When Coaching, Not Talent, Wins
Lessons for executives from Steve Kerr and the winning Warriors.
Posted Jun 13, 2017
Last night the Golden State Warriors won their second NBA Championship in three years with Steve Kerr as Head Coach. After the game, Kerr made a comment that every executive needs to embrace if he or she wants to be successful. Before I quote Kerr and discuss what he said, there's a story you need to hear.
Once upon a time, in the Land we are in now (but Knights of the Basketball Court didn’t don footwear that costs more than a “server” at McDonald’s earns in a month), there lived a Knight, Sir Bob McAdoo, whose skills were second to none.
Alas, despite the fact that Sir McAdoo was tall, he could do it all: Bury what would have been a 3-pointer today; create shots whenever the mood struck him; take it to the hole at will; dunk; and put up numbers that were legendary. So great was his ability to “bury the rock” he was named MVP in 1975 and won three consecutive scoring championships from 1974-1976.
Alas, as stellar as his talents were, Sir McAdoo suffered from a chronic affliction—Ball Hog-itis. This, the wags of the Sportswriters Guild did say, prevented those teams who purchased Sir McAdoo’s talents from winning Championships.
Thankfully, in the twilight of his career, Coach Riley of Los Angeles bade Sir McAdoo to work on his team. Coach Riley forbade Sir McAdoo from joining the “starting 5” of Los Angeles’ Knights of The Hardwood, relegating him, instead, to lifting himself off the bench and substituting for a starting Knight when Coach Riley deemed it prudent to let Sir McAdoo play. Because Coach Riley knew how to cure Sir McAdoo of Ball Hog-itis, Sir McAdoo’s playing 6th Man with the Lakers enabled him to earn a Championship ring for each hand.
If you don’t like professional basketball you aren’t reading this, so I’m assuming you know all about Kevin Durant’s journey from Oklahoma to Oakland. You know that this former NBA MVP, who is one of the best basketball players alive, joined the Golden State Warriors at the end of last season. When he did, the Warriors had an MVP (actually, two-time MVP) of their own, Steph Curry, who, with teammate Klay Thompson, formed the duo dubbed “The Splash Brothers,” so-called for their near perfect 3-point shots (that go "splash" through the basket, hitting nothing but net), and also because in the 1980s the Oakland Athletics baseball team had a duo of prolific home-run hitters, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, who were dubbed The Bash Brothers.
What’s the Big Whoop? The Big Whoop is that usually, when you add New Star + Established Star to a team, you get a supernova implosion. Rarely do you get synergy. But the Golden State Warriors—make that Steve Kerr and his staff—did.
Last night in the post-Championship game interview session, ESPN reporter Doris Burke asked Kerr about the challenges he faced when called upon to “blend” all the incredible talent the Warriors had on their roster. Kerr deadpanned: “Well, we have very little talent...It was mostly coaching.”
I don’t know if Burke’s use of the term “blend” was a studied choice or serendipitous, but whenever I am asked by executives, “How do I build a team?” I initially tell them, “Imagine that you are a chef striving to get a 3-Star Michelin rating. You know that depending upon the dish you are preparing, most ingredients will be blended and not salient. You have to decide what is salient when; that’s the key.”
Kerr—and his able assistant Mike Brown who took over the team when Kerr was bedridden, in excruciating pain as a result of botched off-season back surgery—blended the Splash Brothers with the amazing Kevin Durant by inculcating the three stars, and the rest of the Warriors, with an ethos of unselfishness, sacrifice, and commitment to each other. But in contrast to what chefs do with “static” ingredients that can never object to how they are blended with other ingredients, coaches and executives can assemble the best roster of A Players on the planet and not come close to being confident that the mix will be successful.
Some say that a coach/executive must create the proper chemistry to have a group of stars win. I say that you have to know how to manage Top (Star) Talent or, as they’re known in the business world owing to Jack Welch, A Players.
The inability to manage the superstar talent of Bob McAdoo until Pat Riley made him a 6th man for the Los Angeles Lakers—a narcissistic injury if there ever was one to a guy who had, since he could tie his own sneakers, been the go-to guy on every team he played for—proves that a mélange of talent does not win championships.
Riley, who is married to a woman with an M.A. in educational psychology, whose insights doubtless helped him manage top talent, made a genius move by not lauding McAdoo, not putting him on the pedestal he was on since childhood, and telling him “You’re great, but these guys you’re playing with (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Magic Johnson; Jamaal Wilkes; James Worthy) are also great.
Often, the best thing a coach/executive can do to ensure that A Players will blend with a team is to challenge and quash a star’s hubristic tendencies. Clearly, Riley did that masterfully. On other occasions—as Kerr had to have done to blend Durant with Curry and Thompson—you have to have a genius for conveying the message, “You are the star, albeit in this context only; he’s the star in that context; and he’s the star in that other context. 3 Stars because we must confront myriad contexts.”
If you ask me, the contortions Kerr had to make to convey the “You are the star” message as masterfully as he did without seeming disingenuous for a nanosecond, is why his back acted up on him. A coach with lesser abilities could not have done what Kerr did. He’s in physical pain as a result (I think)—but spiritually, he’s on Cloud Nine.
If you are an executive and anticipate that I will now present my 7 Habits Of Highly Effective Talent Managers summary, Fuhgettaboudit. Think like a chef in pursuit of a 3-Star Michelin rating: If you’re working with perfect eggplant you make moussaka, caponata, or eggplant parmigiana, and pamper that aubergine like it was the Duchess of Cambridge. If heirloom tomatoes are in season, take your aubergine aside and explain to it that it cannot be the Star for a while; the context just ain’t right.
If you want to read more on this subject I did write an article about it in Harvard Business Review: Berglas, S. (2006). "How To Keep A Players Productive."