What Can Managers Learn From College Basketball?

  • April 01, 2009

To gain insights into the labor market, consider how basketball coaches move from one job to another.

Successful job hunting usually requires active networking that reaches beyond our immediate circle of contacts. According to past research, we are less likely to find jobs through our close friends and family than through an outer circle of acquaintances. And there’s a simple reason for that: Those individuals have information that we don’t already know. But social networks aren’t just important for information access. In fact, a recent study shows that they might also play other key roles, for example, by helping to shape employer perceptions of job candidates.

The research was conducted by Daniel Halgin, a doctoral student in the organization studies department of Boston College. Halgin investigated a particular kind of social network—professional networks in which people have a shared sense of belonging and identity that they retain through different career moves. Such networks often develop around shared workplace experiences. For instance, consultants who have worked for Bain & Co. Inc. often think of themselves as “Bainies” for life, and former high-level managers of General Electric Co. are frequently referred to as “graduates of Welch U.” (referring to ex-CEO Jack Welch) even after they’ve left GE to run other businesses. These types of affiliations certainly provide opportunities to network and exchange information, but do they also play other important roles in the labor market?

To answer that question, Halgin studied the movement of head coaches for the top U.S. college level of men’s basketball teams—the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I. That sample might be somewhat unorthodox, but it’s a veritable petri dish for investigating job movement. The 341 colleges in the study tend to switch head coaches frequently: Between 2001 and 2007, more than 280 changes occurred, including more than 150 firings. The sample also allows for certain effects to be studied in relative isolation because the data could be controlled for various factors, including employee performance, as reflected by the win-loss records of the coaches. Moreover, because of the frequent job changes and relative insularity of college basketball, the study sample was a highly interconnected network: At the start of the 2007 season, 90% of the head coaches had worked with one of the other head coaches previously in their careers.