Company Culture

What The NBA Draft Can Teach Us About Building A Better Sales Organization


So your team had another tough season, huh? You didn’t post the numbers you were hoping for, you didn’t achieve some of the goals you had targeted, and you’re starting to get the feeling your fanbase—er, the people to whom you are fiscally responsible—are starting to get a little annoyed.

What if one night could change all of that? That seems to be the promise of the NBA draft, year in and year out. It’s the capstone to the season—a chance for teams and their fans to head into the summer with some hope of a change for next year. But inevitably more teams leave disappointed than excited.

Whether you’re a fan who’s worried about your franchise, or a GM who knows she needs to make some serious moves this offseason, here are four real lessons you can take away from the NBA draft as you try to build a better sales organization and turn your business into the dynasty you know it can be.

Changing Your Office Culture Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Have you been starting to get the feeling that the culture in your office is that of a losing organization? Do you feel like folks don’t have the right sense of drive or engagement? Are your salespeople just plain old not winning? The first step is identifying the problem.

For NBA teams, it’s easy to let the years dictate your reputation. Constant attention from the press, endless analysis and stat breakdowns, all coupled with personalities of your players leads to one kind of culture or another: the winners and the losers.

Fans often make the mistake of thinking that Draft Night is a golden ticket: if things go well, everything’s going to turn around. But that’s simply not true.

Let’s start with this author’s favorite team: The New York Knicks. The last few years have not delivered very stellar records for the Knickerbockers—which subsequently has left them with a top-ten draft pick several times. And yet, none of those draft nights has been the singular reason they’ve turned themselves into a Championship team.

In fact, they aren’t a championship team. Struggle has simply begotten more struggle.

For the Knicks, every fan has a theory why they aren’t able to turn their culture around—but none would say it’s just about good or bad luck on draft night. Our last great draft pick was Patrick Ewing in 1985. To fix an organization’s culture, you have to start from the top down: it’s about coupling great leadership with smart personnel decisions. And if management isn’t making the right calls, you’ve got to know when it’s time to show them the door.  

One Great Talent Won’t Solve All Your Problems

Now, let’s take this analogy out west to sunny Los Angeles and a young up-and-comer named Lebron James.

This isn’t about knocking Lebron’s talent. He’s one of the greatest to ever play the game, as a matter of fact. But you wouldn’t be alone in believing that talent so great could go to any team he wants and immediately turn that organization into a championship contender. That’s certainly what Lakers fans thought.

But the truth is you can’t put the burden of your organization’s future on one great hire. This season, Lebron absolutely had his moments of greatness. But he also had some unexpected injuries. That total dependence on his superstar abilities left Los Angeles without a spot in the playoffs—something that could have been expected if you looked at the rest of his team’s performance.

If you’re waiting for that silver-bullet sales person, you’re going to be waiting a long time. Rather than hoping that free agent comes along to rescue you, start to develop smart hiring practices that create a culture of winning. Find folks at every talent level who are willing to do the hard work, develop their skills, and work toward the shared goals of your organization.

People Want To Work Where They Can Win

The other half of draft season is all the time spent speculating what free agents around the league are going to do once draft picks are set and the top talent gets distributed. Whatever the speculation may be, it always comes down to this: top-tier free agents want to go to teams where they can be winners.

While draft picks often go to low performing teams, and those talented young players have no say in the matter, free agents never intentionally sign up for a bad organization. Plain and simple, you’re not going to see Kevin Durant go sign a big contract with the Phoenix Suns this year.

Sales people are the same way. If they know that they’re not going to be set up for success at your organization, it doesn’t really matter what your benefits package looks like—because it’s not going to help them grow and achieve their maximum goals.

Instead, you need to develop policies and an environment where every single sales person can challenge themselves, lift each other up, and shatter their old records.

Competition & Incentives Work

In the NBA, the system of incentives is pretty cut and dry: if you play well, and help get your team to a championship, you’re going to be able to turn around and sign a better contract down the road—whether it’s with that team or someone else. It’s about winning.

Without that prospect of a championship, the NBA would be extremely boring—and most players would probably just take their paychecks and go home. We wouldn’t see the sort of greatness that gets exerted in these late springs and early summer months, when teams are vying for the chance at greatness.

Don’t deny your salespeople that same opportunity. Whether you’re giving them a leaderboard to compete on, or you’re offering a great vacation package to the top performer, it’s profoundly important to give your salespeople incentives and opportunities to compete that allow them to see beyond just punching the clock every day.

When faced with the opportunity, you never know where greatness might shine through.