The NBA season is almost upon us and my MBA friends’ and my attention will begin to fade from MBA to NBA. Fear not, professors!
When our focus shifts from spreadsheets and presentations to offer sheets and highlight reels, we can still learn plenty of management lessons. The NBA is big business and its stars’ on-court and off-court actions have a huge impact on their income and reputation. In this case, here are some management lessons based on the life and times of LeBron James.
Avoid Burning Bridges
Every offseason, dozens of players take advantage of free agency and choose to leave their current teams for bigger contracts and better teams. LeBron got his chance at free agency a few years ago and we all know how that went.
His move was obviously a bigger deal than almost any other free agent move in sports history considering his hometown ties to Cleveland and his position as the most gifted player to ever don an NBA jersey. No doubt there were always going to be fans who didn’t appreciate his exodus, but the way he left will never be forgotten.
First of all, he set up an event on national TV called “The Decision” to let the world know that he was going to take his talents to South Beach. Second, he didn’t bother to let his former employer know that he was leaving. The Cavaliers found out that they lost their MVP at the same time that my roommate and I were watching The Decision on ESPN. Third, after hosting a LeBron-centric show and failing to give two week’s notice, he immediately went to his new office and was the center of the biggest non-championship sports celebration ever.
Let’s hope that some of us become so successful that such fanfare could surround our career moves, but whether we are celebrities or not, we should always make sure to respect our employers and colleagues. Whether you plan to return to your employer or not, it’s poor form to leave without saying goodbye and then immediately go throw a public party with their competitor.
If You Talk a Big Game, You Better Produce
LeBron has been hyped since he was in high school, even making the cover of Sports Illustrated as an 18-year old. The entire sports universe has been talking a big game for him, but he joined in through much of his career and rarely shied away from the spotlight.
That’s become commonplace for sports superstars, but after a while it gets old if players don’t produce. Before the 2012 season, King James had MVP awards but no championships to show for his big talk. And when he got within a few games of holding up the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2011, he and Dwayne Wade started mocking their star opponent, Dirk Nowitzki.
As you all know, the Heat ended up losing that series and the pressure was never greater for LeBron to produce. Life’s much easier on people when they keep their mouth shut and just produce. It’s just our culture to relish watching an arrogant person fail. Stick to working hard and staying humble and you’ll get far.
If You Aren’t Getting Better, You’re Getting Worse
LeBron may have been The Chosen One in high school, but if he hadn’t worked harder than everyone in the NBA, his talent would have spoiled.
Players’ size and ability has come a long way throughout the history of professional basketball. The vast majority of NBA players from 30 years ago wouldn’t even sniff an NBA roster today. But even in the span of LeBron’s 9-year career, players have gotten bigger, faster, and smarter. If the 8-time All Star had rested on his laurels early on in his career, well, he wouldn’t be an 8-time All Star.
Is it much of a surprise that he finally won his first championship after amping up his training by doing Hell Week with fellow superstar Kevin Durant last summer?
As business managers, we should vigilantly follow news of innovations, challenge ourselves to develop new technical abilities, and grow our interpersonal skills. Education and training doesn’t end at graduation; the most successful managers keep growing their entire careers.
Focus On Your Strengths
Some people seem to have it all, they’re good at everything.
LeBron is very much one of these people. He’s 6’8″, 250lbs, and can leap out of the gym. Like Magic Johnson, he can play any position on the court. It’s just not fair. But even freaks like LeBron can’t escape the rules of economics.
Basic economics courses teach us that while one person may have an absolute advantage in producing both guns and butter compared to another person, ultimately the superstar should focus on producing the item that he is relatively better at producing. In the same way, LeBron may be one of the best players in the NBA at shooting 3-pointers, mid-range jump shots, and scoring in the paint, but he’s relatively better at one of those skills than the others. For years commentators lamented his willingness to settle for long-range jump shots instead of attacking the basket. Taking a look at HoopData, it seems that the commentators were correct to think he should start driving to the hoop more.
Between his first two years in Miami, he cut his 3-point attempts per game by 33% and increased in his attempts around the rim by 12%. They may not be massive changes, but he clearly altered his strategy from shooting deep shots to trying to score from the paint and he ended up winning a championship when he started focusing on his strengths.
Likewise, business school is a good time to figure out what our strengths are and focus on developing those instead of trying to fix weaknesses. Plenty of management studies have shown that the most successful leaders in business are really amazing at a few things and avoid doing things they aren’t good at. And that brings me to my next point.
Life Is a Team Sport
You can’t do it alone.
The Cleveland Cavaliers management did its best to see if LeBron could win a championship on his own, but we all saw that good teams are stronger than singular superstars. Even when LeBron went to Miami where there was much more talent around him, the five guys on the court weren’t playing as a team very well.
Their first season together, LeBron and Wade couldn’t figure out whose job it was to be the go-to guy on the team. They played too many different positions and didn’t know how to work well together.
But they got things together in the second season and won a championship. The Heat figured out who was relatively the best at each role and succeeded because of it. It was clear that LeBron was the leader of the team and he should attack the basket. He quit shooting so many threes and let Mario Chalmers knock down the long range shots while Wade worked best as the second go-to option.
As managers, our role is to assemble great teams and help others do their job as well as possible. Some of you may be better at everything than your peers, but figure out which is your best skill and then find people to complement you. The Heat didn’t win a championship because they had an All-Star cast. They won the title because they had an All-Star cast that worked as a team. You need only look at their Finals failure in 2011 to see what happens to All-Stars who play as individuals.
If You Aren’t Given Support, Find a Team That Will Put You In a Position to Succeed
Something that often gets lost in discussions of LeBron’s departure from Cleveland is that it was a really good decision.
The guy was playing his heart out for his hometown, trying to bring a championship to a city that couldn’t remember the last time they had a successful sports team. He even got to the NBA Finals one year but couldn’t clinch the title.
Looking back on his time in Cleveland, it is painfully apparent how little talent he had around him. A good GM could have easily built a dynasty around him but the Cavaliers put the entire burden on LeBron. So when 2010 rolled around, he made an excellent decision to leave. His singular goal is to win a multitude of titles and playing alongside Wade and Bosh and under the management of Pat Reilly absolutely gave him a better chance to win than with Antawn Jamison and a 100-year old Shaquille O’Neal.
Loyalty is definitely important in business, but it’s a two-way street. If your current company isn’t giving you a good opportunity to succeed and refuses to put the resources or talent around you that are necessary to do well, find some other company that will. Don’t feel guilty about leaving deadbeat management. Just be sure you don’t notify your boss that your leaving from ESPN.
And with that, where’s the remote? NBA on TNT with Charles Barkley should be coming on soon…
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