What legal and business professionals can learn from the NBA champs

On June 13, 2019, the unthinkable happened: The Toronto Raptors became NBA champions. This was historic, as no Canadian NBA team had ever achieved this feat before. Throughout the year, but especially into the playoff run, the entire country came together to support this team. On the victory day, close to three million fans took to the streets to celebrate. However, apart from the wonderful sporting spectacle and achievement, the Raptor’s 2019 season also holds very important strategic-leadership lessons for us as business and legal professionals.

Fernando Garcia

On June 13, 2019, the unthinkable happened: The Toronto Raptors became NBA champions. This was historic, as no Canadian NBA team had ever achieved this feat before. Throughout the year, but especially into the playoff run, the entire country came together to support this team. On the victory day, close to three million fans took to the streets to celebrate. However, apart from the wonderful sporting spectacle and achievement, the Raptor’s 2019 season also holds very important strategic-leadership lessons for us as business and legal professionals.

Relationship building

The Raptors were a team with a proud history. There have been many big names who wore the jersey or held the coaching role within this organization, but the championship title had eluded this team for 24 years. It became clear that a dramatic shakeup was needed. Throughout the year, Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors, made several risky — and at times unpopular — moves. The first risky move was parting ways with coach Dwane Casey. The coach was a tactical expert and a well-known and respected name in the league. In fact, the year he was released by the Raptors he was also named NBA coach of the year. The role went to a rookie NBA coach, Nick Nurse, who was promoted from coaching assistant. Nurse immediately sought to build a strong relationship of trust and respect with his players. While Casey was a capable coach, it appears that Nurse’s relationship with his players became critical in earning and keeping the trust of the team. 

Leadership

Coaching can only take you so far, but, without a team of hard-working and dedicated players, there is only so much you can achieve. Ujiri took a big gamble in trading a major fan favourite and ambassador to the team and the city, bartering DeMar DeRozan for an all-star player who was coming off a lengthy injury. This was not an easy decision. Kawhi Leonard was also required to gain the trust of his teammates and was thrust into a leadership role at a time when key players were still mourning the loss of their teammate and good friend.

It appears that a personal phone call went a long way in building this bridge with another key player and leader, Kyle Lowry. Management also needed to play their cards right. While the interest was to get Leonard playing as much as possible, they also needed to carefully manage his return to avoid re-injury. Here again, trust, respect and communication between all parties was critical.

Team

One of the defining points of the 2019 season, especially during the playoffs, was that different players stepped up at different points in time to make a difference, whether in critical plays, in a game or in the series. These players, while accomplished in their own ways, included several surprise players. For example, Pascal Siakam  (aka Spicy P) had just six years of experience playing basketball.

The key is that all players stepped up to make this championship happen and, as a team, they effectively balanced each other’s weaknesses and leveraged each other’s strengths.

Attitude

Leonard brought not only leadership and skill to the Raptors team but anyone watching immediately understood that the biggest value he brought was a strong sense of humility, controlled emotions during high-stress situations and, most importantly, he got down to business and made clutch plays when they were critical.

Yes, part of this reflected his own personality; however, it was clear to anyone watching that these traits rubbed off on the team. The team, following his lead, stayed focused, relatively unemotional, driven, dedicated and laser-focused on reaching their collective objective: the championship. The team also knew they could count on each other and were supportive and cohesive throughout every victory and every loss.

As legal professionals and as corporate leaders, we are often brought into a new role or organization following a big shakeup or corporate restructuring. We may even be asked to be the drivers of such a change. The lessons above provide a good illustration of some of the steps that an effective leader must take immediately to build a foundation and gain the respect of our co-workers and legal team. These are:

  • Risk equals reward. Conversely, status quo is not an option in an organization with stretch goals or objectives. A leader must constantly assess and reassess their team to determine where there are gaps and where they are weak and must be willing to take the necessary but sometimes painful steps needed to create a high-performance team. A leader must clearly and consistently communicate with their team the need for the change, the role each person will play in the change and the goal that the team will be looking to achieve. If training is required, a leader will be a strong advocate for ensuring that their team becomes trained and develops the necessary skills and capabilities. If there is a need to replace or remove a member of the team, it is important that a leader discuss with the team why the change was needed, provide clarity for the remaining team members as to what their role is and, if possible, provide reassurances to the team that, for now at least, their role is secure. Without such reassurances, the team may resist change and/or key team members may start looking for other opportunities.

     

  • Especially when a leader is parachuted into a mature organization, beyond learning the new role, the leader must get to know their team members, they must be engaged and interested in learning about and from the team. The biggest but most common mistake I have seen is when someone comes into a new role and seeks to impose their views on co-workers, many of whom may have been at the workplace much longer and have a better understanding of the culture and the way work gets done. Upon arrival, the leader should identify key players on the team, develop regular dialogue with them and establish objectives and a path for reaching these objectives. This will allow the team to feel empowered and to take ownership of the objectives. The key is to learn from each other, develop trust and always understand the key role each person plays in the team’s success.

     

  • I cannot stress enough the importance of leading by example. A strong leader brings not only a sense of drive and motivation for the team, but they must also set the example of how the team will interact with each other and with internal and external stakeholders. Ask yourself, “How do I want to be seen and what image do I want to portray?” There is never a second chance to make a first impression, so aligning your personality and image with the goal you want to achieve is critical. Remember, it is possible to be serious and firm on the court but also friendly and a “fun guy” off it.

What the Raptors were able to achieve was incredible. They were able to meet their primary objective, while developing great respect and support within the team and capturing the hearts and minds of their fans. While often not so high profile or public, legal leaders often face the same pressures in their role, although with much less fanfare. Nevertheless, the lessons learned from the basketball court can be easily transferred over to the corporate or legal arena. Focusing on developing relationships, communicating effectively and frequently, embodying the change you want to foster and leading by example will always result in success and will ensure that the team meets its objectives.

 

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