By Brian Kreissl
I confess to being a big Toronto Maple Leafs fan.
This time of year isn’t easy for me, with the Leafs missing the playoffs a record seven straight years — especially after a season that seemed so promising until just recently.
But what do the Leafs’ woes — particularly this year’s late season meltdown — have to do with HR? Well, many of my beloved Leafs’ problems can be examined through the paradigm of human resources management. Actually, the job of an NHL general manager is a lot like being an HR executive.
The role of the GM focuses on staffing the team with players and coaching personnel. The GM must be able to assess and develop talent, negotiate with players and their agents and help bring in and manage the right leadership team. There are also parallels with HR in terms of performance management, recruitment, training and development and disability management.
This is relevant because sports analogies can help bridge gaps. People who don't understand HR can gain a better understanding of what HR actually does through a comparison with professional sports. It’s also a useful and interesting way of explaining to non-sports fans how professional sports often have “real life” parallels in the business world.
Recruitment and talent management
More than any other HR discipline, the Leafs’ problems provide lessons in effective talent management and recruitment. For example, we learn it’s often better to grow talent from within than trying to acquire it from outside.
This is important in the NHL during the salary cap era, meaning teams can no longer spend their way out of problems by acquiring expensive talent through free agency. This parallels the financial constraints many organizations operate within (even a cash-rich team like the Leafs isn’t allowed to overspend).
Teams are also now locking superstar players into long-term contracts. As a result, other teams need to draft very high to be successful or draft in a smart way by looking for potential and developing players accordingly.
In most organizations, it’s important to be able to effectively judge entry level talent by selecting it based not only on current performance, but also on future potential. By choosing a more junior “diamond in the rough” candidate, you might be hiring a future superstar.
However, effective onboarding, coaching and training are critical if you’re going to retain such employees and develop them into top talent. It isn’t easy, but you’ll end up with employees who are more loyal, engaged and familiar with the organization than if you hired only “free agents.”
Compensation and rewards
Hiring too many free agents frequently means an organization will end up overpaying for talent. It also demotivates employees by sending the message their hard work won’t be rewarded.
Yet, most employers find they have to use external talent to fill at least some vacancies, especially at the more senior levels. Organizations need to be certain they’re not overpaying for that talent, as the Leafs did in many cases. Remember, even superstars who were highly successful elsewhere might not be as successful in a new organization.
After last season, the Leafs let veteran goaltender Jean-Sébastien Giguère walk, believing the tandem of young netminders James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson could carry them forward. Unfortunately, Reimer was injured early on, and both goaltenders lacked consistency, especially during the latter half of the season.
While there’s no doubt Reimer and Gustavsson have potential, neither are probably ready to be number one NHL goaltenders yet. I believe there was a failure to conduct effective succession planning, since the absence of a veteran goalie clearly hurt the Leafs’ chances.
Succession planning is vital in any organization, especially for a critical position like goaltender.
The Leafs’ problems can also teach us a thing or two about employer branding. While many kids in Southern Ontario grew up idolizing the Toronto Maple Leafs, that might not be the case anymore.
Fewer kids now cheer for the Leafs, probably as a result of the team’s failure to make the playoffs during their lifetimes. That will likely hurt the organization’s brand in the future, not only in the product market, but also in the player market.
Already there’s rumours many players don’t want to play for the Leafs due to the intense media scrutiny and pressure that comes from playing here. Clearly, more on-ice success is needed by the Leafs to improve their brand.
Oh well, there’s always next year.
Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at email@example.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.