The NBA, leadership and your business

July 1, 2005 By    

At this writing, two teams in the National Basketball Association will have won their respective conferences and will square off in a couple of days to play a seven-game series to determine the world champion.

The San Antonio Spurs will represent the Western Conference, easily finishing off an exciting but weaker Phoenix Suns team in five games. More challenging was the Detroit Piston’s path, as they beat a strong Miami Heat team in seven games.

 Carl Hughes
Carl Hughes

When you read this, the series will be over, and the winner will be known.

The Detroit Pistons are the current world champions. Last year they manhandled the highly favored Los Angeles Lakers, even though the Lakers had two of the top players in the league. History proved that the less talented but better prepared team was the decisive winner.

Detroit, coached by Larry Brown, has all the same key players back from last year – players whose names are unknown to all but the most devoted fans. The Spurs are coached by Gregg Popovich, a fanatic of sorts on old-school fundamentals, with a strong defense but more of an open offense. The only universally recognizable player on either team is the Spurs’ Tim Duncan.

What is the connection of this sporting theme to your propane company?

First, let’s talk about goal setting. Coaches Brown and Popovich have established clear, simple goals for their teams. They have succeeded because they have effectively communicated and gained acceptance of those goals by team members. For Brown, it starts and ends with a tenacious in-your-face defense. With Popovich, it is fanaticism with individual focus and attention on execution. These coaches have effectively sold the players on their way to play the game, and each player has been given a clear specific role that contributes.

Do you have clear goals for your company? Have objectives been established within those goals for all individuals? Have you communicated those goals and objectives to your team? Does your team accept and buy into the goals to the extent that you do?

A common observation in this industry is that employees do not know what their company’s leadership is thinking, and have an unclear idea of their role. Often I hear that the owner or manager issues orders that are inconsistent, or that switch from one objective to another – whatever is at the top of the leader’s mind that day.

A second point is talent. Arguably, just to play in the NBA requires world-class athleticism that may be beyond any other sport. Yet neither of these teams have what is considered a true superstar performer.

What does this mean for you? Average people can achieve significant results when working for a common goal they believe in and one in which they know their role. You do not need superstars to get where you want to go. Many of the most successful companies I know in this industry are comprised of “regular” people.

Both the Pistons and the Spurs have players performing at the top of their game who were poor performers or were considered selfish on previous teams. Similarly, the propane industry is strewn with individuals who have not excelled in one organization but have gone on to flourish in another. The question for the leadership is whether the problem lies with the individual or with the plan and its execution.

To all in leadership roles, are you truly evaluating your employees objectively? Is it possible that the failures you have are not with your individuals? Could it be that the weakness is in your plan and the execution of the plan on your part, not the individual?

Watching a basketball team fail is not unlike observing weak propane companies whose real challenge is at the top – not in the players.

Carl Hughes is vice president of business development for Inergy LP. He can be reached at 816-842-8181 or by e-mail at

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