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What can IT leaders learn from the best NBA coaches

Are you managing fifteen or more highly talented individuals with a rare and in-demand skill set that in essence makes them free agents?

If your team consists of fifteen members, is smaller or even much larger, you may have more in common with an NBA head coach than you realize.

Whether your team has an 82-game schedule or provides 24/7 coverage, it may be worth examining what’s working in the NBA and compare and contrast it with your team’s culture.

Let’s start with your coaching style.

“Elite coaches are ‘new wave’ communicators with old school values,” former Utah Jazz assistant coach Gordie Chiesa has shared on Twitter. “These communicators are molding players with unique personalities and diverse backgrounds. Magnetic mentors: Listen. Challenge. Develop. Inspire.”

  • So how closely do you measure up to an elite coach?

  • Are you a ‘new wave’ communicator?

  • Did you listen, challenge, develop and inspire today?

It may be a good time to reflect upon when, why, where, and how you ended up in your current role.

ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy never played in the NBA but spent 11 seasons as a head coach – seven with the Knicks and four with the Rockets after serving as an assistant on Pat Riley’s staff in New York. Riley spotted in Van Gundy the qualities necessary to be a head coach in the league.

“NBA players don’t care if you’re short or tall, black or white, played in the league or didn’t play,” Van Gundy recalled Riley telling him on The Woj Pod. “What they care about is are you competent, sincere, reliable, and trustworthy. And if you’re those things NBA players will allow you to coach them. The most important (Riley said) was being competent because they had to believe you gave them an advantage in a game. That you had them prepared and that you knew how to run an NBA team.”

  • Does your team view you as competent, sincere, reliable, and trustworthy?

  • Do they believe you have them prepared and that you know how to run the team?

Ah, culture. This term has been bandied about it so frequently and we mentioned culture earlier and we’d be remiss not to revisit it and even boldly try defining it.

MIT Professor Edgar Schein summarizes it succinctly:

“Culture is the way we do things here,” Schein says.

Here’s a quick look around the NBA at culture.

“We are the hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, meanest, nastiest team in the NBA” – The Miami Heat.

“Joy. Mindfulness. Compassion. Competition” has been the mantra of the reigning NBA champion, Golden State Warriors, and their head coach Steve Kerr, who have struggled this season thus far.

“Do we have a great culture because we’re winning or are we winning because we have a great culture?”, Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone posed on the Hastings, Harris, and Dover podcast.

“Culture comes from your best players,” Jeff’s brother Stan Van Gundy also a former NBA head coach and now analyst says. “Do your best players feel like they are entitled to special treatment? Or do they feel like being the best players means they have to take on more responsibility? That’s what determines your culture.”

  • Have you defined your team’s culture?

  • If each member of your team was asked about the team’s culture, would you get one succinct answer?

  • Have your best players embraced your culture? Or have they taken advantage of it?

Free agency is a fact of life in the NBA and in IT, which doesn’t have the constraints of a salary cap. Hopefully answering not just pondering the questions here can ensure the success that you and your team desire not only for this season but for over your collective, and always evolving careers.


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