What Basketball Taught Me About Business

I’ve got a confession to make. As a kid, I was an awful athlete, especially when it came to team sports. While I took a few stabs at soccer and baseball, I just couldn’t manage to overcome my introverted nature and awkward growth spurts.

However, as a business owner of almost two decades, my fascination and appreciation for the value of teamwork have grown immensely. And so—while I was never really an athlete of note—I’ve become an avid fan of the Portland Trail Blazers. They provide a continuous study of what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to teams. Across 20 years, the team has seen some remarkable highs and terrible lows. To start, let’s look at three fundamental hazards that bring down even the best of teams.

1. You Can’t Win With Bad Apples

Remember the “Jail Blazers?” In the early 2000s, when Portland’s team made the news, it was not for their athleticism but for their criminal activity: fighting in public, drugs, felonies, you name it.

The self-serving nature of this group more or less ensured that the concept of teamwork never made its way to the court. Despite their raw individual talent, the team lost game after game, guaranteeing the demise of Portland’s basketball hopes for nearly a decade. This leads to the second fundamental hazard.

2. You Can’t Afford a Bad Hire

The detrimental influence of the Jail Blazers malcontents had an echo effect on the team’s revenue for years to come. The graph to the right illustrates the cost of the Jail Blazers in game attendance alone, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of additional losses in ticket prices, sponsorships and damage to the brand. In short, the franchise lost over $140 million in ticket sales and took nearly seven years to regain its pre-Jail Blazer success.

The lesson here is that even the relatively brief duration of this “bad apple” team had astronomical financial consequences. The same can be said for a business. Studies put the negative productivity impact of just one bad apple at 30 to 40 percent, and there are multiple other direct costs of a disengaged employee.

3. Attitude Counts

In 2014, Blazers guard Damian Lillard hit the greatest shot in Trail Blazers history, making a 25-foot three-pointer off an inbound pass that started with 0.9 seconds left in the game.

But in watching that legendary game against Houston, the victory wasn’t just because of Lillard’s game-winning shot. Indeed, if you watch how each team’s players interact with one another, you’ll see moments that are less remarkable, but actually more significant than Lillard’s buzzer-beater.

Here’s what I mean: Both teams had incredible athletes capable of game-changing plays; but whereas Portland’s players convey a sense of optimism and camaraderie, that spirit was missing from the Houston side. And if you watch multiple games between these teams around this period in history, you’ll notice nearly every game highlights the difference in leadership style. Houston is actually a more experienced team with “better” players, but they seldom lift each other up or elevate one another in difficult times. In contrast, Lillard and his teammates bolstered up everyone around them, even the players who weren’t as strong. By working together, they succeeded against a stronger opponent.

Business is no different. We all have ups and downs. We win sales; we lose sales. Our proposals are adopted; and they’re shot down. We have great days at the office, and days best forgotten. However, if leaders cultivate a culture of mutual respect, camaraderie and shared objectives, the company performs better, achieving higher revenue, better customer service and improved retention.

And now for the opportunities.

1. Winning Is About the Whole Team

Even though Lillard made one heck of a shot, for me the real story is how the whole Blazers’ roster created that opportunity for him. In the business world, even the best salesperson will do better if they have the full support of marketing, customer service and operations.

2. A-Players Call for the Ball

In the video, seconds before his dramatic shot, Lillard can be seen streaking across the court, clapping his hands together to let teammate Nicolas Batum know he is open, focused and ready to make the play. That sense of engagement and urgency is the hallmark of a top performer, whether in the NBA or working as an entry-level employee. And commitment is meaningful to the bottom line. Studies show that highly engaged employees contribute more than 30 percent more to profits than those who merely show up.

3. Practice Seals the Deal

Last year, the Trail Blazers were widely predicted to be among the worst teams in the Western Conference thanks to the loss of four of their five starters, including Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez. Instead of rolling over and playing the loser that everybody predicted, the team showed their vigorous commitment to practice, teamwork and a willingness to play their hearts out. Their season celebrated many upsets, including steamrolling the Golden State Warriors, a team on pace to finish with the best record in NBA history. Despite the odds, head coach Terry Stotts once again led the team to the second round of the playoffs.

As a diehard Trail Blazers fan and a consummate student of leadership, I am looking forward to the 2016-17 season with the knowledge that my hometown team has the potential to grow. In the meantime, I’m going to focus my own game on exactly the same things the Blazers have taught me about business: great coaching, top-notch recruiting, smart strategy and a laser-like focus on teamwork.

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