Five Management Lessons from the LeBron James & Cristiano Ronaldo Moves

by Joe Sesso on July 17, 2018

LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo are starting new chapters in their careers. Both superstars are arguably the best player in their respective sports (sorry Kevin Durant & Lionel Messi fans) and both are 33 years old, not exactly Spring chickens at this stage of their careers. Like many others, I was shocked and confused by these moves. LeBron was on the best team in the Eastern Conference and had just led them to their fourth consecutive NBA Final. Ronaldo was coming off his fourth European Championship in the last five years and is on his way to winning a sixth Balon D’or award (MVP of soccer). Real Madrid had almost the entire championship team returning for the 2018-19 season and were positioned to compete for a fourth consecutive title. So why did two champions depart the comfort of their very strong teams in the twilight of their career? The answer is not what you think. And it’s a good lesson for managers who wish to retain their star players.

LeBron James image NBA MVP LeBron James is now a Los Angeles Laker

LeBron James left Cleveland for the second time in his career. SB Nation claims that it was for the same reason: That he didn’t have a strong enough supporting cast to create a dynasty. That may be true, but if you’re LeBron James, the best player on the planet, you should be able to convince players to play with you. Who wouldn’t want to play with a legend that can guarantee them at least a Finals appearance and probably a championship? Is it going to be any easier for him to win in Los Angeles against the likes of The Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors? Definitely not! James loved Cleveland and I am sure he wanted to stay. Why he couldn’t recruit talent to the team blows my mind. But after thinking about it, maybe it wasn’t James’ fault. James could do his best to recruit the talent, but management had to agree to sign it. Apparently, that was the issue.

James left the first time because he didn’t have the supporting cast to win the championship. He was recruited by Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat, who behind Pat Reilly stepped up and hired the players necessary to win back-to-back titles. When he returned to Cleveland, he had the cast to win championships. Kyrie Irving was a rising star and Kevin Love came to the Cavs to play with James and win championships. Within two years they had done just that. But Irving eventually wanted out and Cleveland struggled to replace him with equal talent, which put a large workload on James. In the end, he thought that Cleveland was not the place where he was going to win his next championship. Always a class act, LeBron might never reveal why he really left the Cavaliers, but my guess is that there was disagreement with management on draft and free agent strategy. The Lakers’ gain is the Cavaliers’ loss. L.A. is going to be an instant contender and Cleveland will fall back into the land of mediocrity.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s circumstances are much different. In addition to winning MVP awards, his team WAS winning championships. Real Madrid just completed a Threepeat in the Champions League, something that hadn’t been done in 45 years! Better yet was that most of the championship team was returning for the upcoming season.

Cristiano Ronaldo image Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Juventus this Summer

With three years and about $100 million remaining on his contract, Ronaldo seemed to have it all. When the announcement was made that he jumped ship to Juventus of the Italian League, it stunned the soccer world. Don’t get me wrong, Juventus is a great team. They have won the Italian league seven consecutive years and have made it to the Champions League finals two of the last four years. Will the addition of Ronaldo be enough to put Juventus over the top? Maybe. But the real question is, why did Ronaldo leave Real Madrid in the first place?

According to reports, it was because he was unhappy with management. His coach, Zinedine Zidane, departed the team in early June after Madrid had won its third consecutive title (I wrote about his departure in an earlier blog and again expressed shock at how the coach stated that he wanted to leave “on good terms” with upper management). While I understand that Real Madrid is one of the biggest and most followed soccer clubs in the world, its “win or get fired” culture is destructive to the team. The fans may appreciate the effort but the players (the people who work together for 10 months of the year to win the titles) don’t need to have the added pressure from upper management. They have enough to worry about on the field. Florentino Perez is the President of Real Madrid. He also is one of the richest people in the world worth $2.3 billion (Forbes, 2018). As much as he loves the club, he is a businessman first and a Madridista second. Ronaldo wanted respect. He has proven time and again that he is the best player in the world, and he wanted to be paid like it. He wanted to have his salary escalate every time a player signed for a higher amount. I know that many people are not going to like this and say that a contract is a contract, but hear me out: Alabama football coach Nick Saban has the same contingency in his contract. Many other coaches also have this in college and pro sports. So why can’t Ronaldo have it? Let’s compare Ronaldo to Tom Brady and Real Madrid to the New England Patriots.

Brady is arguably the best quarterback to ever play the game. Bill Belichick is his perhaps the best coach to ever coach the game. Belichick’s philosophy is that he would rather trade away a player two years early rather than two years late in his career. He understands the business of football, and it has won him five Super Bowls. But do you think he would trade away Tom Brady? No way. Tom Brady is 40 years old and has probably two years at the most left in his career. Teams would be falling over each other to sign him for two years so that they can have a shot at winning a Super Bowl (not to mention the marketing opportunities). But will Belichick and owner Robert Kraft ever trade Tom Brady? The answer is no, because Brady is that once in a lifetime player that belongs in the team uniform until the day he retires. They give him what he wants because he knows how to pay it back – through winning championships! Cristiano Ronaldo is that once-in-a-lifetime player for Real Madrid. No one since the 1950s has done what he has been able to do for a single club. Yet Perez and Madrid let him go, even though he was under contract until 2021. Why? Because they think that they can sign the next Ronaldo and win more championships. Really? It’s that easy? Before winning the Champions League in 2014, Real Madrid’s last title was in 2002, and before those years (1998, 2000, 2002) hadn’t won since the 1960s. There are no guarantees in sports, but Ronaldo staying at Real Madrid for three more years was about as close as you can get to guaranteeing at least one more title.

So what are the management lessons from the losses of these two superstars?

  1. Superstars need to be recognized: Never take your top performers for granted, because they may not always be there. I can’t tell you how many times I see managers trying to put their top performers into a one size fits all bucket. It won’t work. Many of their colleagues actually resent their success, so recognizing them often and telling them that you really appreciate what they are doing for you can go a long way. That doesn’t mean that you encourage them to be a prima donna. You will have to reign them in at times, but if they feel underappreciated (like Ronaldo), they may look elsewhere for employment. Many managers make the mistake of taking their contribution to the team for granted, and they hold them to a higher standard while paying them the same salary (not including commission) as everyone else. Let’s be clear, they are not the same as your average player.
  2. They should be the highest paid players on your team: It bothers me when companies have a set salary and won’t budge on a request by a proven top performer to pay them a few thousand dollars more than the average workers in the office. Yes, sales is a commission-based job, and the top performers will make a lot more money (through commissions) than their mediocre counterparts, but they also like to feel that they are respected by the company by having a larger salary than those average workers. If you have a proven sales champion who is head and shoulders above most of the team, what is the problem with paying them more than everyone else? They will make the difference up to you with their performance. The real question is, can you afford to lose your MVP over a few thousand dollars? There is no guarantee you will be able to replace them anytime soon (like James and the Cavaliers).
  3. If you do replace a superstar with another, be consistent with compensation: What I mean by this is that if you are getting promoted or if you are replacing a recent departure, be consistent with what you pay them. While you might think that cutting the salary for your replacement (or if you have one superstar replacing another) will save you money now, it will come back to bite you one day. How long do you think it will be before they find out what you (or their predecessor) made? What do you think their reaction will be? Do you think they will be happy? No they won’t. Is it worth the risk of losing a superstar and the money and leadership they bring to the team because you wanted to save money on their salary? This is how Ronaldo felt about Florentino Perez, and he finally bolted to another team. Now Madrid is scrambling to try to replace him. Don’t make this silly mistake.
  4. Include them in team strategy: Some managers feel that because a superstar’s title isn’t that of a manager that they shouldn’t be involved in corporate strategy or recruiting. This is crazy. Your star players can be your biggest advocate and they can give you a different perspective on strategy. LeBron James wanted to have a say in who he thought would gel best with the Cavaliers’ system as well his own style of play, yet management thought otherwise. This difference of opinion led to James’ departure to the West Coast, where he would have a say in who he plays with.
  5. Check in Frequently with them: Never assume that your star players are happy and content. They may be producing as usual and doing what they do best (sell and/or perform), but they may be just doing their job while waiting for another opportunity. That’s the difference between star players and mediocre players. Star players do great no matter how unhappy they are, because of pride and their drive to be great. Mediocre players let things get to them and affect their performance, which makes it easier for managers to notice that something is wrong. Ronaldo and James had incredible years despite being unhappy with management. They didn’t let it affect their performance, and your star players won’t let it affect theirs. But that doesn’t mean they’re content. Make time for a one-on-one with them to talk about how they are feeling and what they would like to see. They want their opinion to be valued, and a private meeting is the perfect opportunity.

There are great lessons that can be learned from the sports world. We might never be able to play like a LeBron James or a Cristiano Ronaldo, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from their actions and performance. When managing your top salespeople, implement the five tips discussed in this article. It will make a huge difference in their happiness and their decision to stay with your company.


Joe Sesso is the Executive Director of Sales for and is a best-selling author. 

@joesesso (Twitter, Instagram),,

Previous post:

Next post: