

Lesson Two: cultivating a long-term recruitment strategy

Crucial to developing the best team and recruiting the best talent is looking forward.

Chelsea FC’s success in talent recruitment offers valuable insights for the business world. With a 2019 transfer ban obstructing the arrival of international superstars, Chelsea looked inward to look forward. They offered first-team debuts to an array of London’s most talented youngsters.

Since then, a procession of academy alumni has graced the Premier League. Household names – Mason Mount, Reece James, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Andreas Christensen – are the most notable examples. This season, home-grown products have played 27% of the minutes and scored 1/3 of the club’s goals.

Also, academy products that missed the mark have departed to clubs throughout Europe. Their parent club has profited as a result, enjoying a cash injection of over £90 million this summer.

Source: ChelseaNews

Like Chelsea, Google has demonstrated an impressive focus on cultivating talent. Freelance recruiters for the company are employed to monitor the progress of PhD students in computer sciences, according to the founder of JJA Venture Search recruitment firm, Jim Jonassen.

Furthermore, Google offers lucrative fellowship programmes in the hope of attracting the most promising talent in the field.

Companies may benefit from emulating the academy structure of professional sports teams. By orienting themselves towards talented young individuals through internships, graduate programmes, work experience opportunities and targeted messaging, companies are able to attract and recruit the cream of the crop.

Much like the Chelsea example, not all of these talented prospects will sign long-term contracts. Regardless, this long-term emphasis is one of great value. It is one businesses should take heed of. 

Lesson Three: exploiting niches and ‘marginal gains’ – who the hell is Julius Edelman?

The 2011 film, ‘Moneyball’, based on the nonorthodox strategy employed by Major League Baseball (MLB) team Oakland Athletics, exemplifies an insightful strategy to exploiting ‘marginal gains’.

Sixteen years after the Athletics’ successful 2002 season, the New England Patriots in the NFL executed a similar approach to utilising their talent.

Despite being 5’10”, suffering from ligament damage and drafted #232, the beleaguered Julius Edelman was transitioned from quarterback to a wide receiver role – to the immense surprise of onlookers.

Yet, as the Patriots, through Tom Brady, utilised a short passing offensive strategy, at wide receiver, Edelman’s relatively diminished stature was no longer a weakness but a weapon.

Tom Brady (R) and Julian Edelman (L) embrace after the Patriots’ Super Bowl win. Credit: Reuters

Good business leaders should follow this lead. As in professional sports teams, businesses look to gain an edge by identifying a potential marginal gain, and by filling that position with a uniquely talented individual.

Whether these ‘talent stars’ are gifted coding-wizards, customer service-gurus or social media-strategists, the key is all about recruiting talent and maximising their usage to create marginal gains. Mere 1% improvements, when aggregated, are fundamental to long-term success.

Ultimately, the examples of Manchester United, Chelsea FC, Oakland Athletics and the New England Patriots should inform the talent recruitment strategies of businesses.

Whilst perhaps the most important lesson is the significance of talent recruitment to long-term success, these examples demonstrate crucial lessons in how best to spot, develop and utilise talent.

These are lessons business leaders everywhere should never cease to act upon.

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