Three Things Agencies Can Learn from Basketball About Team Culture

On And Off The Court, Great Chemistry Makes a Winning Team

By Published on .

Sharon Napier
Sharon Napier
As we enjoy March Madness and the magic it brings, I'm reminded of the leadership lessons I've learned from the court. Always having full-court vision. The importance of bench strength. This year, the sport has reminded me of one more: Winning teams know how to build and maintain team chemistry. But this is no simple task.

We face unprecedented changes in our industry, and today, the word "team" has evolved. Creating great team chemistry is infinitely harder, because our teams are no longer contained by the walls of our offices. We now work across multiple offices in locations around the world, made even more complex by a growing network of partners that specialize in increasingly disparate disciplines. And more than likely, our teams aren't even wholly created or controlled by us.

As agencies, if we can't build team chemistry, we're going to lose. So I think we can observe three key practices of winning teams, on and off the court:

1. Winning agencies draft team players, not just superstars.
Earlier this year, third-stringer Jeremy Lin's fateful promotion to the New York Knicks starting lineup was an immediate success. Even with the team's top scorers sitting on the sidelines, Lin led the Knicks on an incredible seven-game winning streak, his selfless style meshing perfectly with former Coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive strategy. With the recent appointment of Mike Woodson, an old-school coach who prefers to create shots for star players like Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, I'm expecting the team's chemistry to change for the worse.

Our brush with "Linsanity" may be over, but the lesson remains the same. Lin brought something different to the court: a serious boost in morale. He's a true team player, and in my opinion, team players are an undervalued asset in our industry.

Advertising is not only highly competitive, it moves at breakneck speed. Because of this, we've been trained to draft superstars, rock stars, game changers, and other genius hires. We're always hunting for the second coming of Lee Clow. But smart leaders know that finding those true team players -- who build relationships, collaborate, and put team success before personal glory -- is just as critical.

2. Promote a culture where everyone has a chance to get in the game.
As CEO, a big part of my job is knowing the strengths of everyone on my team -- not just my starting lineup. Each and every player brings something to the court. But as agencies, we have to go further. It's not enough to just know who's sitting on our bench, we need to promote a culture where people are actually given the opportunity to get in the game and show what they can do. This not only makes good managerial sense, it ensures that we're identifying the talent today that will build our agencies into the future. As our "starting lineup" progress in their careers, we need to pull some players from the bench to support that momentum. If we're smart, we'll have made this decision much easier by engaging and challenging every member of our teams from day one.

3. Great team chemistry starts at the top.
Former Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni had struggled to get star forward Carmelo Anthony to distribute the ball instead of breaking plays to take shots. This tension ultimately led to D'Antoni's resignation, and the gradual decline of the team. In the agency world, managing star personalities is an important part of being a good leader. It's all about creating an environment where everyone is able to do what they do best as individuals, while solving for the greater good of the team. Unfortunately, NBA coaches don't have much clout when it comes to dealing with disruptive players. But agency leaders do, and should, by strongly championing their vision and values from the top down. This ensures that their guiding principles are reflected in the way their teams play the game.

Advertising has always been a team sport, but it's clearer than ever that the game has changed. Leaders who recognize the importance of team chemistry and take steps to nurture it at all levels will be the most successful in our rapidly changing industry.

Sharon Napier is CEO at Partners & Napier.
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