Building a Winning Team is No Accident, According to Steve Kerr


At the end of two days of hearing from industry leaders about AI, Machine Learning, cyber-security, collaboration, content management systems it was refreshing to see Steve Kerr as the final speaker at BoxWorks. I’ll admit, I don’t follow basketball very closely but working in Oakland I know he is a big reason the Warrior’s have dominated the sport the past few years so I was curious to see what he would talk about to a room full of CIOs and technologists. Box CEO Aaron Levie did his best Jimmy Fallon to facilitate the best conversation on leadership I’ve ever heard.


Tip #1: Pick a KPI and focus on it

Now, Steve Kerr didn’t say it that way—he said he felt if the team moved the ball it would result in a better game and thus more wins.  He said he was so frequently yelling “move the ball,” that one time Steph Curry yelled back “Hey coach, yell something else!” It was consistently drilling this message to move the ball into the team, every game, every practice that created a dynamic and collaborative style. Levie did point out the obvious: that isn’t the whole point of the game to move the ball? The point was that he wasn’t focusing on scoring, he was focusing on moving the ball. Find your metric and work your team to that metric.


Tip #2: Cross-train and mix it up

Kerr told the story of one game where he moved the players around to positions they didn’t normally play—and it wasn’t a disaster! Teams can get comfortable switching roles and supporting each other to stay alive, increasing empathy. It makes each member feel like they are more than a single cog in a machine, but an adaptable person with many contributions to make to the team. It offers a chance for team members to test their strengths and build their confidence. Overall, it demonstrates the leader’s confidence in his team members to grow and continuously become more skilled.


Tip #3: Encourage Self-Managing Teams

In mid-February of last season, Kerr made an uncommon (and for some unpopular) coaching decision to NOT coach the team but turn it over to the players.  “It’s the players’ team, and they have to take ownership of it. And as coaches, our job is to nudge them in the right direction, guide them, but we don’t control them. They determine their own fate and I don’t feel like we focused well at all the last month, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. I thought they communicated really well together and drew up some nice plays, and it was a good night for the guys.” How can you turn the reigns over to the team? Go above and beyond delegating to allow the team to manage themselves, hear a new voice, and feel trusted by their leader to make positive contributions.


Tip #4: Skip the Annual Review—Give Constant Feedback

In business, you don’t have the benefit of going back and reviewing tape as professional sports teams do, but you can look for ways to incorporate the same frequent lookbacks to give team members immediate and frequent feedback. What’s working, where are they making progress, and what are a few examples where they whiffed or need to improve. Having ongoing dialogue makes it easier to correct course and adjust right away. Kerr’s team members know where they are against their goals at all times. Take a clue from Kerr and fellow Boxworks presenter John Doerr and “Measure What Matters” by establishing Objectives and Key Results (OKR’s).


Tip #5: Always Respect Your Team

The Warriors demonstrate that even when you have the biggest name in the game, the power of the whole team far exceeds the stardom of one player. Kerr’s success has come from his ability to build trust, respect, and collaborate with his team. Valuing and understanding the strengths of each person is essential. Gone are the days when an employee or basketball player delivers their best performance out of fear of a hierarchical reporting structure. Gone are the days when “because I’m the coach” or “because I’m the boss” elicits engagement. Likely it never did, but for sure today in sports and in business a leader must build and demonstrate respect for their team. But as Kerr reminded us, even the greats can sometimes lose their cool and when you do, you need to own it—own your mistake. Showing vulnerability—being real—helps your team do the same so you can all be there for each other on the wins and losses.

I didn’t want the lively and hilarious conversation to end and hope all tech conferences can bring a new point of view to the program. I didn’t know what to expect, but I  will start watching basketball with a new point of view. I am refreshed on how to create teams that are built on trust, collaboration, fun, and respect.

At Future State, we work with organizations scaling for growth and getting new products to market faster by engaging their employees to make the future of work now.