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I’m a Raptors fan and like many other Canadians, I was crushed by the playoff elimination at the hands of King LeBron. There’s been excitement about basketball before in Toronto, but this year it was different. A NBA Championship seemed like a distinct possibility.

Reality hit hard and even though the outcome isn’t what we had hoped for, the evolution of this team has been nothing short of amazing. The Raptors Management made some important choices twelve months ago that set the path to a successful year.

What can your business learn from a NBA team that just fell from glory? Regardless of the role you have at your organization, the story of the Raptors holds some important lessons. Let’s explore them.

A publicly stated “culture reset” 

Toronto had a good team with two notable all-stars (Lowry and DeRozan) anchoring their line-up. After last year’s playoff disaster, it was clear that wasn’t enough.  Raptors President Masai Ujiri publicly stated in May 2017 that the team needed a culture reset.

“ We are going to hold everybody accountable because we need to. … there’s been some success, but at the end of the day we are trying to win a championship here.…Now we have to figure out how we can win in the playoffs. That’s the goal.”

The goal was clearly stated in a public forum. He didn’t fire coaches or make any blockbuster trades. Instead he addressed attitude and behaviours. The team focused on the themes of accountability and communication. Everyone was held to the same standard and egos had to be checked at the door.

That’s an interesting concept isn’t it? Attracting talent and then deliberately investing in “how” they work together. This is more than meeting once a year, doing individual assessments and sharing your results. This is a deliberate investment in time to explore core values and define the behaviours that match those values. What approach is taken in your organization? How much time is invested into how you work together? We can be quick to make assumptions on individual performance when all that is required is a mechanism to hold them accountable.

Aligning behaviours and being accountable

The Raptors battle cry for the 2017/18 reflected their new attitude adjustment – North over EverythingWhile it might not have been a fan favourite like “We the North”, this new motto represented their collective commitment. And look at the regular season results:

  • 1st in the NBA Eastern Conference
  • 1st in the Atlantic Division
  • A franchise record of season wins.

Those are some amazing accomplishments. Let’s not forget about the strength of the bench either. They were young and inexperienced but many nights they outperformed starting lineups. This year it truly was a team effort.

What the Raptors did was simple really. They shifted the mindset from “me” to “we”.  They acknowledged values that were meaningful to the team (not just the superstars), identified behaviours that aligned to these values and then held each other accountable. What did that translate to?

  • Practice was more disciplined and everyone arrived on time. It seems simple enough but spoke volumes. All players were being treated equally.
  • Each player set personal training goals for strength and conditioning. They were rigorously monitored and extra work was required if they were behind. As a result, everyone met their individual goals.
  • For away games, they shifted the routine around on game day so that media was done before morning shoot-around. This way the team left practice on the bus together.

You might be asking what this has to do with your organization? Everything.

Defining values and behaviours is a critical step for any group looking to achieve something together. Do you have sales goals to meet? An objective to reach? If so, then you need the collective performance of everyone, not just the CEO or high-potential superstars. Once you create the goals, spend time aligning on “how” you will work together to achieve it. This is the catalyst that will keep the team focused and successful.

Aligning on goals and values can’t be understated. Unfortunately, many organizations simply assume the alignment is there. You need to give it deliberate attention and embed accountability mechanisms, just like the Raptors did.

The true test of your culture is when things don’t go as planned

If you’ve watched professional sports or played competitively yourself, you know that playoffs are completely different than the regular season. The pressure mounts in unique ways and performance in the regular season becomes irrelevant.  Just ask the Raptors. They believed they could make it to the NBA Finals and started out strong in the first round of playoffs. Then, King LeBron showed up in all his majestic and super-human glory. In Toronto, we were all pretty certain the path to glory would go through Cleveland but we remained hopeful, until the buzzer went at the end of game 1.

Adversity is tough to face and realistically not everyone comes out on top. Sorry Raptors, once again the King outperformed and your ultimate goal was missed.  Even with a gritty, tenacious and admirable playoff performance, it just wasn’t enough. Let’s be clear though, Lebron is a force that can oust any team when he shows up like that.

In business, market forces can be powerful and they will challenge your company. There are elements out of your control and bad things will happen. What you can control is how the company responds to it. It’s during these tough times that a company’s culture really shows up – and it will define your success. If values and behaviours are truly aligned, the company can weather the storm together.

Many of the clients I start working with believe they are values-based because they have defined values and communicated them to the employees.

It’s a good start but it’s not enough. Time needs to be invested ensuring there is alignment in the values and together articulating what the values look like in action. This is a critical step so people can hold each other accountable. This is precisely what the Raptors did this season.

Make sure your expectations are realistic

Toronto fans were optimistic and wanted to believe in the dream of winning an NBA Championship, or at least defeating the Cavaliers. It was going to be a long-shot. The Raptors had the youngest line-up in the playoffs and the Cavs had veterans with extensive playoff experience. They simply dominated once the tides shifted at the end of Game 1. Experience truly is priceless.

What can we learn from this? Teams need a blend of talent – young and experienced – if they are going to overcome challenges. The Raptors needed a veteran leader to anchor them, keep them focused and push them through. Unfortunately, their lineup lacked the leadership and experience they needed to overcome that devastating 4th quarter of Game 1. A few tweaks to the Raptors line-up are needed for next year but nothing major. This team’s culture was the cornerstone of success and they can build upon it for next year.

I’ll admit that I’m not looking forward to watching the next round of playoffs but the sting will subside soon. I would like to thank the Raptors for a fantastic season and for teaching us some important lessons that can translate into any workplace. Culture matters. Values and behaviours need to be defined collective to embed accountability and teams need a blend of diverse talent.

There’s always next year! Yes, we are used to saying that in Toronto 🙂

Carolyn is the owner of Pinnacle Culture. If this read has piqued your interest and you would like to discuss culture in your workplace (or what the Raptors need to do for next season) then please reach out. There are many ways to connect …. via her website, LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram.

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