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Careers: Lessons from LeBron James and Michael Jordan on Teamwork

In a previous entry, I talked about my rock star neighbor who, at the ripe old age of nine, has already started his own business specializing in lawn maintenance, pet sitting, auto detailing, and beverages/snacks. If you’re interested in learning about other young rock stars in the making, check out CNN Pipeline Anchor Nicole Lapin’s blog. Each week, she profiles people under the age of 30 from CEOs to community and political leaders. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to look any further for motivation.

In a previous entry, I talked about my rock star neighbor who, at the ripe old age of nine, has already started his own business specializing in lawn maintenance, pet sitting, auto detailing, and beverages/snacks. If you’re interested in learning about other young rock stars in the making, check out CNN Pipeline Anchor Nicole Lapin’s blog. Each week, she profiles people under the age of 30 from CEOs to community and political leaders. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to look any further for motivation. And based on their accomplishments, I have a lot of catching up to do.

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Being from western Pennsylvania, I must say I jumped on the Cleveland Cavalier’s bandwagon with both feet as soon as they drafted LeBron James. I’ve been rooting for them throughout the NBA playoffs but, now that they’ve reached the finals, it looks as though the wheels are about to fall off on their Cinderella story. After I got over that realization, the Cavs-Spurs series got me thinking about what makes a great team and how that transfers to a highly functioning team in the workplace. We’ve all heard the cliché about a team being only as strong as its weakest link, but is that really the case? As a case study, I had to look no farther then the great Chicago Bulls teams led by Michael Jordan.

I think we’d all agree that Michael Jordan wasn’t surrounded by great players. Yet he still won six titles. If the “no I in team” adage is accurate, how did he win? I’d like to think part of his success was based on his greatness, but I’d also like to think part of his success was based on the fact that everyone on the team knew, embraced, and refined their roles.

When the Bulls were winning title after title, you didn’t see Steve Kerr and John Paxson (both three-point specialists) trying to control the offensive boards and you didn’t see Charles Oakley and Dennis Rodman camped out at the three-point line. The championship Bulls teams weren’t filled with stars, but the team was filled with people who bought into the system and into their roles–a critical requirement of any highly functioning team. If you have someone on your team that isn’t an effective writer, in the short term don’t ask that person to draft all of your emails and letters. Likewise, if you have people on your team who struggle with delivering presentations, don’t ask them to present to the CEO until you’ve had a chance to work with them to develop their presentation skills and build their confidence. As a leader and manager, you must put your employees in situations that will allow them succeed whenever possible.

Great teams don’t happen by accident. Having the greatest players doesn’t mean you’re going to win the title. As a leader, you need to set up a work environment that suits the talent you have on your team. If some members need structure, give them structure. If others desire autonomy, you need to make sure you give it to them. Of equal importance is role clarity. Team members must know what they’re responsible for or they’re going to become frustrated and nine times out of 10, they’ll fail. Oh, and if you’re lucky enough, it doesn’t hurt to have Michael Jordan or LeBron James in your starting lineup.

Shawn Graham is an Associate Director with the MBA Career Management Center at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (courtingyourcareer.wordpress.com).

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About the author

Shawn Graham partners with small businesses to create, implement, and manage performance-driven marketing strategies. His knowledge base includes media relations, business development, customer engagement, web marketing, and strategic planning.

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