Open Every Door

WNBA President Lisa Borders Shares Why She Believes 'Failure Is Not Fatal, It's Feedback'

Bouncing back from those moments requires trust and collaboration.
WNBA President Lisa Borders Shares Why She Believes 'Failure Is Not Fatal, It's Feedback'
Image credit: Courtesy of Lisa Borders
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
7 min read

In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.

Three years ago, Lisa Borders knew exactly what to expect from her job. She was vice president of global community affairs at The Coca-Cola Company and chair of The Coca-Cola Foundation.

It was a company and an environment that was a part of her history. The Atlanta native’s maternal grandfather worked for Coca-Cola as a chauffeur for 30 years and her maternal grandmother had a job as a maid.

If Borders had to make a decision, she could draw from the company’s 126 years of history to figure out what might work. It was comfortable. But when Borders got the opportunity to become the president of the WNBA, she knew she had to take the leap.

“What was going through my mind was, what an awesome challenge that I would have to work for women. There are 144 women -- 12 teams with 12 players each,” Borders says. “[I wanted] to help them reach their full potential and to help the business reach its full potential. My most exciting thought was, you get to paint the picture.”

Borders was intrigued by what sort of entrepreneurial endeavors could be possible with the 22-year-old league, but the first order of business was to bring more of an awareness to the WNBA.

Related: Giada De Laurentiis Shares How She Busted Down Doors and Became a Big Name in the Food World

Her persistence has paid off. In 2016, during Borders’s first year leading the league, the WNBA saw its highest attendance in five years. The following year, the league got a distribution partner in Twitter, had its first fantasy game partnership with FanDuel and each of the 144 players in the league got their own avatar in the popular NBA Live video game. Heading into the 2018 season, the WNBA had its most watched draft in four years.

But more than just visibility, Borders wanted to make sure that the values of the league shone through. This spring, the league launched its Take a Seat, Take a Stand empowerment initiative. With each ticket purchased, the WNBA donates $5 to one of six organizations, including Bright Pink, GLSEN, It’s On Us, MENTOR, Planned Parenthood and The United State of Women.

"It's one thing to talk about public policy or to talk about what should be done. It's quite another to put your money where your mouth is,” Borders says of the impetus behind the initiative. “We recognize that as an underrepresented and disenfranchised class that we have a responsibility to use our platform of sports in general and basketball in particular, to make the world a better place.”

Borders shared her insights about how to come back better than ever from a setback.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Related: After She Trusted Her Instincts and Pursued a Different Strategy, She Became CEO of Vimeo

What can you do if someone underestimates your abilities?

The way to overcome people's biases is typically by delivering results. No one can really refute the results you deliver. In the case of the WNBA, the question was, can you grow market share? Can you grow mindshare? Can you get more followers on social media and people interested and engaged in the entertainment that you're providing? The short answer is yes. Over these past three seasons we have had a tremendous team effort from the local team perspective as well as from the league's perspective. The business is starting to grow. Delivering results is what flies in the face of underestimation.

How do you create windows of opportunity now for others in your organization?

Windows of opportunity are created when you build trust with people. It took me a long time to learn this. I'm the oldest child in my family, pretty much a type A personality, and I used to think I had to do everything. What I found is when you do that, it is just exhausting. There's no way for you to do everything.

What is true is that everybody adds value and you should value every voice. You can only do that if you build trust with people, which means you have to give them an opportunity to perform and give them room to grow. By that I mean every time they take on a new initiative or a project, it's not going to be perfect. It's not going to turn out exactly the way you thought you were going to do it. You have to give people space to stretch and grow and sometimes even fail because there's a lot of learning in failing. Failure is not fatal, it's feedback.

What have you learned about the type of leader you need to be to successfully open doors for other people?

What allows me to step back now is that I have more confidence in my own ability that I don't have to do everything, that others are equally smart, if not smarter. I always like to surround myself with people that are smarter than me. They don't need to have the same skills that I have. They need to have complimentary skills. I always look for people who are willing to take calculated risk and who have the competence to at least try. My role is to support them and to guide them. Not to stand in front of them but to walk alongside them and try to make sure they stub their toe and not break their leg.

But you've got to give them chance and you've got to trust that they're going to learn whatever it is you're working on but it's not going to perhaps be on the first time out. It might take the second time or the third time. You've got to be patient and willing to allow them to have that learning curve. Patience really is a virtue, and you really can get more done working collaboratively with people as opposed to having to be the tip of the spear 100 percent of the time.

Related: The First Black Woman to Own and Run a Billion-Dollar Company Says That Trusting Yourself Is Key to Success

How do you move forward when you experience a setback?

When you win a campaign, when you have success in the boardroom, when you reach your goal when you're fundraising, we don't tend to look at what made that happen. We tend to celebrate when we do well. When the team wins we go have a pizza. We don't say well, we won by 20 points, how could we have won by 30? We don't do that as humans. We just celebrate.

When you lose, there's two things that people do: either brood about it and never try again or look at the situation, try and learn and repeat what you're trying to do with that new information. I say, I fell down today. How can I not just walk faster tomorrow, how can I run? Was it that I need different shoes? Should I have gotten more sleep? Should I have eaten a better meal? What would enable me to not just walk but run?

What advice do you have about being your own best advocate?

The Nike phrase "Just Do It." Particularly for women, we are taught to nurture as young girls. We're often not taught to navigate or negotiate. There's nothing wrong with nurturing, but nurturing in and of itself, it's one extreme. You need to be able to navigate and negotiate life, not just the business you're in every day but life. Nurturing is the compassionate piece, navigating is the confidence piece and negotiating is the competence piece, that I'm in charge of my own destiny.

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