The Blueprint: How to Build Culture? Lessons From the NBA Part II
This article is Part II following How to Build Company Culture? Lessons From the NBA from March 10, 2019.
On the morning of December 5th, I found myself at the HSS Training Center on 39th Street in Brooklyn, home of the Brooklyn Nets training facility. The Basketball Africa League, BAL, was holding its first combine. Unlike the jam-packed, media swarmed, agent laden, coach stocked, team executive rich showcase that is the NBA Draft Combine, this event had a more intimate and mission-based setting.
The invite-only event afforded an opportunity for prospects to display their league worthiness to note-taking scouts, as well as serve as a gathering for everyone involved in launching the league. Many in attendance who I spoke to, enthusiastically expressed their commitment to the establishment and development of the league, and to advancing its success and fanbase across the continent. Even for those who are more familiar with and accustomed to the hype and hoopla of the NBA, there was a feeling that this was special.
The president of the BAL, Amadou Gallo Fall, a Senegalese native, was the central figure at the training center. Standing at a height well above six feet, he had a conspicuous presence. What made him stand out more was an Obama-like quality made of equal parts statesmanship and informality. He displayed an ability, to give each person he spoke to the impression that they were the only person that mattered, in the moment.
There was something moving in seeing him greet the young assistant coaches, front office staff and scouts, many of whom had been helping and supporting his basketball endeavors on the continent, since they were teens. There was more than an expression of appreciation being demonstrated. There was also a transmission of pride being made. Fall had a particularly warm welcome for one assistant coach whose career has progressed from a basketball camp in Africa, to the video room and then the sideline as an assistant coach in the G-League for one of the top NBA teams.
That assistant coach described to me his team’s culture as “like family”, with the origins coming from their Head Coach. That sense of family extends beyond the players, to every coach and everyone in the front office, including the G-League. As an example of how he personally experienced this, he described, with visible emotion, that when after finishing college, for four years he was unable to afford a ticket to visit his family, the team gave him a Christmas gift — a plane ticket home.
I asked him if he thinks this family culture is common among the other NBA teams. Of the teams he was familiar with, he couldn’t name any. I asked him to describe other team cultures. “Other teams have a culture of spirituality”. Intrigued, I made a guess that he was referring to the Suns. He lit up, confirming my guess and adding that Monty Williams is his mentor. I asked if he knew of any other spirituality cultures. He mentioned the Golden State Warriors.
Whether the spirituality culture he referred to is rooted in group bible studies, or is the psychic environment created by a sense that everyone is connected, it works for the same reason the gift of a plane ticket home did: to create deeply felt connections through shared moments and expressions of support.
Connections and support. Fellowship and unity. This is the essence of a nourishing and flourishing culture, a culture built from and sustained by the words, actions and practices that create meaningful connections and faithful support. And this occurs through shared moments.
Shared moments can happen in many ways. For the San Antonio Spurs, it can be team dinners in the private rooms of restaurants, hosted by Coach Popovich. For the Los Angeles Clippers, a deep-sea fishing excursion to mint the bonds between the members of a newly formed powerhouse can chance the occasion. And for the Toronto Raptors, it can be the trust-building dares of teammates braving the culinary challenges of Congolese native Serge Ibaka, on his YouTube Channel show, “How hungry are you?”
The overall aim of these activities is to create a shared experience where formality gives way to familiarity; where feeling vulnerable gives way to feeling validated; and where being tentative gives way to becoming trusting. And while social events like barbeques, bowling nights and baseball outings promote camaraderie and boost morale, building culture requires interactions and activities purposefully designed to forge bonds and foster support, and not mainly recreation or entertainment.
A first time only happens one time. Amadou Fall is approaching the kickoff of the Basketball Africa League, the only time he will have a first time in doing so. This presents Fall with a singular moment, to initiate the culture of an entire league and enable it to nourish its success and flourish in fandom. If it is a moment for him and BAL officials, supporters and sponsors to capitalize on they must first recognize it as such, and second, have the plan to do so.
Fall seems to be acutely aware of the singularity of this moment, of THE moment to establish and introduce “the BAL way”. For anyone like him, seeking to maximize their culture building opportunity, I recommend five steps to lay a solid foundation.
Step 1: Define to determine.
You cannot determine what culture you want to establish without first defining the principles it will be built upon. A principle is a concrete construct for an expectation of conduct. If such a principle is “Be always truthful”, then the expected conduct, without lapse or failure, is to be honest and forthcoming and to act without deceitful intent.
Our principles are the dial, needle and cardinal points on the moral and ethical compass of behavior. They establish the unambiguous standards for everyone to know, follow and assess accountability regardless of where an individual is from or how they were reared. Why? Because principles measure the quality of character not judge the geography, gender, race or creed of an individual. People with shared principles also have shared goals and shared motivation. Failure to define and articulate the principles of culture all but insures the self-sabotaging demise of an organization, because it will operate with no bearing. This will be Fall’s first culture test to pass.
Step 2: Know who you want to become.
Just as principles establish culture, a particular culture draws particular people compatible to it. The collective conduct of these people, as guided by the principles, will establish and convey the character of the team. That character will be its identity.
Part of the BAL identity will be influenced by the multiple frames of reference of the players who have grown up on the continent — a continent of 54 countries, some 3,000 tribes and over 1500 languages. Despite their differences, they all have demonstrated the requisite grit and determination to beat the nearly impossible odds that have brought them to the opportunity of a new league, and fateful steps closer to the NBA. That shared grit and determination will help form an identity shaped by their distinct personalities, their diverse perspectives and their dedication to preparation. Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutomobo, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Giannis Antetokounmpo can be counted amongst many other Africans who have been and are all valued for their exceptional contributions to their teams exemplified by their discipline, generosity, judgement, humor and sense of togetherness.
Fall is one of the fortunate Africans who got a one-in-a-billion chance to build a career in the NBA. His ability to capitalize on that opportunity can be directly attributed to the “certainty of self” that informs him of who he is. It will be another challenge for him, to provide that same certainty to the identity of the league. Unless the objective of culture building is personal to the person at the top, it won’t happen.
Step 3: Hire individuals who reflect the aspirations of the culture.
Every person hired must have total buy-in to the vision of the organization, and demonstrate their commitment through their efforts at achieving a shared goal. Without this, any group is at risk from internal erosion when competing motivations and separate agendas threaten divisions. Solidarity to ambition will be best achieved from an assembly of people who are similar in their conviction for success.
Fall is flanked by a unicorn staff, all of whom have experience working on the continent, possess a rolodex of relationships they can call on immediately, are multi-lingual and conscientious of the cultural diversity of the players, and are committed to advancing the quality of life for all on the continent through the growth and development of basketball. He will need to permeate this throughout the league.
Step 4: Create shared experiences.
When a group gathers with the intention of sharing meaningful experiences, they are participating in the co-creation of culture. As they exchange ideas and connect on a human level, they learn more about themselves and one another, build trust, reduce misunderstandings, and expose existing and potential culture hazards.
Long before the formation of the BAL, Fall and one of the BAL co-founders, President of the Toronto Raptors Masai Ujiri, established basketball camps for youth on the continent. Fall’s camps run by the SEED Project, which also manages the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camps, and Ujiri’s Giants of Africa program have invited hundreds of players and staff to visit and participate in the activities of the basketball camps and academies they have established throughout the continent. The collective experiences enrich all involved with a mutual regard and appreciation for one another; a belief in their possibility; a commitment to aiding each other in their effort for self-determination; and a stake in the development of future leaders. To carry this over to the BAL would be like providing insurance for its success. Judging from Fall’s interactions with others, he demonstrates an understanding of this. It will be to the benefit of the entire league, for him to continue promoting the culture-building potential inherent in shared experiences as being essential to success.
Step 5: Keep your motives pure.
For any culture to take hold, solidify, survive and thrive the purity of its motives must match the conviction to its principles. Following the truth north of best intentions will guide you past the thickets, ditches and swamps of avarice and corruption. The leader of an organization directs others onto the clearer path of integrity. Fall must continue to avoid the credibility perils that lie ahead for BAL, with a steadfast adherence to the guidelines he establishes for the league, and adherence needs to be an accountability test for everyone.
One need only watch a video of the SEEDS Project or the Giants of Africa program or Basketball Without Borders to see that altruism is woven into the motivation directing the camps. By comparison, Peach Jam, the most prestigious tournament camp for high school players in the United States, has been criticized by many for becoming sullied by controversy and corporate interest. While this isn’t exactly a like kind comparison, Peach Jam offers a cautionary tale about the exploitability of teens, the unprincipled intentions of adults, and the paradise lost consequences of less than honorable motivations.
Finally, following this culture blueprint will yield one additional and vital benefit — an identifiable and reliable brand. This is the one thing that enables an enterprise to survive and thrive beyond its launch. Formation of the BAL brand is already evident. Even people not directly involved with the league’s construction were present at the combine. Andy Birdsong, assistant GM for the Brooklyn Nets, was amongst them. When I asked him if he was affiliated with the nascent league in any way, he said no, adding that he was there because he thought it was great that the NBA has launched a league in Africa, and that he wanted to be supportive of it. There are many others on the peripheral offering their mental high-fives to this effort. Getting the league’s culture right will take its chances for success well beyond a fledgling hope.