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NBA insiders appreciate the Golden State Warriors for more than Steph Curry’s three-point wizardry and Draymond Green’s tenacious defense. Golden State has also been recognized as one of the great incubators of coaching talent. Head coaches such as Alvin Gentry, Luke Walton and Michael Malone all got their starts in Golden State, and many other assistants have honed their strategic and leadership skills for the Warriors before advancing to better positions in college or the pros.
Many NBA teams keep a tight leash on their coaching staff, seeing no reason to groom talent that will eventually leave for a competitor. Not the Warriors. Coach Steve Kerr admits to an open policy of letting assistants explore greener pastures as they appear on the horizon — even if they are still under contract.
“If someone gets an offer they’re interested in and want to take it, they should go,” Kerr recently told The Athletic. “It’s about personal development, never standing in someone’s way as they climb the ladder.”
Is the Warriors’ open-door policy an anachronism of professional sports? Should investments in professional development come with strings attached to prevent attrition, or should companies consider the potential exodus of talent as the acceptable price to pay for management training?
The evidence appears to support the approach of Kerr and his Warriors. While Kerr might appear to be guided by humanitarian impulses, a more calculated strategy appears to be at work. Studies have found that investments in career development, specifically management training, deliver tangible and intangible returns. Employees who participate in professional development are more productive, and they enjoy higher levels of morale and organizational affiliation.
Organizations that invest in the development of their staff send an unmistakable signal: We believe in you, and we want you to be your best. This philosophy can prevail even though some people will take their lessons learned to pursue opportunities elsewhere, even with competitors. Most employees will realize that they are better off staying with the firm that has invested in their potential.
This is not naive optimism. LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report found that an astonishing 94% of employees said they would be less likely to leave if their company invested in their professional development. In fact, head hunters say that failure to invest in professional development out of fear that highly trained personnel will leave could backfire in a higher attrition rate. Companies that fail to show an interest in their people’s development will unintentionally encourage them to look elsewhere for career satisfaction.
Unfortunately, most employees feel career-less in their current positions. A recent survey conducted by the Harris Poll found that only half of all American managers feel they actually have a career, while the other half feel they just have a job. Even more troubling is the fact that one-third of employees planned to change jobs in the coming year, presumably out of frustration at the lack of career opportunities in their current positions.
Perhaps this explains why so many blue-chip companies have developed sophisticated management training programs. General Electric’s renowned Crotonville management training center has been operating since Elvis Presley hit the airwaves in 1956. Most other big corporations have similar, though not as long-lived, management training programs.
Yet therein lies another paradox of professional development. What about the small firm? Large firms have multiple management levels that offer opportunities for in-house advancement. Investing in career development for the large firms makes sense given the potential for lifelong tenure for their highly trained and exceptional talent.
But what if you are a small- to medium-sized firm? Does investing in career development of your staff make sense if their most likely opportunity for advancement is external? Will you suffer the fate of the Golden State Warriors, who groom their assistant coaches only to see them leave for competitors they will face on the court next season?
These questions are more easily answered when you consider the alternatives. Failure to invest in the career development of your staff will result in lower morale, less loyalty and higher attrition. Offering career development will inevitably lead some of your people to move on if they have no more room to grow at your firm, but in the meantime, their performance will justify the investment.
Indeed, the assistant coaching staff during the Kerr era is a revolving door of young, and in many cases experienced, talent. Just this off-season, Kerr hired coaches from high-level European leagues and former NBA head coach Kenny Atkinson of the Brooklyn Nets, all of whom are attracted to assistant-level positions at Golden State to learn, improve and prepare for careers elsewhere.
Kerr’s approach to professional development might be more strategic than humanitarian after all. By investing in the development of his staff, he prepares them to move on, but he also creates a reputation that makes Golden State an attractive destination for coaching talent. That’s a lesson that other organizations outside the lofty heights of an NBA team might take to the rim.