By: Jay Stein, @JStein209
Front Office Sports is proud to have had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Yocom, a seasoned executive search professional recruiting for blue-chip properties throughout the sports business and entertainment industry. Currently Mr. Yocom serves as the President of Marquee Search, the search firm he founded, providing specialized hiring solutions and delivering high quality business professionals to sports and entertainment companies across North America. Prior to establishing Marquee, Mr. Yocom worked for more than ten years at Game Face, where he was responsible for identifying front-office sales and marketing professionals for sports teams, live entertainment companies and related sports properties. Mr. Yocom was more than happy to offer up his time and insight into his journey throughout the sports and entertainment executive search industry, the transition to starting his own business, and his suggestions to those seeking opportunities in sports business.
Describe your journey getting into executive search supporting sports and entertainment businesses?
Mr. Yocom jumped right in to say that “no one goes to college with the goal of becoming a recruiter or getting into the staffing industry. I graduated in 1993 from Arizona State and I went into hospitality consulting for three years.” He continued to explain, “I worked for a small business, which gave me the perfect opportunity to grow…and within a couple of years I was essentially the number two person running the hotel management consulting business.”
After a while he started to realize that he was, “not learning anything new and needed to go somewhere where [he] could learn and develop as a professional.” After a series of events, which included his first exposure to executive search with Robert Half (with whom he worked for six years), Mr. Yocom wound up at Game Face Inc. Originally, he was unaware of the company, but after reading more about the organization in the Business Journal and noticing that they were, “in sports and that they also had an executive search practice,” he thought to himself, “I’m passionate about recruiting and sports, so that sounds like a great marriage!”
After initially being rejected because he didn’t have the sports experience required, Mr. Yocom proclaimed that he, ”didn’t take no for an answer… and through some personalized follow-up, I ended up getting in front of the president [of Game Face], and within six months I was hired to lead their placement division.” In this role, Mr. Yocom focused on, “building relationships with hiring authorities in sports to find jobs for people that we had trained in our Executive Academy program, who were looking for their first opportunity in sports.” This role quickly evolved when, “the head of the search division left and I took over the entire search operation.” After 11 “really good” years with Game Face, Mr. Yocom had the desire to “build something” of his own, which led him to create his Marquee Search, where he is heading into his third year of successfully providing hiring solutions to the sports and entertainment industries.
How did your earlier positions prepare you for the position you are in today with Marquee Search?
“I would tell you that it was a function of learning the fundamentals,” Mr. Yocom replied. “I was fortunate to work for a company that taught the blocking and tackling of recruiting, which is another way of saying they trained me on the process and nuances of the recruiting profession… and they were very focused on performance. Ultimately, if you don’t perform you don’t get to keep your desk.” He proceeded to give Robert Half accolades for the training it provided and he firmly believes, “that anybody that’s been there for a number of years deserves respect because I know that they can perform. So for me it was learning the fundamentals of the business, again I call it the blocking and tackling of recruiting.”
We went on to discuss the importance of developing trust with both your clients and candidates, when he then began to explain how, “there is an art and a science to the recruiting business. The art involves finding the right personality fit for a corporate culture. The science is about identifying the skillset needed for a position and delivering candidates with the right qualifications. For me, I took that recruiting model exercised in corporate America and I overlaid it into sport.” He then mentioned that although the business of sports is unique, there are consistencies as it relates to recruiting, in that, “I’m in the people business and if you run a strong recruiting process you can put that to work in sport.”
As we moved on, Mr. Yocom gave a lot of credit to Game Face, as they were, “the vehicle that got me sports industry experience…and gave me an opportunity. While I originally fell into the recruiting field, I was aggressive when I knew I wanted to work in the sports business.”
What have been the biggest challenges you faced throughout your career?
Mr. Yocom reflected back to two years ago during the transition of leaving Game Face, after 11 years with the company, to starting his own executive search firm. “It wasn’t a true start up at the end of the day,” he quickly admitted, “I didn’t go out and start a business from scratch.” He explained how he used a lot of what he learned with Game Face and used it to build Marquee Search.
As far as challenges go, he really pointed to the aspect of venturing out on his own with Marquee Search. “I am not a serial entrepreneur,” Mr. Yocom declared “I won’t sell this business and then move on to the next adventure or conquest… that’s not my D.N.A.” That said, he made the decision to build his own company “because the timing was right, and I had the professional support from industry friends to go out on my own.”
For a number of reasons, Mr. Yocom explained, taking the chance to go and create Marquee Search was challenging, but it “allowed me to move out from a diverse consulting business… I’m not attached to any other organization… I do one thing, and I do it well, and that’s executive search.” So, in moving on from Game Face it, “allowed me to build the firm in the way I wanted to.”
Any particular suggestion or piece of advice you would give to those aspiring to work in sports business?
“It depends on the situation,” Mr. Yocom began to say, “I try to be very practical with my advice.” He offered a cautionary tale to those just beginning to look for work in the sports industry; he said, “people who get caught up on the internship merry go round can get burned by the industry before they really get started.”
He proceeded to give the advice of, “aligning yourself with the right people that can help you grow and, by working for them, new doors will be opened for you.” After that, Mr. Yocom advised, it becomes a, “question that you ask yourself; what is it that I am really excited about? Look at the people that have the jobs that you want, and reverse engineer how they got those jobs.”
This led to a conversation about how more and more people look only at the short term, but as Mr. Yocom put it, “Do you have the moxie and the wherewithal to look at the long game?” He referred to a topic he has written about in viewing, “your career as a chess player thinks about a chess board… don’t just think about the next move, because you could take a really cool sounding job but consider where that job is going to lead in two or three years.”
Even more importantly, he advised that you must, “be honest with yourself … are you going down the road where you want to go, or are you going to take some other path that tops out pretty fast… It’s not one size fits all. “
What qualities or traits in people have you noticed to be most helpful in attributing to success in sports business?
In answering this question, Mr. Yocom first went through the process he goes through when identifying strong candidates he likes to associate himself with. “Critical thinking skills,” he mentioned as the first quality that came to mind. “Can this person think for themselves, but also think in the context,” of the job in its entirety. Making sure people are, “trainable, and coachable, and they respond well to constructive feedback,” were also high on his list.
Mr. Yocom then looked to himself to say, “I like to hire people that are smarter than me. I look at hiring for brain power; people that can see around the corner… I want someone who thinks a little bit bigger picture and can bring new ideas along with the ability to execute their current job duties.”
In closing, he made it clear that, “if there’s no integrity, or if they don’t have ethics, I have no interest in them, and there are people in this business, in every industry in reality, that don’t have ethics or integrity and I am not interested in working with those people in any capacity.”
“Pay attention to who you might have a chance to work with… value the organization and the operation. If you learn good things about a leadership team, do what you can to work for them and then just be an absolute sponge.”
“Volunteer your time if you need to, do everything you can to be a part of that organization, and show that you’re willing to go above and beyond… you can be the smartest person in the room but if you don’t have a strong work ethic you’re not going to go anywhere in this business, so be willing and able to put in the work and do so as a team player.”