Want to raise the performance bar higher? Hire an “Athlete”.

The first time I heard the phrase “hire an athlete” was early in my career. I was working for Hallmark Cards, Inc. and my boss used the phrase. Coming from a family with a long line of athletes, I naively asked what he meant. Was he being literal? Not at all.

Hiring an athlete simply means hiring a proven performer regardless of their specific industry expertise. It means hiring someone who knows how to win. Time and time again some of the most successful companies prove that formula still works.

Many of the companies which hire athletes have unique and/or thorough screening processes. They are tailored to be sure these candidates align well with the core values of the company. Companies that deploy this philosophy realize that you can train for skill but not for personality. If you want friendly people according to Southwest Airlines, you hire friendly people and then train them. They have a unique hiring process that focuses on screening for people skills and culling out people without them.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car takes it one step further. They not only hire athletes, they promote them. Enterprise promotes from within, but to be considered you have to meet the target criteria for customer loyalty for your specific rental location. If customers aren’t happy, you aren’t promoted. That contributes to a self selection process for potential employees. Don’t apply if you don’t enjoy dealing with people. They value customer loyalty over efficiency. With good reason, so it seems, as a number of studies verify that great customer service links to revenue.

  • In a J.D. Power & Associates study monitoring the correlation of customer satisfaction and shareholder value from a five-year period, companies which improved their customer satisfaction scores more than doubled their shareholder value, while companies whose rank in customer satisfaction declined lost one quarter of their value.
  • Improved customer satisfaction delivers higher retail customer growth, lower defection rate and a ROE 50% higher than comparison companies according to a study of retail banks by Bain & Company.
  • A multi-year study by the Gallup Organization in customer service best practices found that the 10 companies in the study who applied customer-centric best practices outperformed their five largest rivals by 26% in gross margins and 85% in sales growth.
  • Dan Cathy, President and COO of Chick-fil-A, stresses the importance of who is hired in achieving their corporate mission. They look for competence, character and chemistry. In fact, at the front line level, which interacts with guests, they rigorously screen for the most active and social teens. They hire twice as many employees so they can accommodate their busy schedules and work around student council, community service and athletic commitments. While not efficient, it is critical to their unique model of customer service and quality food in a ubiquitous fast food world. It is reflected in their performance; they have tripled growth since 2001, and earned the Choice of Chains award for the last 16 consecutive years.

    Traditionally banks hire bankers. To replace a teller, hire another teller. It requires less time, training, and the opening doesn’t sit as long. This is consistent with efficiency ratios, which have often served as a key ratio in bank performance. The question is, did they hire an athlete or the most available teller?

    An athlete is a proven performer who knows how to win, work under pressure, has a competitive edge and is a team player. To boost your opportunity for success look first for attitude, secondly for functional competence or affinity to the criteria of the job and finally, if you are fortunate enough (like the companies above) to have thousands of applications per opening, for someone with relevant job experience.

    Go team!

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