When the Golden State Warriors went home with the 2017 NBA championship, the team's offensive superstars, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, got most of the credit. Few people understood that the defensive hustle of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson were just as key to the team's winning those championship rings.
In sports, as in the boardroom, it's often the flashiest superstars who get all the credit, while the defense soldiers on quietly in the background.
In fact, real warriors, whether in basketball or business, are all about forgoing flash for steady hustle. They're gaining recognition not just for their wins, but for their communal mindset: They bond over team meals (which, strangely, is rare in the NBA), and their players are generally willing to accept less playing time for the good of the team overall, and for the prevention of injuries.
We could use more of that mindset in the corporate world. Whether it's article after article about hiring "superstar talent" or the beloved Silicon Valley myth of the elusive 10x engineer, companies -- and plenty of other basketball teams! --are too focused on headline-grabbing talent and not enough on the not-so-glamorous grind of real teamwork.
As a basketball fanatic and head of operations at my company, I've seen firsthand just how important it is to respect that grind -- which is the main work of a good ops department. Those staffers' background functions may not have the showiness of sales or high finance, but they're the core of every successful startup. Here are a few lessons from the Warriors on how CEOs can support ops and other background players to create a winning team.
Success isn't just about the superstars.
Superstars are great, but they can't handle the team's duties alone. Focusing on acquiring superstars can not only damage the egos of your "regular" employees, but can damage the work your company produces as a whole. Parker Thompson, a partner at AngelList, has decried the Silicon Valley myth of the "10x engineer" -- that is, the person who supposedly can produce ten times the code of other engineers in the same amount of time.
Thompson argues that one should try to "10x" one's team as a whole rather than rely on a mythical individual whose work might be more flashy than reliable. An engineer who writes 10 times the usual amount of code isn't that helpful if the rest of the team has to spend 10 times the usual time cleaning it up.
Of course, this isn't to say that extraordinary people are always going to be (secretly) terrible. But leaders shouldn't be blinded by superstars and three-pointers and then ignore the necessary "defensive" grunt work of operations. Reason: The latter is what actually wins championships.
Take Game 1 of this year's NBA finals, where the Warriors' Klay Thompson performed miserably on offense, but gave a virtuosic -- and overlooked --defensive performance that helped win the game. "We have asked Klay Thompson to do a lot throughout the course of our playoff run so far," said interim head coach Mike Brown, in words that sounded a lot like a CEO talking about his operations team.
In his 2012 book Help the Helper: Building a Culture of Extreme Teamwork, former Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard brought up the example of the 2006 Tampa Bay Rays and the Portland Trail Blazers. Both teams were floundering until they were joined by new "culture guys," who began shifting the team's entire mindset from me-me-me to, well, the greater good, by encouraging a standard of selfless teamwork.
Teams achieve success when players put aside the desire to be the star and instead attempt to be the most useful to the group they can be, meaning they help where they can -- even if it won't be noticed. While the person who helps someone else score may be recognized, the person who picks up the slack left by the helper won't be; however, this is the most vital part of teamwork.
A good operations department is all about doing or delegating the dirty work for the greater good -- whether that's taking meeting notes, logging sales calls or simply refilling the coffee pot.
The Warriors have developed this mentality to great success. Take veteran players like Andre Iguodala, who gladly leads the bench players instead of fighting for a starting position. He's probably capable of snagging a starting position and all the ensuing glory on another team, but on the Warriors, he's one of the best backups out there. By working for the greater good of the team, Iguodala garners less flashy notoriety for himself, but lifts up the Warriors as a whole.
Reward hustle stats.
So say you've got Operations selflessly taking meeting notes and changing out the coffee filter and playing defense quietly in the background. This is all well and good, until the department starts feeling totally unloved and unthanked. It's important that a company not end up leaving its operations department out to dry. But how to do this most effectively?
The NBA rewards something called "hustle stats," which are designed make factors like effort and, well, hustle, tangible -- you know, the tough-to-quantify things that are still vital for a team's success. And guess who ranks highest in the league in hustle stats? The Warriors, of course.
Quartz has argued that women's work in organizations ought to be measured by hustle stats, too, rather than having organizations recognize only the most glamorous, high-concept work that's often done by men. I'd expand this argument out to include using hustle stats to measure the productivity of teams like operations. I work in that field and can truly say that we're the kings and queens of hustle stats, but rarely thanked unless we avert a crisis. When things are running smoothly, that means we're hitting those hustle stats out of the park, but it's easy to forget to thank us because, well, the company is sailing along on a smooth sea, right?
In short, a well-run operations team benefits from a mental shift by the entire company, starting with the executives at the top. It's a shift that rewards grind over flashiness, that stops the search for superstars and that starts appreciating the hustlers already on the payroll. As the Warriors' power forward, Draymond Green, has noted, the flashy "freak of nature" moves from players like Steph Curry are "sexy" -- meaning, they get a lot of press.
"But there's sexy s**** all over the NBA," says Green, who could very well be talking about operations. "Don't forget about the other reasons we win."