Growing up as a teenager in the 90s I was totally obsessed with basketball, which was strange for a couple of reasons; firstly I’m from the UK and it just wasn’t really a thing back then here, but also I was/am about 173cm (5ft 7), so hardly a baller.
Despite this, I was totally hooked. I played 3-4 times a week, watched every single Chicago Bulls game I could pick up in the UK, I stayed up all night to watch the play offs, and was in awe of everything Michael Jordan said and did. For me, he epitomises competitiveness, and his talent was like nothing I had seen or have seen since. I’ll never forget when he played a full game with flu back in June 1997 to overcome the Utah Jazz in Game 5. I remember thinking to myself: ‘how could someone who has achieved it all, summon up the determination to keep fighting?’. Safe to say I was blown away and inspired for life. In the summer of 2000 I finally got the chance to meet my hero at St Andrews in Scotland, fought my way to the front of a crowd and got his autograph along with a high five (or maybe a low five for him).
So why is all this relevant? Well, recently Netflix released the series ‘The Last Dance’, which is a documentary that covers Michael’s career and the journey the Chicago Bulls team went on to achieve the success they did over the course of a decade. It was released a week or two after lockdown and has been a weekly source of inspiration and motivation for me throughout this time.
It has reminded me of what I was so mesmerised by 20 years ago, but also introduced me to challenges that I never knew the team or Michael were going through. It has given me a lot of things to think about, such as principles for success, teamwork and cultivating a will to win. In the 90s, Michael and the team inspired me to dream, and in 2020 they have come back again to help me navigate one of toughest times business-wise I’ve seen during my career.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a bit of time to talk about some of the principles I’ve taken from the series so far, how it has helped my approach as a business owner, and how I have actually taken that back to my team.
Change a negative into a positive
In episode 7, Michael’s Dad is brutally murdered. He describes his relationship with him as ‘a mentor’ and ‘a best friend’, someone in who he confided about everything. Despite this, as early as the funeral, he remembered that he was taught that he needs to take even the worst situations and turn them into a positive. He took that opportunity to reflect on how his father had been able to see him achieve all his dreams, and that he’d seen him at his last game before his premature retirement in 1993.
Jordan’s response to this really resonated with me, as we navigate our way through one of the most challenging times professionally and personally in living memory. At the time of writing, we are in week 7 of a UK wide lockdown due to the coronavirus, and there is no getting away from the sheer level of negativity around us. It’s in the press, it’s on social media, it’s in our businesses and probably in our homes.
When the pandemic struck, there was so much out of our control. Businesses were shutting down, budgets were being pulled, and a lot of our day-to-day freedoms were being removed. The initial response to this was to be negative, and in some cases, full of self-pity. However, we decided very quickly as a team we would focus on the things we could control, and forget what we couldn’t. We began to put all of our energy into our marketing and thought leadership, and even dedicated some of our time to helping businesses free of charge. We decided to continue working with our clients, even if the budget had gone and day-to-day execution was no longer possible on their end. We felt strongly that this was the time to forge deeper relationships and develop trust with those we worked with. We launched a new website and rethought our proposition and brand. The team were unstoppable, and because of this, we have managed to deliver growth through this impossible period.
In times like these it is important to cultivate positivity, to celebrate the wins – no matter how small they are – and to create an environment that fosters growth. There is too much negativity in our industry, too much moaning, finger pointing and one upmanship. But it only exists because we as people tend to thrive on it, engage with it and unfortunately often support it. As long as I am privileged enough to lead the c3 team, we won’t be engaging or taking part in any negative social or marketing discussions, as it’s draining and uninspiring.
I have always been of the mindset ‘don’t worry about the competition, they’re not important’, and in my experience it can be an unnecessary distraction. However, I have completely reversed my thinking on this. Competition is good, as it drives, inspires, and pushes you to places you probably wouldn’t otherwise go.
In the series, this is something Michael is always doing, as he’s constantly asking: ‘who is the best, because I want to beat them’, and ‘who is the best team, they’re my next target’. He had respect for the teams and the players but ultimately, he wanted to outplay and outperform them in every area.
With basketball, the goal is simply to beat the competition, but this is slightly more complex as an agency. Competitors will differ depending on where we want to be, and the criteria we use to judge ourselves against will vary too. With that in mind, we sat down as a management team and discussed those competitors we most admired for a variety of reasons. This could be because of the culture, service proposition, marketing, headcount, or just pure P&L.
From this, we created three different leagues based on two year, four year, and six year goals. We decided to measure ourselves across revenue, headcount, PR, marketing and social activity. Independently, the metrics aren’t relevant, but I wanted to motivate the team to rise to the challenge posed by our competitors – not to copy or to be like them, but to use some common benchmarks to see where we stand against them.
So far so good, it certainly seems to have provided some motivation across the team and we’ll be checking in on it regularly to measure progress.
Winning as a team
We are not all the same, we have different abilities, different talents and different perspectives we bring to the table. It’s very easy for you to look at your strengths, and to judge others around you for not delivering to the same extent as you are. Eventually this turns to finger pointing, and always becomes toxic.
In episode one or two, the series made a very clear point. Michael Jordan was special, talented and determined. However, it was only when he learned to use his team members and their strength, that the team started to pick up trophies and truly dominate the NBA.
Likewise, we all need to identify, respect and use the skills and experience our teams possess. As long as we’re all aiming to get the ball in the basket, we can all contribute to the success of the business.
One of the things that really stood out to me in the series was the episode about Dennis Rodman. Safe to say he was different to the other players in many ways, and his job wasn’t the sexy one; he was there to defend and collect the rebounds, which he did better than anyone else in the league. As a result, he wasn’t always motivated to play or to give 100%, and he couldn’t talk himself into putting it all on the line every game like Michael Jordan could.
However, it struck me that he played at his best when he felt needed, specifically by Michael. There was a period in the early 90s where Scottie Pippen was out with an injury and Michael relied heavily on Dennis Rodman as his right-hand man. Dennis knew he was needed and was critical to the team, playing well and winning the game. He even said: ‘there was no one who could do what I do’.
As above, everyone brings unique skills into your business. They need to be recognised for them and more importantly, reminded of much they are needed to deliver on the vision for the business. When people feel needed and important to the success of a business, they will perform at a higher level and show insane levels of commitment.
Sometimes you have to be an ‘Asshole’
I think it’s fair to say that Michael Jordan wasn’t the easiest player to get on with in the team. He played the game at a certain level and he wanted his team to be at that level with him, even though talent-wise, they couldn’t reach that level, he still demanded they give it everything.
Playing at a higher level often means that you must be open to criticism. I’ve always believed in an open culture, and if something isn’t right, isn’t working or isn’t good enough, then it needs highlighting. The longer it takes to highlight something, the more damage it will do to the business. As long as criticisms are there to help the business and the people within it, and done to ‘lift’ rather than ‘demoralise’, then I am 100% behind things being raised and people being challenged to play at a higher level.
If you have big ambitions, you have to be playing at your highest level. As it says in the series: ‘success has a price’.
One of the reasons why Michael was able to get away with being almost militant with his teammates was because he never asked them to do anything he had not done before, or was not willing to do himself. This is a philosophy I have and will always live by.
In the first month of me taking on the role of CEO at Branded3, we had a huge project land on a team that was already stretched to the max. It was a link clean-up project and needed the entire team to make their way through hundreds of thousands of links and classify them. Naturally, I wanted the work and knew the revenue would be good business, but I also knew the team would be under serious pressure. After a discussion with them, we decided to do the work after hours, and myself included, we sat down for four nights straight classifying links. We delivered the project for our client, recovered their SEO visibility and created a client for life.
Leaders who bark orders without any understanding of the task in hand or a willingness to get in the trenches will never influence any organisation to achieve great things.
Creating slights to motivate
This is probably going to be more controversial and in all honestly, probably just a little bit of fun. In the series Michael would often invent stories to motivate himself. It might have been a player refusing to shake hands, someone laughing at a missed shot, or someone claiming they were the better team/player.
I’m not encouraging the construction of negative stories or pretending like the world has a problem with you, but going back to my initial principle, you should embrace competition.
Whilst Michael often fabricated these stories to help motivate himself or the team, I’ve taken a more realistic approach to this principle. Instead, when I see something a competitor has done that has worked well, I bring this back to the team, and encourage them to out-do it. With a very tangible example of someone doing something ‘better’ than us, in my experience I’ve found this really can motivate my team to perform and excel.
Overall, I really can’t describe the impact that this series and ultimately this approach has had on me, and it’s come at the perfect time for me and the business. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on the above, or the show and their approach to leadership and teamwork.