If you've read anything about the Philadelphia 76ers recently, it was probably written at their expense. At the start of the 2014–15 NBA season, Vegas' over-under for Sixer victories was 16.5 games. Lowest in the league. Scratch that: lowest for any NBA team in the past decade.
But while the haters hate, the Sixers have been quietly going about their business. And, believe it or not, they are doing some kinda amazing work. Three quarters of the way into the season, the Sixers do NOT have the worst record in the NBA (they don't even have the worst record in their division). And while I'm 100% sure most NBA fans just snarted at the suggestion that the Sixers deserve praise - because, yeah, their record is still quite dismal-they ARE beating the odds, and it's no accident.
So, how are they doing it? They're beating the odds because some really clever and hard working people are finding ways to over-achieve.
Cut to my professional life ... my "team" is trying to beat the odds, too, by building something new that people will use, like, and pay their hard earned monies for. This sounds familiar to anyone leading a startup. What may feel unfamiliar - nay, downright surprising-is that I've found as much inspiration and wisdom in studying the Sixers as I have in any startup blog or mooc.
I know, I know. Hear me out.
Lesson No. 1: "Culture" is jargon for caring a lot
You might think that playing for the most mocked team in the NBA would break one's spirit. But damned if the Sixers don't play their hearts out.
"You can question my shooting. You can question my ceiling. Just don't question if I'm giving my all every single night. Don't talk to me about tanking." - Ex-Sixer Michael Carter-Williams
Now, you can call it marketing, but it's not just marketing; Carter-Williams speaks the truth. I go to the games. These guys Play. Their. Hearts. Out. They surprise other teams by caring so much. They fight their way into the lead against teams that have cut players who would be instant Sixers starters. And win or lose, Philly's players keep their chins up, smiles on their faces (usually), and support each other with a consistency and potency that genuinely warms the heart.
Entrepreneur types like to talk about the importance of great "company culture." They (we?) also like to point out that this ethos means a lot more than just setting up a company ping pong table. Snart! Clearly culture is more than the opportunity to play table sports at work?!!
So what does company culture mean?
The answer often seems pretty hand-wavy for something so damned important. And yesterday, listening to Sixers coach Brett Brown talk about his team, it struck me: culture is just a code word for caring a lot. For passion and aspiration. For dedication and ownership. It doesn't matter whether you're more of a "dog company" (as Google self-identified) or a "cat company"; it doesn't matter whether you have a kegerator or a juicebar. That stuff's fun. But these fringe benefits are definitively NOT why "culture" lands on everyone's list of most important startup concerns. These benefits are, at best, mere mechanisms for nurturing a culture of ownership and caring.
Lesson No. 2: Vision trumps
Establishing a habit of 'no' is a celebrated maxim of effective entrepreneurialism. It's sort of about time management but, more than that, it's about avoiding knee-jerk reactionism; about privileging vision and long term goals over the never ending stream of distractions.
Has any entity practiced this maxim as daringly as the Sixers in the Sam Hinkie era? Their vision is to craft a championship team -- a team with enough stars to be best team in the NBA -- that can compete for multiple seasons in a row. Each and every decision is made to that end. If a player is good and well liked, but not essential to that vision (because he's not good enough, or simply because of tactical considerations like contract, fit, etc..), the Sixers are willing to trade that player for a future asset that has a shot at helping to enable the overall vision.
Yet the organization takes a TON of abuse for it. From fans and non-fans alike. It's painful at times. People took the Michael Carter-Williams trade personally.
Entrepreneurs call these "hard decisions." Ability to manage these hard decisions if often the difference between startup success and failure. The Sixers are walking the walk. (If Philadelphia fails to craft a championship-caliber team over the next five years, this lesson shall be deleted in its entirety and I will deny it ever existed.)
Lesson No. 3: Honestly positive leadership
Please let me take this moment to introduce you to Brett Brown, my favorite sports coach anywhere.
Player Malcolm Thomas once said, "I've never met anybody more positive than Coach Brown." As a fan who is invested in the team, I'd echo that sentiment. The man's positivity is downright contagious.
After each Sixers home game, I race back to the car to flip the radio on, just to listen to Brown give his post-game press conference. He always finds a way to thank the fans, but never in a cloying or put-on way. He supports his players, but never disingenuously.
It's precisely because Brown avoids blowing smoke up his audience's bottoms, he succeeds so wildly at giving his audience hope. He doesn't insult our intelligence; he admits when something is risky, or sad, or disappointing. But, dagnabbit, all of this honesty comes with an authentic belief in his team. He's basically the Sixers' No. 1 fan.
It's tempting to describe this as a balancing act; to argue that Brown is masterful at balancing honesty with optimism. But I think that would be entirely wrong. It suggests that he's navigating a trade-off.
The magic in Brett Brown's leadership style is that there is no trade-off between positivity and honesty. His authenticity and his enthusiasm are two sides of the same Brett Brown coin.
This, I think, is the essence of that-thing-you-can't-put-your-finger-on about great leadership. I don't know how you learn it. Maybe you just have to unlearn all of the crap you thought you knew about salesmanship and self-editing. I don't know. But next time I have to prepare board slides or a customer pitch or a team pep talk, I'm going to prep my brain by listening to some Brett Brown press conferences.
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Sports PotW for 3/9
What startups can learn from the Philadelphia 76ers
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MARCH 2: Kevin Garnett #21 of the Minnesota Timberwolves puts powder on his hands before entering the game against the Los Angeles Clippers on March 2, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)
Boston Red Sox's Mookie Betts looks for a call as Minnesota Twins third baseman Heiker Meneses holds the ball in his glove in the seventh inning of a spring training baseball game in Fort Myers Fla., Saturday March 7, 2015. Betts reached third safely on a triple off of Twins reliever Ryan Pressly in the 4-2 Red Sox win. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Toronto Raptors' Tyler Hansbrough, right, blocks a shot by Philadelphia 76ers' JaKarr Sampson during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, March 2, 2015, in Philadelphia. Toronto won 114-103. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
FILE - In this March 8, 2015 file photo Roma's Juan Manuel Iturbe, right, and Chievo Verona's Ivan Radovanovic vie for the ball during a Serie A soccer match at the Bentegodi stadium in Verona, Italy. (AP Photo/Felice Calabro', file)
Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) is fouled by Phoenix Suns forward Marcus Morris (15) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game, Monday, March 2, 2015, in Miami. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 2: Goalie Corey Crawford #50 of the Chicago Blackhawks eyes the puck during the NHL game against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 02, 2015 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
AMES, IA - MARCH 2: Frank Booker #1 of the Oklahoma Sooners is fouled by Georges Niang #31 of the Iowa State Cyclones as he takes a three point shot in the second half of play at Hilton Coliseum on March 2, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State defeated Oklahoma 77-70. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
Crystal Palaceâs Yannick Bolasie, top, collides with Southamptonâs Maya Yoshida during the English Premier League soccer match between Southampton and Crystal Palace, at St Mary's stadium in Southampton, England, Tuesday, March, 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL - MARCH 06: Eric Young Jr. #4 of the Atlanta Braves dives for a fly ball during the fifth inning of a spring training game against the Washington Nationals at Champion Stadium on March 6, 2015 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Texas forward Myles Turner, front, comes down with a rebound against Kansas State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Austin, Texas. Texas won 62-49. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - MARCH 08: MXGP riders race during the MXGP on March 8, 2015 in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images)
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - MARCH 06: (EDITORS NOTE: This image was created with a fish eye lens) Kirsten McAslan of Great Britain & Northern Ireland competes in the Women's 400 metres rounds during day one of the 2015 European Athletics Indoor Championships at O2 Arena on March 6, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
DUNEDIN, FL - MARCH 3: Mel Rojas Jr. #81 of the Pittsburgh Pirates dives but is unable to catch a fly ball in center field during the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on March 3, 2015 in Dunedin, Florida. The Pirates defeated the Blue Jays 8-7. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MARCH 5: Josh Jooris #86 of the Calgary Flames scores in a shoot-out against Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on March 5, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Texas' Isaiah Taylor, left, and Baylor's Royce O'Neale, right, chase a loose ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, March 2, 2015, in Austin, Texas. Texas won 61-59 in overtime. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Atlanta Braves' Phil Gosselin follows through on a swing during batting practice in the cage at a spring training baseball workout, Monday, March 2, 2015, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Temple guards Quenton DeCosey (25), Jaylen Bond (15) and Josh Brown (1) reach for a rebound with Connecticut forward Kentan Facey (12), rear, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
DUNEDIN, FL - MARCH 3: A group of Toronto Blue Jays players try to stay cool in the shade before the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on March 3, 2015 in Dunedin, Florida. The Pirates defeated the Blue Jays 8-7. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
LAWRENCE, KS - MARCH 03: The Kansas Jayhawks pose with the trophy after defeating the West Virginia Mountaineers to win the game and clinch an eleventh-straight Big IX Championship title at Allen Fieldhouse on March 3, 2015 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 06: Horses race in the Greenlane Cup HCP Trot during the New Zealand Trotting Cup at Alexandra Park on March 6, 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 05: (EDITORS NOTE: Image was created using multiple exposure in camera) Lin Dan of China in action as he beats Tian Houwei of China in the men's singles during day three of YONEX All England Open Badminton Championships at Birmingham Barclaycard Arena on March 5, 2015 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Tom Gilbert, right, scores on Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, March 5, 2015, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 08: Duncan Keith #2 of the Chicago Blackhawks sails over teammate Cory Crawford #50 during a game against the New York Rangers at the United Center on March 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
BRADFORD, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Billy Knott of Bradford City strikes the ball as Daniel Williams of Reading closes in during the FA Cup Quarter Final match between Bradford City and Reading at the Coral Windows Stadium, Valley Parade on March 7, 2015 in Bradford, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Nebraska guard Shavon Shields looks to the referee for a ruling during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Maryland, Sunday, March 8, 2015, in Lincoln, Neb. Maryland won 64-61. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
BOSTON, MA - MARCH 07: Loui Eriksson #21 congratulates Brad Marchand #63 of the Boston Bruins after he scored a goal in the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers, sending the game into overtime at TD Garden on March 7, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Bruins defeated the Flyers 3-2. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
LEXINGTON, KY - MARCH 07: Dakari Johnson #44 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball while defended by Dorian Finney-Smith #10 and Alex Murphy #5 of the Florida Gators during the game at Rupp Arena on March 7, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
FILE - In this March 8, 2015 file photo FC Barcelona's Luis Suarez, from Uruguay, reacts after scoring against Rayo Vallecano during a Spanish La Liga soccer match at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, file)
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - MARCH 06: (L-R) Cindy Roleder of Germany, Isabelle Pedersen of Norway, Alina Talay of Belarus, Serita Solomon of Great Britain & Northen Ireland, Nooralotta Neziri of Finland, Lucy Hatton of Great Britain & Northen Ireland, Hanna Plotitsyna of Ukraine, Andrea Ivancevic of Croatia leave the blocks at the start of the Women's 60 metres Hurdles during day one of the 2015 European Athletics Indoor Championships at O2 Arena on March 6, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 7: Goaltender Semyon Varlamov #1 of the Colorado Avalanche is snowed by Scott Hartnell #43 of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tyson Barrie #4 of the Colorado Avalanche after covering the puck during the first period on March 7, 2015 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Maryland guard Brene Moseley, top, celebrates with teammates after Maryland defeated Ohio State 77-74 in an NCAA college basketball game in the final of the Big Ten Conference tournament in Hoffman Estates, Ill., on Sunday, March 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)