Monday morning I had dropped my son off at Newark Penn Station as he headed back for classes at Drexel University, and while scanning the dial I caught the rebroadcast of Frank Isola’s interview on Sirius NBA Radio with Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson. By all accounts there is probably no one better liked in the NBA than Atkinson; a hoops lifer who got a chance to take over a team not far from his hometown on Long Island and help them rebuild from the ground up; suffering what could be Brett Brown-like losses in his own version of “Trust The Process.”
While he talked about his team, the pains of rebuilding, managing expectations and the amazing opportunity of being with a disruptive brand and team like the Nets in New York, he spent a good amount of time on the lost art of trust, and its value not just with the team, but in building a quality culture wherever one ends up.
When we look back not just over the sports landscape and the business landscape but the cultural landscape in the last month, it seems like there are two key skills that are lacking as we all rush from place to place and try to one up each other:
Trust and listening, and frankly they both come as a package on the road to success. But today was about trust.
On the team side, Atkinson, the product of a quality education and a disruptive mid-major basketball program at the University of Richmond that was known as a hard-working giant killer whenever “March Madness” approached under legendary coach Dick Tarrant (himself a product of a Jesuit education that taught trust and listening as part of learning at Fordham University), talked about the levels of trust that are needed to succeed in the NBA today. Players, staff, administrators, are pulled in many directions, with lots of whispering going on that can derail a productive organization. However when the coach, or for that matter, any leader in business, has the trust of his team, he or she can get them back focused sooner than if there a questions of leadership.
So how does a coach get that trust? Atkinson, as any good communicator does, broke it down pretty easily.
Your players have to see you as the SAME PERSON wherever they go. On the plane, in the locker room, on the court, in the team hotel, and they have to be able to see that trust and that you treat them the same way whether they make one shot or had a career night. They know that you are the constant, and you are consistent in listening to them and knowing about them not just as players, but as people. While all the distractions are going on, the coach, the quality coach, is the one who can cut through all the clutter and projects a sentiment of belief to his team. They know he or she is there as a person, and that builds a trustworthy culture in good times, and in bad.
Now of course this isn’t all Kumbaya and everyone gets a trophy. Like any big business, professional sports is about winning; on the court, the ice, the field and the boardroom. However a belief in core values, and a trust that those at the top of the pyramid have the backs of those on the way up, or even on the bottom, goes a long way to creating a winning culture.
Down the line as the Nets rebuild, will trust factor into Atkinson’s success if they are a perennial loser in Brooklyn? We know where the Sixers went when GM Sam Henke implored everyone to “Trust The Process” as the Sixers rebuilt. The fruits of years of futility are now being realized, but Henke is not around to enjoy them. Trusting and winning in a bottom line business don’t always go together, but without trust, winning, and business success, are so much harder to achieve. Getting buy-in from those around you is a key to leadership at any level, so everyone has to trust that you have their backs.
Does Kenny Atkinson’s philosophy make him a winner today? There is a long way to go and see how NBA success plays out. Will the Nets have a longer term chance at success with him at the helm? We trust they will, just like any company would with a solid culture. Everyone has to buy in and believe and that buy-in starts at the top.
Trust. A simple element of leadership that we need more of in every aspect of our lives. Without it, even victories can seem hollow, and losses of any level get amplified. Just ask a former Richmond Spider.