The only constant is change. That statement has never been truer for AOL’s team than in the past 18 months. But all along, one framework has stood strong, and it didn’t come from a marketing and communications mentor. It came from legendary NBA player and coach Phil Jackson.
Jackson has won more NBA championships than any coach in the history of the sport. His approach to basketball combines fast-paced competitive play and Eastern philosophy, and it has earned him the nickname Zen Master. This nickname and my love for basketball drew me to Jackson’s work many years ago. I was fascinated by how he unleashed the most ambitious and high-performing talent while avoiding unproductive intra-team competition, entitlement, or inflated egos. So much of Jackson’s approach to basketball seemed that it could be applied to business—particularly, the “triangle offense.”
Change is obviously happening everywhere. The industry landscape is fluid, dynamic, and can completely reconfigure itself in the blink of an eye. Our challenge as leaders is to build and lead teams that can drive results, be agile, take smart risks, and compete aggressively, all while staying sane and compassionate. Sadly, there is something in our DNA that tempts us to behave in ways we’re not proud of: being selfish, taking self-congratulatory victory laps, hoarding information, or engaging in malicious politicking. Humans seem especially vulnerable to bad behavior while we are in our most competitive mindsets.
The triangle helps create room for competitiveness and consciousness to thrive without sacrificing any of the ferocity of team members. When these qualities peak simultaneously, teams become unstoppable. Keep in mind the following:
1. Create Space For Growth And Risk
Some days you are at the top of the key, and some days you are deep in the post. All members on the team must be able to realize where they’ll be most effective at any given time, be open to disruptive thinking and new challenges, and confident in their ability to perform in varying positions. You must make sure people aren’t confined and are given room to move around and grow.
Growth and movement are much more about the day to day than the job title. When team members are pushed to execute on things outside their comfort zones, they build risk resiliency and achieve higher levels of teamwork with every project. Show team members how to be comfortable with discomfort, and they will grow and learn and thrive.
2. Constant Movement (And Failure) As A Path To Trust
In a triangle offense, the ball moves constantly. This doesn’t happen without trust; leadership must work hard to establish and constantly reaffirm trust so that we can achieve this speed and fluidity. This is particularly challenging in times of significant change, when it often feels like everything is a drop-it-all emergency. There is really no alternative but to trust others around when demands are huge and the pace is quick. Trust is easy when everything is humming along; trust after a dropped ball is not. In fact, after a dropped ball or missed pass, we must double down on the team and go at it again. This breeds teamwork, which, in turn, breeds individual confidence, which ultimately drives overall performance and builds enduring trust—all while putting points on the board.
3. High Versatility To Achieve Presence
Adapting to constant change can be exhausting and can wear people down. What we’ve found is that if we actually give permission to shorten planning cycles in times of dramatic change and transition, the teamwork and the drive from competitive team members kicks in at a new level. People are energized when they crush expectations and surprise the market in both strategy and results. The main requirement in thriving under this tumult is extreme presence.
By “presence,” I mean being focused and not multitasking in meetings. But most importantly, this means living in the current moment and not being scared by anticipation of future events over which we have no control: Right Now and Nothing Else. Write it on the whiteboard, or keep it as your background. To meet an intense benchmark in a very short cycle, we have no choice but to be present.
4. Promote Growth
Some criticize the triangle offense, saying it’s only as effective as the weakest player. My advice: Make your so-called weakest player stronger than anyone else’s. Grow people first, and the company will follow. Every team member is expected to learn about and know the entire business, not just the people who run the departments, but exactly how those different parts run. An educated team is an empathetic team. When we understand what our peers arechallenged with, we’re much more likely to try offering helpful solutions, growing our market value by expanding our knowledge set, and much less likely to stand back and complain or even posture for position over a perceived weakness.
Perhaps my favorite Jackson quote for times of great change and transition: “Surrender the me for the we.” As a leader and team member, your primary obligation is to behave in a way you can be proud of and set an egoless example that competitiveness and consciousness can coexist to make the team and every individual stronger as a result, even in the most furious battles.