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Atlanta Hawks: A case study on engagement, teamwork, leadership

Ten years ago, picture this scene:

I’m sitting with friends in a mostly-empty Phillips Arena to watch the Atlanta Hawks play the Boston Celtics. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. We weren’t really there to watch the game. We were there to get autographs from players, to hang out in freely-upgraded seats near the court (to try to mask the poor attendance to television viewers), and to troll the opponents as they walked to and from the locker room. Tickets were only $10, so it was a pretty cheap way to waste a Friday night in high school. The Hawks lost by 20. But to look on the bright side, Hawks employees gave us a box of inflatable thunder sticks (inflatable noisemakers) to take home. By the end of the season, the Hawks had won 13 games, and we’d won four boxes of thunder sticks and several items of game worn memorabilia — five shoes, two headbands, and a sock.

The NBA is a glamorous TV product that is played by some of the best athletes on the planet. But in Atlanta, the team was so bad that most of the “crowd” (and I use that term loosely) had to find ways outside the court’s lines to entertain themselves. If you did focus on the game, it was ugly. Not only did the team rack up poor results, but the quality of the play was terrible. Lots of standing around. Lots of one-on-one offense. And lots of complaining by players and coaches, which lead to the same by the fans.

Skip ahead to today, where the Hawks have the best record in the Eastern Conference and are the only team to have punched their ticket for the playoffs with a hefty 18 games still remaining in the regular season. They produced four all-stars — a club record. They’ve had a 19 game winning streak, tied for the sixth longest in NBA history. I never would have believed such success was possible 10 years ago.

The credit has to go to Head Coach Mike Budenholzer and the players who have adopted his “team first” mentality. His leadership is a perfect example to any leader in any walk of life on how to turn a team into something greater than the sum of its parts. The newly found success of the team is rooted in this philosophy. For example, instead of letting players pick their lockers, or ordering them numerically or alphabetically, “Coach Bud” strategically sat each player next to one teammate they could influence and one who could influence them. He instituted team dinners after road games. The examples go on, but maybe nothing signifies the adoption of his methods more than this excerpt reported by SI.com’s Lee Jenkins:

 “Everyone is part of the shot,” [shooting guard Kyle] Korver says. “Everyone matters, and if you feel like you matter, you take ownership.”

That’s engagement, folks. Engagement isn’t about how fun your job is or how often you talk to your boss. It’s about your employees knowing that they matter. Employees who feel valued are more productive and happy people. This is what every boss should aim for, not just the ones on the hardcourt.

If you’re a business owner or you lead a team, take notes from Coach Bud. Think about the little things. Heck, even team meals and seating arrangements apply to many offices. Engage your team and you might discover that you have more all-stars than you thought.