Hear from Disco cofounder Justin Vandehey on the importance of building a culture to create a dominant dynasty in either basketball or business.
Anyone that has spent any amount of time with me knows how obsessed I am with the game of basketball. Playing it, reading about it, studying it.
As the NBA finals kicked off this past week, I began to reflect on how incredible it is to see the Warriors and Cavs in this series for the 4th consecutive year, and 8 consecutive finals appearances for Lebron James. That is the definition of sustaining performance at the highest levels.
Living in the Bay Area, I elected to keep these observations specific to the Warriors and the dynamic of their team. Not because Lebron doesn’t deserve recognition, but more so because he’s getting enough of that from ESPN. And candidly, I think Lebron could take me and three dudes I play ball with at the YMCA to the Finals. (Also, for what it’s worth, I’m a Milwaukee Bucks fan. Fear the deer!!)
So I set out to answer the question, what can we learn from the Golden State Warriors to build stronger cultures and higher performing teams at work?
There are undoubtedly a ton of variables that have contributed to their success, which is true of any successful company. Luck being a big one. I mean come on, Steph Curry falling to #7 in the 2009 draft behind Jonny Flynn, Tyreke Evans, and Hasheem Thabeet?! I guarantee Memphis, Sacramento, and Minnesota’s GMs are still trying to process these decisions.
However, a couple of themes seem to surface healthy cultures and teams, on and off the court. And it all boils down to one thing….
In Bill Simmon’s ‘Book of Basketball’, Bill recalls an interview with legendary Piston’s point guard, Isiah Thomas, where Isiah unpacked ‘The Secret’ that has defined the rise and collapse of basketball’s most dominant dynasties.
"The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball." - Isiah Thomas
I’ve never been a big Isiah Thomas fan, but his explanation of the secret makes a ton of sense and unfolds in three broader categories.
Ego Is the Enemy
Selflessness is one, if not, THE most critical element of building a lasting dynasty.
Within the company dynamic, not every founder, salesperson, engineer or designer can be the face of the franchise and always take the last shot (i.e Michael Jordan). Someone needs to be Scottie, Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley, and Dickey Simpkins (I’m definitely Disco’s version of Dicky Simpkins)
At Salesforce, EVERYONE knows Marc Benioff and how important he is to reinforcing Salesforce’s vision, mission, and values; However, not many outside of Salesforce know how critical Parker Harris has been to the growth of the company and product strategy.
As Ryan Holiday writes in his book, ‘Ego is the Enemy’, the antithesis of selflessness is responsible for the collapse of most powerful dynasties. It’s the reason Kobe and Shaq only won 3 rings together. They could have easily won another 4 had they figured this out.
Selflessness is the reason the Golden State Warriors have led the NBA in team assists per game each season since 2014. It’s also the reason that Kevin Durant took a $10M paycut to join the Warriors with Klay Thompson on record stating that he too would take a pay cut to keep their core team together.
Understanding and appreciating your individual role in the bigger picture, such as sacrificing playing time to support your peers from the bench, or trading points for assists in the box score, can ultimately lead to a better outcome.
Selflessness builds dynasties. Ego destroys them.
Kudos ratio and passing the Disco ball
Here at Disco, we’re all about appreciation. And it’s no secret that the most thriving and successful dynasties are built atop a giant mountain of kudos.
The Golden State Warriors are no different. This 30-second video of Steve Kerr and Steph Curry is an Extraordinary Lesson in Outstanding Leadership. Transcribing a couple of Kerr’s comments to Steph:
During Steph’s critical assessment of his own game, Kerr understands the value of appreciation in that moment. It's an opportunity for Kerr to build trust with Steph.
Legendary Chicago Bulls coach and Zen Master, Phil Jackson was incredible at this. Phil suggested a 3:1 positive praise to constructive feedback ratio to get the most out of his championship team.
When leaders pass and dribble that beautiful shiny Disco ball of recognition to their teammates, it reinforces positive behaviors and rewards a higher level of performance. It’s at that point that dynasties can flourish.
Data Rules Everything Around Us
Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets is one of the NBA’s most data savvy operators and basketball executives. He’s the founder of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where sports statisticians and analysts join to debate the importance of stats like player efficiency rating, value over replacement player, box plus/minus, and other second level statistics on individual player performance.
At this event and at board rooms across the nation, teams debate the ‘right’ statistics to focus on to measure performance. In an era where data rules everything around us, from the features we implement to the models we create, it seems like the teams that figure this out the quickest always have the advantage. The Warriors and the Rockets are two great examples of this chess match.
The Warriors understand the statistical value of the three point shot, field goal percentage, ball movement, and defense. They built their last 3 championship runs on these statistics. Daryl Morey’s Rockets were one game away from dethroning the Warriors atop the Western Conference by adapting their playing style from the prior year to focus on the stats that really matter, such as higher player efficiency, better defense, and a ton of 3 point shots (a total of 228 this year). It’s beautiful to watch.
However, when teams focus on the statistics and KPIs that really don’t matter, it can have a damaging impact on the longevity and success of the organization. Kris Dunn, HR enthusiast, basketball fan, and founder of ‘Fistful of Talent’ wrote a really great piece on this subject, in which he highlights Russell Westbrook’s MVP season where Rus averaged a triple double, but it seemed to become the sole focus of the entire team.
What’s more, by prioritizing his personal box score, it cost Russell and his team on the defensive side of the ball, which created an imbalance and led to poorer offensive possessions.
At Disco, we’ve spent many cycles working together to understand the key engagement metrics that matter most to our business to ensure the most important work is being done. We are by no means perfect in this regard; However, we’re committed to improve how we communicate these priorities to our team as our business evolves.
The important takeaway, as my dude Kris Dunn emphasizes ‘We all want the numbers. In a data-driven world, we’ve never been in a better position to measure people through numbers and KPIs. Make sure your team isn’t passing on valuable work because your company got laser focused on metrics and KPIs.’ PREACH.
If there’s one knock on the Warriors this year, it’s that they seem to be losing their ‘edge’ this season. They’ve been accused of taking nights off, where they’d lose to a team like the Sacramento Kings and leave fans scratching their heads.
And it’s a fair point. The Warriors were statistically favored to win in almost all of their regular season games, and often times they looked lackluster on defense and bored on offense.
It’s hard to maintain peak performance when you’ve already won it all, multiple times. As a Golden State Warrior, you’ve played over 100 games in a season and done so for 3+ years. That’s exhausting. Not to mention, everyone else in the NBA is trying to defuse your juggernaut. Winning is 100x more tiresome than losing.
The same comparison can be drawn to the companies we may build or join. Experienced entrepreneurs, founders, and executives bring much needed playoff experience; However, the most successful dynasties always seem to inject star players into their system that share a selfless, team first mentality, with the hunger to attain a level of excellence that they’ve never experienced before.
Those behaviors and attitudes, in turn, inspire teammates with more experience to fight for their peers. It’s why last year’s Warriors team steamrolled Cleveland in the NBA finals to help Kevin Durant secure his first ring. Everyone shares a sense of accountability to one another, while rallying around a common set of values.
Keep the party going
I recently heard a really great quote from David Jacoby on ESPN’s Jalen & Jacoby: ’’Never leave a great party in search of a greater party’. We’re witnessing something special in these NBA finals that I believe we can learn a lot from that applies to our companies, partnerships, and marriages. Once you’ve found that great party, hold onto it as long as you can.
And speaking of parties, if you’re exploring ways to build and foster a stronger company or team culture, we encourage you to check out Disco.
Lastly, shoutout to Bill Simmons, Shea Serrano, David Jacoby, Jalen Rose, Ryan Holiday, Kris Dunn (not to be confused with Kris Dunn), Tim Sackett (despite being a MSU fan), and Steve Boese (whose Gamecocks saw the Final Four for the first time in 2017!).