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TEAM BUILDING

7 Leadership Lessons From an NBA Coach

Avery Johnson, coach of the New Jersey Nets, shares his keys to success in management, regardless of your industry.
Nets head coach Avery Johnson with point guard Deron Williams
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Avery Johnson overcame the odds as a player in the NBA. Despite going undrafted in the 1988 NBA Draft, Johnson went on to play 16 seasons in the league for six different franchises, becoming one of only two players less than six feet tall to play in more than 1,000 games. In 1999, he was the floor leader of the San Antonio Spurs championship team (and was nicknamed the 'Little General' for his leadership skills).

In 2004, he joined the Dallas Mavericks as a player/coach, but before the season began he decided to retire as a player and to concentrate on coaching. In his first full season as head coach in 2005–2006, he was named NBA Coach of the Year as he guided the Mavericks to their first-ever NBA Finals appearance. He left the Mavericks in 2008, and after spending three years as an ESPN/ABC studio analyst, was hired as the new head coach of the New Jersey Nets before the 2010/2011 NBA season. 

Bringing a unique perspective as a leader has been important for Johnson throughout his career, and particularly when he took over for a Nets team that had won only 12 games in the previous season. He considers the qualities of being a good leader in the NBA very similar to those necessary for succeeding in the business world. Inc.com's Lou Dubois caught up with Johnson to discuss his seven keys to leadership, regardless of whether you're leading a team of 15 NBA players, a Fortune 500 company or are a young entrepreneur.

1. Cultivate Relationships to Build a Winning Culture

When I was hired by New Jersey, I knew the number one thing I'd need was patience because this was a total rebuild, for lack of a better word. It was a decimated situation, with the team having won just 12 games the year before I got here, going through two coaches and just kind of holding on for life, like any struggling business does. And we were moving into a temporary home for two years before our new arena was finished in Brooklyn. We wanted to come in and just totally change the culture of where we're going and implement a totally new vision, so we turned over the roster quite a bit (though we're still not done yet), were able to bring in (General Manager) Billy King who has done a magnificent job at retooling this. 

We have great ownership obviously and that's the only way you can do it in this business if you want to succeed. The good businesses all have great owners. And most importantly, being new to town, Billy and I share a vision on how to treat players. I meet with my players quite often in a one-on-one setting to see how they're feeling, what they like, what they don't like; and whether I agree with them or not, it's all about relationships with players and employees. That's key to the winning environment we're trying to build.

2. Know When to Push Your Employees

Coaching in Dallas was a great opportunity for me because having played there, I had an understanding of the personality and dynamics of the players that were there and the organization in general. So when my playing career ended, I had the chance to become an assistant head coach under Don Nelson, where he hired me to run a bunch of different practices. And when he was out sick or tossed from a game, I got the chance to coach—a great training ground. So when I officially became a head coach, the transition was relatively easy. I had background there with the Mavericks and a strong relationship with (owner) Mark Cuban, understanding what he wanted and where he wanted to go. So we just kind of hit the ground running. But to me as a leader, the key was knowing what buttons to push because of my familiarity with the players and the organization, and knowing what we needed to take that next step. That was a huge advantage.

3. As a New Leader, Respect Is Key

What makes me an effective leader? I think I bring credibility because of the way I came into the NBA, being undrafted and playing as many games as I did in my career. Sixteen years of being an undersized player and not being drafted, along with all of the different teams I played on (six in total). All of the playoff games, heated battles and high-pressure situations I've been in have helped, and to have a resume of coaching four years in Dallas as an assistant and head coach, being part of a lot of great moments and disappointing moments, is big. Through it all, I think it's about keeping my head high and continuing to work no matter how tough it can get. The guys know that they have somebody that's experienced as a player and as a coach, who has gone through a lot of highs and quite a bit of lows and knows how to get through them. Most importantly, my guys know I'm a rock that they can lean on for all of the highs and lows.

4. Discover Your Different Voices

I saw it in Steve Kerr when we were teammates in San Antonio. He was really impactful on my career and in actually helping me to become a better leader. He always talked about the different voices you have to have in order to be an effective leader. What voices do you need? You need a teaching voice, a disciplinary voice, an angry voice, a loving voice, and an incensed voice. So having those different voices that you have to have and knowing when to apply which one at what time, and with which employee, is so important. Players respond to those different voices.

5. Address Challenges Before They Arise

As an NBA point guard, you can see plays and progress on the court before they happen, which is why point guards are called the on-court leaders. Trying to get your teammates or employees to understand things before they happens, whether in training camp, preparing for the regular season or playoffs is vital to success. And again, that's what happens all the time as a coach and in business. So just being able to prepare individually but also to prepare your team for what is around the corner—that's what coaches, point guards and good business leaders all have in common.

6. The Six C's of Good Leaders

Really good leaders are more consistent in their approach both on and off the court. For me, I believe that what you do on the court (or in the office) parallels what you do off it, but it also parallels any business. In any business situation, if you're a CEO of a company or leading any group of people, you need to follow what I call the C-plan:

Great communication

Strong character 

Competitive drive 

Consistency in the way you lead

Compassion

Confidence

Those are the skills that a lot of successful leaders have in common.

7. Focus on Small Victories, Not Just Big Wins

I talked to the media a lot this year about small victories, and in a rebuilding process, I think that's so important to preach as a leader. The big victory for us is to become a 50-win team and a perennial playoff contender, but we're just not there yet. So I make it a point to focus on details and small victories. For us, it's learning how to practice, learning how to watch film, taking care of your body, getting in the weight room, knowing when to party and when not to party, trying to get the players to understand when to be a good teammate. Because it's more of a reconstruction project, we are happy with small victories. The big wins will come.




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