What Top NBA Coaches Can Teach Us about People Management

Posted by Guthrie-Jensen Consultants

Behind every great sports team is a coach who knows how to make his team work in harmony. We’ve seen basketball teams like the Golden State Warriors transform into one of the giants of the NBA, and it wouldn’t be possible if not for the masterful people management skills of coaches like Steve Kerr who brought out the best in his team.

Much like basketball (or any other sports team for that matter), being successful in the business world requires leaders who have a firm grasp of people handling skills needed to guide their company to success.

But what do successful leaders and top-performing coaches have in common?


They are empathetic.

Top NBA coaches and great leaders bring out the best in their team by treating them as multidimensional persons. They understand that every individual’s performance could be affected by his personal life, so they get to know each of their players on a personal level to adapt to their needs.


They focus on the bigger picture.

While getting to know the players on a personal level is their job, most notable coaches and great leaders also focus on working out how to put each member’s quirks together to make a formidable team. For example, Phil Jackson sees to it that his team functions as a single entity during games.


They step back and let their players shine.

The greatest coaches understand that it’s their job to work behind the scenes to guide their teams, and then step back when it’s time for the big moment. Likewise, the best managers surround themselves with employees smarter than them and inspire them to be their best.

Leading a sports team and managing employees is pretty much the same. You need to have excellent people management skills in both areas to make sure your teams are in synch and that you reach your goals—whether it’s winning the season championship or making a quarterly profit.


Here are 4 lessons on people management we can learn from the greatest NBA coaches:

1. Develop a leadership style based on your identity.

Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, learned the important lesson of having a leadership approach that reflects his identity from his friend and Seattle Seahawks head coach, Pete Carroll.

Having self-awareness and a clear definition of your core values allow you to impart advice that comes from the heart. And when you’re genuine in your words, your team is more likely to hear you out.

In Kerr’s instance, joy is one of his core values, so he makes sure that his team finds joy in everything they do—from training sessions to season championships.


2. Know your team on a personal level.

NBA coaches who seem to have above average people handling skills have one secret: they get to know their team off-the-court, so they can understand how they play on-the-court.

Avery Johnson, who practiced coaching in Dallas after his playing career, attributed much of his success as coach of the New Jersey Nets in having a prior background with the players. This gave him an edge when he had to coach them, and he knew the steps he needed to take to push the team to top performance.

Knowing when to push your employees and when to cut back on the pressure is also one of the hallmarks of a true leader. Having a personal connection with your team gives you more insight so that you can go from strong-charging words to encouraging speeches.


3. Empower your team to be more.

In many ways than one, people management is like being a parent. That’s how Steve Kerr feels like coaching for the Golden State Warriors.

When “you’re no longer telling them what to do all the time, but they’re still doing well.” Likewise, retired Chicago Bulls coach, Phil Jackson, says fostering an environment where everyone played a leadership role is a key to the team’s success.

Like NBA coaches, great leaders empower their team to do and be their best. That way, even when you go out for an important meeting, your team can still function at their highest capacity. And isn’t that what being a leader is? Stepping back so your team can bask in the glory?


4. Keep your head in the game—not on the scoreboard.

Business is like sports in the way you must score your goal of making a profit to stay in the match. But when everything becomes about winning, it all becomes a loser’s game.

Playing just to win is a broken concept, as retired NBA coach Phil Jackson attests. He gauges his team’s performance not on the scoreboard, but on their spirit—both on- and off-court. He wants to make sure the players are moving in a “spirited way” and that they are in synch.

In the end, it’s never about winning. It’s about the spirit that you put into your game, preparing yourself for the big event, and when it’s time, just letting your senses experience and savor every moment.


Key Takeaway

Whenever a person scores — whether in sports or business — it’s always for the benefit of the team. For leaders who want to keep on growing, it’s a good idea to take inspiration not only from the feats of high-performing athletes but also from the brains responsible for such efforts.

Coaches like Kerr and Jackson prove that people management training is a key ingredient to winning at life.

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