Lead Like LeBron

LeBron

More than two years ago, LeBron James returned to Cleveland. With it, the entire state of Ohio was placed on the broad shoulders of his 6’8”, 260-pound frame, more than 50 years of championship baggage from every local team dragging behind him, and one goal looming overhead: bring a championship back to Cleveland.

On the night of Sunday, June 19, 2016, weight was lifted, curses reversed, and the goal reached, with more than 30 million people watching. He led his team as the first to come back from a three-games-to-one deficit and win the title. He led his team to defeat an opponent that won more games in the regular season than any team in history. And he led his team – and the other team – in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks in the seven-game finals, on his way to MVP honors.

This was James’ sixth straight appearance in the NBA Finals and seventh overall. He won twice with Miami, lost twice with Miami, and lost twice with Cleveland. It is common for pundits to wonder which road – through which team – another team must beat to win the title. Perhaps the answer has been there all along…the road to the Finals has been running through James.

And he has been running toward his ultimate goal: returning a trophy to his hometown. James did it in spectacular fashion with efforts like this, which will simply be known as “The Block:”

James has gone through a maturation process before our eyes from a high-profile high schooler, to making a misstep in announcing his departure for Miami,* to an older, more humble, and perhaps wiser man returning to Cleveland. While neither you nor I can run, jump, shoot, or defy gravity like LeBron James, we can do one thing like him: learn to lead. Here are three lessons he’s provided:

  1. Believe in Yourself and Those Assembled around You. While everyone may not be as talented as the main player or the CEO, each person brings something different to the team, while all work toward the same goal. Historically, it was easy to doubt the Cavaliers as no other team had come back from such a deficit. James helped his team, and city, believe the seemingly impossible. And now they do…with a new trophy in hand.
  1. Focus on Today before Worrying about Tomorrow. Do you know how you climb a mountain? Easy: one step at a time. The Cavaliers couldn’t win three games in one night. Not even two. To achieve such a comeback, they needed to only win Game 5. And then Game 6. And then Game 7. A monumental task may not be accomplished in one day, but breaking it up and achieving small goals toward your overall victory makes it not only manageable, but achievable.
  1. Let the Haters Hate. When you’re anointed “The Chosen One” and do yourself no favors by referring to yourself as “The King,” as James has done, criticism and scrutiny are sure to follow. Even when you try your best or do your best, others will compare you to others, not acknowledge your achievements, or even simply refuse to like you.One of the toughest parts of leading is realizing not everyone is going to like or agree with you. But leading isn’t about being liked. It’s about staying true to what you believe is right; the plan you have put in place, the people on your team, and the small victories on your way to your overall goal. Like James, block out the noise and focus on the vision. In the end, you’ll be the one smiling – or crying with tears of joy – at what you’ve accomplished.

 

*Many chastised LeBron (including me) for announcing that he was “taking his talents to Miami” in a televised spectacle that riled many, especially those in Cleveland. However, what many sometimes forget (including me) is that this “horrible PR move” still raised $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls club of Greenwich, Conn. If only all of our worst PR moves were still so charitable.

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5 Lessons You Can Learn from Upsets

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Photo by Chris Lee, STL Post-Dispatch

 

 

March brings us warmer temperatures, a change in our clocks, and the NCAA basketball tournaments. Each year we see lower-seeded teams upset higher-seeded teams in what can be described as March Mania (that other, more commonly known named is copyrighted, believe it or not).

As most of us watch in amazement at some of the team’s performances, such as a last-ditch three pointer by Wisconsin, there are also some great communications lessons that these teams share that can be used on both the basketball court and in the boardroom. Here are 5 lessons your team can learn from those teams that pull off the classic upsets in the month of March:

  1. Embrace the Moment: Sure, it might be a big stage or much riding on the moment, but instead of cowering at the fear of failure, look at it as a tremendous opportunity. After all, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Especially if you are the underdog, you have nothing to lose other than not giving your best effort.
  2. Remember What Got You There: Now that you’re “at the table,” don’t try to greatly alter your plan or way of doing things. After all, it’s the way you’ve done them which has got you to this point. Plus, this prevents you from having to learn or do something that may be foreign to you when the pressure is at its greatest.
  3. Focus on the Current Task at Hand: A team in the tournament typically needs to win six games in a row to become national champion. But, the task of a six-game winning streak may seem daunting by itself. Instead, focus on the current game or presentation you’re in, then worry about the next one hopefully when it comes. Breaking it down into manageable chunks helps you not only focus on the opportunity, but block out any doubt of the larger, overall goal. Just ask Texas A&M who somehow overcame a 12-point deficit in less than one minute to eventually win in double overtime.
  4. Control What You Can Control: You cannot predict how many turnovers the other team may have or what type of presentations your competition is giving to the prospect. But, you can control your team and what’s included in your offerings. Concentrate on what you do and do it well and let the other guys falter by worrying about you. If you simply just “do your job,” everything else will fall into place.
  5. Believe: If you don’t believe in yourself or your team, then you’ve already lost. Your team as this opportunity or has come this far because they are a great team. If teams didn’t believe, then there wouldn’t be any upsets in the tournament. But the fact that they do, means even a half-court Hail Mary shot has a chance to go in.

How Mystic Mac and Mighty Maria Delivered the Right Message

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Conor McGregor (left) and Maria Sharapova faced some significant setbacks in the past 72 hours. (Photos by Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today and Getty Images, respectively.)

Within the past 72 hours, two elite athletes seemingly at the top of their game suffered significant setbacks. However, it’s how they responded which has strangely enough, made them victorious.

On Saturday night, brash Irish mixed martial artist (some language NSFW), Conor McGregor, lost his first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fight to Nate Diaz. McGregor is the 145lb champion, but stepped up two weight classes to fight a replacement opponent in Diaz for a non-title 170lb match. After predicting a first-round knockout of his opponent, McGregor instead lost in the second round to a submission.

Many rejoiced to see the trash talker finally taste defeat. However, McGregor won the post-fight PR test with not only his humble interview, but also this post on Instagram (some language NSFW). McGregor said he took a risk, it didn’t pay off, but he’ll learn from it and come back stronger. No excuses, no complaints; just what he learned and how he’ll get better.

Then, just this morning (March 8), tennis superstar Maria Sharapova was going to have a major announcement. Her news? She failed a drug test at the Australian Open. A drug she had been using for 10 years had become, as of just 68 days ago, illegal.

Rather than wait for news services to pick up the failed drug test and have pundits weigh in before she said anything, Sharapova did the best thing she could: Got out in front of the news, controlled the message, and positioned herself to be the news source. While she has been put on immediate suspension and has already lost some sponsors, she accepted responsibility and outlined what had happened (she failed to read an email that outlined the drug in question as now illegal).

Media often relish the narrative of a rise and fall of a prominent figure, whether it be a celebrity or an athlete. However, what they, and our culture, love even more, is the rise, fall, and comeback of a celebrity or athlete. After all, we are a land of second chances, just as long as you do it the right way (See pitcher Andy Petite admitting to taking performance enhancing drugs vs. Rafael Palmeiro vehemently denying it, only to be caught using them).

I predict that both McGregor and Sharapova will be great comeback stories. They’re already off to a great start by winning the initial PR battle by accepting three important things:

  • Accepted Responsibility: Neither made excuses; they took ownership of their error and were upfront and honest about the respective situations. It shows the public they recognize what happened, do not pass the blame, and own up to the shortfalls.
  • Accepted the Punishment: They realize they made mistakes, understood the magnitude of them, and realized the consequences for their actions.
  • Accepted the Challenge: McGregor sees how this gives fuel to all of his detractors and makes some of his trash talk now seem silly. Sharapova understands this may mean a two-year ban and lost sponsorship dollars. However, both vowed to learn from these events (McGregor says you either win or you learn), and admitted they will be better professionals for it.

While you or I may never hoist a UFC title belt or a Wimbledon trophy above our heads, if we find ourselves in a situation where things come up short, we can follow in McGregor’s and Sharpova’s footsteps with similar responses to aid the road to recovery.

The Hoarding Issue at KU and Why It’s Not a Problem

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(Photo by Orlin Wagner, Salina Journal)

There is a hoarding issue in Lawrence, Kan., and specifically within the confines of Allen Fieldhouse. The University of Kansas (KU) men’s basketball team has just clinched a share of their 12th straight Big XII Conference title and a 12th consecutive trophy. Let’s put that into perspective. When KU won the first title in this streak:

  • It began three consecutive, four-year classes to attend KU who would never know life without their men’s team taking home the conference title
  • KU has won consecutive titles four more years than anyone can currently be President of the United States
  • Twitter had yet to be invented
  • Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” was the most downloaded song of the year
  • George W. Bush was sworn in for his second term as US President
  • Gas was around $1.94 per gallon … so I guess some things have stayed the same

This feat trails only UCLA by one year for most all time, in an era where parody in college athletics may be at an all-time high. They also did it this year with arguably the best job done by their future Hall-of-Fame coach, Bill Self. As a blue-blood program, they’ve had All-Americans, staunch rim protectors, and dynamic playmakers. While this year’s team was good, it seemed to lack some of those standout performers in prior years.

But that didn’t matter.

What resulted was the continuation of KU’s hoarding problem in the form of conference trophies.

So what’s the secret? A multitude of things: a combination of KU’s dominance at home (it’s won nearly 40 straight), a raucous home crowd, and hell, maybe even the ghost of Phog Allen himself. But it boils down to an Oklahoma State graduate who was passed over by Missouri … Bill Self.

Each year, the master motivator finds a way to orchestrate the best from each of his players, while executing a delicate balance of tough love tactics. Perhaps the best part is any coach or midday manager can practice some of the same principles Self has seemed to master:

  • Play to Your Team’s Strengths: KU doesn’t have a dominant player this year, so instead, KU focused on its point guards pushing the pace and ball movement throughout the team. In the workplace, solid work by the entire team helps lift the burden of work on any one individual while helping the team accomplish its goals.
  • Expect Greatness: Despite replacing his entire lineup several times during the streak, Self never expected any less from his players than continuing to challenge for the title. Inside office walls, while much may be given to employees (flexible schedules, jeans on Fridays, team outings), much should also be expected … and then their performance should be recognized and rewarded.
  • Press the Right Buttons: Self likes to publicly question his team’s toughness in interviews when the team may have lost one or two games or he feels they’re not playing to their potential. After a shaky three-game stretch a month ago, Self again wondered if his team was “too soft” and they promptly found their form on their way to a 12th straight title. While calling employees soft in the workplace isn’t appropriate for many reasons, tuning it to what motivates each of your employees – regular compliments, tough love, subtle suggestions – is the perfect balance to have your team running on all cylinders.

Universities Miss the Mark Trying to Protect their Brand

KSU
(Photo by Ann Williamson/The Topeka Capital-Journal)

 

Universities have the challenge of constantly being in the risk management business, while trying to promote the education and advancement of its students. In the past week we saw two universities with communication missteps. Kansas State University (K-State) tried to further remind its students how it thinks they should behave at sporting events. The University of Tennessee (UT) attempted to showcase its positive athletic department culture despite being in the midst of a federal lawsuit charging them with a hostile sexual environment.

Both instances involve collegiate athletics; something that inherently stirs passion from fans, students, alumni, and those from opposing schools.

UT(Photo by Randy Sartin/USAToday Sports)

Quick Backgrounds:
K-State:
Required students to sign a sportsmanship pledge at the start of the current school year. They followed this up by banning* the fan-favorite song, Sandstorm at basketball games, due to profane chants that had been heard when playing their in-state rival. Prior to their most recent home-game against the same in-state rival, K-State issued a video, again reminding its students how to act.

UT: All 16 of its varsity coaches held a press-conference without the athletic director (who was out of town) or school president to reassure player (and more directly current and future recruits) that despite current federal lawsuit accusing the school of a hostile sexual environment, that everything is fine.

Why these were missteps:
K-State: There is certainly merit in K-State trying to establish what they deem as good sportsmanship behavior. But:

  • A “sponsorship pledge” and then repeated reminders of “you better be good” is incredibly juvenile. The additional “taking your song away if some of you can’t play nice” and a reminder video before the game were repeated reminders of “we don’t trust you.”
  • If you want a target audience to change their behavior, treat them as adults, instead of cranky 5-year-olds. Or else, they’ll act just like those cranky 5-year-olds and do the opposite of what you want them to do.
  • As it relates to your in-state rival, realize that not everyone is going to extend open and welcoming arms to them at their home games. Just imagine if they tried this at Auburn and Alabama. There are always a few bad apples…when that happens, don’t pretend it’s the whole bunch.

UT: The coaches may have had the right idea of trying to get in front of the story and insert their own narrative into the current message. But:

  • It wasn’t until later in the news conference when the head football coach –whose players were at the center of some of these allegations – finally addressed who matters most by saying, “Our hearts, our thoughts and our prayers go to out to the alleged victims.”
  • These comments should have been at the start of the news conference to express empathy. Your target audience doesn’t care what you know until they know that you care. All 16 coaches should have focused less on how great their culture is and how they have a renewed focus on protecting their student athletes and all students at the University.
  • They lauded the “culture” of the university and departments as the best it’s been, cohesive and united, despite charges that the university “enabled a culture that led to sexual assaults and then administrators influenced the handling of discipline by accused athletes.”
  • While not addressing the lawsuit may have been expected, saying everything is fine when it clearly isn’t causes your audience to roll their eyes in disbelief instead of nodding their heads in agreement with your message.

What they should have done:
K-State: Crafted an open letter to fans at the start of the year by the athletic director welcoming them to the school year, while including these “sportsmanship” parameters about what makes the students and its fans great.

UT: Never held the press conference. Now we’re talking about their misguided message which is the exact opposite of what the coaches hoped to accomplish with their “press conference.”

With these improvements, the schools’ brands can hit the mark instead of seeming misguided.

 

*The school has since reinstated the song and the athletic director thanked students for adhering to the new sponsorship pledge (even as some still did the profane chant, perhaps out of frustration and/or rebellion).

The Play That Helped the Tide Roll

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Alabama’s tide rolled to is fourth title in seven years. (Photo by AP)

Last night we saw the University of Alabama Crimson Tide capture their fourth national title in the past seven years. However, it boiled down to one play based on planning and communication; both what was said, and what body language tried to hide. It went a little something like this (via SB Nation):

A routine kickoff became a trick play that turned the game’s tide solely in Alabama’s favor. Read this breakdown of how many things had to go right to pull it off, including the player catching the pass actually dropping it half the time in practice.

Special teams may sometimes be considered the stepchild to the offense and defense in American football, but more often than not, it plays the biggest role in shifting momentum within the game.

The Alabama coaches had a plan if they saw Clemson in a certain formation on kickoffs. Sure enough, with the game tied in the fourth quarter and just over 10 minutes to play, it was time to try it. In summation:

  • The kicker began his approach just like any other kickoff; then suddenly altered the direction of the kick at the last second.
  • The receiver – who is actually a defensive back on the team (don’t worry, this stuff happens on special teams) – started running his route like a normal kickoff. He suddenly altered his route to the outside just after the ball was kicked.
  • The ‘receiver’ caught the kick in midair and then bolted out of bounds to secure the ball for Alabama.

Simply, they saw a different formation that matched their trick pay, so they executed their plan. Some may call it genius, but at its core it is about having a plan for different scenarios. When the opportunity presents itself, implement the plan that gives you the advantage.

This is true for any communications plan. In this instance, they not only verbally communicated on the sideline, but the players also had to master their non-verbal skills until the right time to help pull the play off.

While many things have to go right in those scenarios, ultimately the better plan, and the core practice it has been given, prevails. Even if it only works half the time in ‘practice,’ from Alabama’s football team to your communications team, anyone can follow the same game plan:

  • The stakes are high
  • You trust your players and have instilled confidence in your team
  • You communicate the plan and the players understand their important roles
  • It catches your opponent by surprise
  • Take the shot

Hockey player Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” Alabama took their shot and once again, the ‘Tide is Rollin.’

 

 

 

No Fluke, Just a Winning Formula

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Photo by John Sleezer, KC Star

The Kansas City Royals – yes the same team that were consistent 100-game losers less than 10 years ago – are your World Series Champions.

In fact, in the past two years, they have won two American League Championships, their first-ever Central Division title, and a World Series title. They have also increased their win total in each of the past six years and set a new attendance record in 2015. Not to mention, seeing Jimmy Fallon and a rapping Bret Saberhagen, shooting paintballs at Jimmy Kimmel, and having Paul Rudd celebrate with them in the locker room. So yeah, things are pretty good for the Kansas City Royals and their fans.

In the midst of this upward trajectory, the Royals have done some incredible things on the biggest stages, namely in the playoffs.

As noted by The Kansas City Star, eight of their 11 playoff wins this year came after trailing in the sixth inning or later. Six of those comebacks have erased deficits of two runs or more. No team has ever done that, or had ever accomplished the following in the playoffs:

  • They came from behind to win eight times
  • They came back from multiple-run deficits seven times
  • They scored 51 runs in the seventh inning or later
  • They won three World Series games that they trailed in the eighth inning

“Of all the crazy Royals’ numbers, this might be the best,” EPSN baseball analyst Buster Olney pointed out. “KC scored 40 runs this postseason 8th inning/later; no other team had more than 5.”

While most teams were winding down, the Royals were just warming up.

Outside of the team stats, they also featured some individual notes with having the first Brazilian-born player to play in a World Series (Paulo Orlando), the first player to make their Major League debut in a World Series (Raul A. Mondesi), and the player who captured the record for the longest single postseason hitting streak in MLB history at 15 games (Alcides Escobar).

This was not only a memorable World Series win, but it was an especially historic one, for a team that had been historically bad. While the team has captivated and re-engaged a city starving for a championship from its football (it’s been 40 years) and baseball (it had been 30 years) teams, there were also some key communications takeaways that any team – or organization – can learn from as it builds a winning culture of its own:

1. Find What Works for You: The Royals developed a team and a way of playing baseball that best fit 1) what they could afford 2) what fit their players’ abilities and 3) what best fit their ballpark. The result were mid-market contracts that featured players with speed, athleticism, and defense that combined with starting pitching bolstered by the best bullpen in baseball.

For your organization, you may not have the biggest payroll or be in the biggest market, but focus on the strengths of your people and what you do really well. Who knows, how you do it may change the way the game is played…just like the Royals.

2. Trust Your People: Manager Ned Yost trusted his players and let them play without fear, such as Eric Hosmer’s daring dash home in Game 5. But the Royals also trusted the fans and their support, as highlighted with their “Thank You Kansas City” shirts and credit in celebration speeches during their championship rally.

Whether it be players on the field or people in your company’s positions, show them you believe and trust in them, and they’ll deliver the results you need…sometimes even ones you never saw coming, like an improbable slide across home plate.

3. Never Give Up: The records I list above are all the evidence we need that this team never quit and always believed they would find a way to win. In a game known for its numbers, the Royals showed all it takes is a belief in oneself and one team to suddenly tip the odds in your favor.

Personally I’ve been in situations where on paper, there was seemingly no way to accomplish a project in a timeframe provided. For example, I learned of a myriad of projects that needed to be completed – including some that had never been done by the company before – as it prepared to go public in just 13 days. Guess what? We made it happen. Not because we thought it was impossible – okay, maybe a little bit – but because we rallied to the challenge and believed in ourselves to get it done.

This Kansas City Royals team will be remembered for many things: the way they played, the connection with their city, and the way they always found a way to win. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons they captivated their audiences was simple: by doing those three things above, they were just like us.