Business Lessons from Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich
Taking over as coach of the Spurs in 1996, Gregg Popovich is the longest tenured active coach in both the NBA and all US major sports leagues.
After winning 5 championships, Popovich is still finding ways to break records.
For this 2015-16 regular season, his team was really close to being perfect at home. The loss to the 73-9 Warriors led the Spurs to finish 40-1, tying the record from the 1985–86 Boston Celtics. They also completed their best regular season ever with a 67-15 record.
As a Frenchie, I am biased when it comes to the Spurs. I’ve been a Tony Parker fan since my teenage years. The addition of Boris Diaw to their roster, and the attempted integration of Nando de Colo, someone I went to high school with, made me an official Spurs fan. My dream final this year would be Spurs-Hawks since I live in Atlanta. I did say “dream” right?
Besides my bias, it is undeniable that the talent of Coach Pop goes beyond the court for so many reasons. His skill set and words of wisdom are applicable to business, and life in general.
Humility is the mark of Level 5 leaders
Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich used to represent two opposite styles of coaching. But that comparison and rivalry went beyond the court.
One was confident, on the verge of being cocky, showing-off all his rings. The other preferred to let the team’s performance speaks for itself. This is why when you think Gregg Popovich, one of the first thing that comes to mind is humility, one of the character traits of “level 5 leaders” as described by Jim Collins in Good to Great.
In this book, Collins used a large team of researchers to find the characteristics of companies that went from “good to great”. One of the essential ingredients they found was to have a “Level 5″ leader, an executive in whom extreme personal humility blends paradoxically with intense professional will.
Typical Coach Pop right?
The best display of this humility was during the postgame interviews after the Spurs won the title in 2014. Popovich stayed behind the team and was not interviewed. He would rather let the players do the talking and give them all the credit.
Humility at the top can spread through an entire organization. In fact from the owner to the last bench player, there are many examples of humility throughout the Spurs organization.
Peter Holt: Spurs owner and 2011 top NBA “Ultimate Boss” didn’t hesitate to give all the credit away when winning the 2014 NBA championship.
My secret is these guys behind me and Coach Pop… It doesn’t start at the top, it starts with them.
-Peter Holt, Spurs owner
Tim Duncan: Building on top of David Robinson’s legacy, Tim Duncan has always been humble. Even though he’s a future Hall of famer, Timmy allowed himself to be coached, and the rest of the team automatically followed.
Kawhi Leonard: The same way Duncan followed Robinson, Kawhi has been following Tim’s path. The San Diego State University alum became the 2014 Finals MVP after only 2 years in the NBA. After signing a “max contract” in 2015, he barely celebrated because he had to go back to the gym for the third time that day during off-season. Kawhi isn’t the flashy kind of a player, he’s a hard working simple man.
Danny Green: When he was signed by the San Antonio Spurs and cut several times, Green went through a rough patch playing in the D-league. In the early spring of 2011, Green picked up the phone and left a voicemail on Popovich’s cellphone.
I’m ready. If I get a second chance, I’ll do anything possible to get back on the team. I’ll hand out towels, pass out water. This time around, I won’t take it lightly. I’ll do any little thing I can do.
Popovich was so moved by Green’s display of humility that he immediately signed him for the remainder of the season.
This is how Coach Pop built a all-for-one, one-for-all mentality, by treating every one of his players the same way.
This is the kind of mindset you want to create for your employees. But for that to work, you have to understand the importance of recruiting and your company culture.
Recruiting and company culture
A lot of companies don’t realize the importance of recruiting and have failed to adapt to the new recruiting landscape. The way people look for jobs has fundamentally changed and social recruiting, along with social selling, has become a crucial tool to utilize.
Once recruited, new hires are often getting thrown right into the fire dealing with an infinite list of daily tasks. What about giving them a chance to understand the bigger picture, and the context in which the company evolves?
Companies miss on sharing their values and building a strong culture their employees can relate to. It is such a big issue that, according to Deloitte, 87% of CEOs and other senior executives are deeply concerned about culture and employee engagement.
Gregg Popovich has realized the importance of both recruiting and culture decades ago.
He and his staff have developed unique recruiting strategies and were one of the first teams to expand their talent pool to overseas when other franchises were focusing on U.S. talents only.
By recruiting players in countries like Argentina, Australia, Brazil, France, and Italy, they have found players with complementary sets of skills. You won’t find any players comparable to a Lebron James or a Kobe Bryant in that roster, but athletes with unique capabilities and an altruism that defines European-style basketball.
This basketball style that relies on player and ball movement to win games has helped the Spurs build a team-oriented culture.
Not everybody can be a Spurs.
Are you willing to take a pay cut like LaMarcus Aldrige? Are you okay spending most of your time on the bench while advising the younger generation like Tracy McGrady and Andre Miller? Popovich knows exactly what he’s looking for: players that share his strong values of respect, sportsmanship and team work.
We’re looking for people — and I’ve said it many times — that have gotten over themselves. And you can tell that pretty quick. You can talk to somebody for four or five minutes, and you can tell if it’s about them or if they understand that they’re just a piece of the puzzle.
To me, a lot of companies make the mistake of looking for the Lebron James of marketing, the one that can fix all their problem.
Most challenges faced by a business are more related to processes and team management rather than a lack of talent. This is why I believe culture is so important. Finding open-minded skilled people willing to do what’s right for the group, not their personal agenda, should be the number one priority.
The right candidates for your next open position should probably share other values Gregg Popovich learned during his years with the Air Force Academy and Air Force Athletics: determination, competitive spirit, and drive to succeed. When visiting the Armed Forces basketball players in 2012, here’s what he had to say about the military breaking him down to zero:
I was nothing. And they built me back up so that I knew what I could do and what I couldn’t do. I knew my strengths. I knew my place. I knew it wasn’t all about me. I knew it was about teamwork. And that’s how I live. That’s the deal.
Here are other things Coach Pop considers when recruiting:
- A sense of humor is a huge thing with us.
- Feel comfortable in your own skin that you don’t have all the answers.
- People who are participatory.
- We need people who can handle information and not take it personally.
Leave your ego at home, even if you were once part of the “Big Three”. Accept to pass the torch to the younger generation. Team first, win first.
Recruiting goes beyond your key players. Your staff members, your assistants, they all matter. Coach Pop knows that very well. He’s always surrounded himself by people who know the game as much as he does. He also makes sure to be a mentor to them, and share his knowledge.
It is no coincidence that former Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer is now Hawks head coach, leading them to the conference final last year. Another example is Sean Marks, former Spurs assistant GM who accepted the GM position for the Brooklyn Nets.
Long term thinking beats everything
In another example used in Good to great, Jim Collins talks about the UCLA Bruins basketball dynasty of the 1960s and early 1970s who won ten NCAA Championships in twelve years under the legendary coach John Wooden.
What most people don’t know is that it took Wooden fifteen years before winning his first championship!
Year by year, Coach Wooden built the underlying foundations, developing a recruiting system, implementing a consistent philosophy, and refining his style of play. No one paid attention to the Bruins until they hit breakthrough and crushed everyone for more than ten years.
In short, Wooden didn’t have a specific winning formula but long-term thinking and an incredible focus allowed him to accumulate momentum until buildup transformed into breakthrough.
In many ways, Coach Pop and other great leaders are the same way.
Spurs’ focus isn’t the regular season, it’s the playoffs. Against all standards, Popovich isn’t afraid to try new things and focuses on what he can control.
On November 29, 2012, Popovich sat out starters Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green for a big game against the Miami Heat. Being fined $250,000 for not informing the other parties in a suitable timeframe hasn’t prevented him from using the same strategy multiple times since then. Popovich has frequently sat out his starters on road trips to ensure they have enough rest for the playoffs.
His system works, which is why top line players don’t mind taking pay cuts and giving away minutes. The only thing that matter is the ultimate goal, winning championships.
Bonus: Enjoy the process
Gregg Popovich has so much wisdom to share, he doesn’t mind preaching the word to his best of enemies like Steph Curry.
When asked a question about whether he allows himself to think about how dominant the Warriors could become, Curry was reminded of some advice Gregg Popovich told him and the other Western Conference All-Stars during February’s festivities in Toronto.
“It was this weird kind of story and fable, but the message was slow down and enjoy what’s going on right now,” Curry said.