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DSI Experts Weigh in on Sixers Turnaround Strategy

Published: June 23, 2015

NBA Draft: Philly leadership consultants weigh in on Sixers turnaround plan

By Steven Krupp and Matt Acconciamessa

As draft day approaches, there is excitement among Sixers fans. Despite a decade of mediocrity and a near-historic losing streak, there is hope the franchise is poised for something big. Even outside observers, while never shy about mocking each loss and folly, are intrigued by the Sixers’ bold agenda to change their fortune.

The Sixers’ leaders have shown courage and vision to map out a long-term plan, ignore short-term pressure for quick fixes and stay agile. In their turnaround quest, they are essentially playing the long game, demonstrating a model for strategic leadership from which others can learn.

Envision the Future

Balancing short-term needs and long-term strategy is the bane of business leaders. Too often, organizations operate year to year without a clear North Star — overarching goals that guide action. Without a well-defined destination, long-term planning becomes difficult, and short-term thinking dominates. A compelling long-term vision allows leaders to break free of the rat race of seasonal or quarterly reporting to focus on winning the long game.

From the moment he came on board in 2013, Sixers General Manager Sam Hinkie has used terms like “investment for the future” and “long lens” when talking about player transactions. A Stanford MBA with a knack for analytics, Hinkie was not building a team to compete in 2013 or 2014 (or even 2015, for that matter), but rather a team that would be in a position to succeed years down the road, despite bumps along the way. As Hinkie said:

“What we look at is, how do we add to what we’re doing in a way that gets us closer to our goal? We don’t think that it will necessarily be linear — that every year you will add five wins and after 10 years you will get to 50. That’s not the way we think about the world. We think that it comes at fits and starts, and you have to be prepared to put yourself in a position that you might be able to make big leaps.”

With the endgame in mind, the Sixers are able to anticipate opportunities and weigh decisions accordingly.

Align Stakeholders Around a Central Vision

To get everyone on the same page, and moving in the same direction, leaders must diligently communicate to all layers of their enterprise, rally supporters and convince skeptics. A long-term turnaround is a rocky road with downs and ups before material progress is realized. To maintain morale and allay fears, leaders must encourage everyone to embrace the big picture.

For Hinkie, this has meant downstream communication to fans and head coach Brett Brown, as well as upstream communication to team ownership. Prior to Hinkie’s arrival, owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer (whose private equity firm specializes in turning around distressed assets) had gone through two general managers in their first two years in charge. For Hinkie to avoid becoming the third to fall by the wayside, it was pivotal that he clearly articulate his plan and get his bosses on board from day one.

Make Tough Decisions, but Keep Options Open

The challenge of playing the long game is sticking with it when progress is slow — or when you must take backward steps as pieces are put into place. Whether due to the impatience of shareholders or risk aversion in the face of an uncertain future, strategic leaders can get axed before they turn the corner. They need courage to stay the course with the knowledge that breakthroughs are rarely linear in nature.

Despite meager crowds, Hinkie has stuck to his plan with patience and support from ownership. This meant making bold decisions, such as the trade that sent reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams to Milwaukee, all while maintaining optionality through salary cap flexibility and a bevy of stockpiled draft picks. Meanwhile, he has given Coach Brown the rope necessary to develop his players without feeling the heat to rapidly increase the team’s win total. This alignment of owners, GM and coach has also allowed the Sixers to take a cautious, patient approach to the injuries of Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel, who are viewed as key assets in the future of the franchise.

Create a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Given the twists and turns of the long road, it is important that leaders instill a sense of progress and improvement to keep stakeholders motivated. Celebrating small victories is critical. By recognizing accomplishments and learnings — which can come from mistakes or failures — leaders can build a positive environment that supports their ultimate vision.

For the Sixers, Coach Brown has been the champion of fostering a positive setting for players, many of whom are young and at critical junctures in their development. Having served on the coaching staff of the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, Brown has sought to inculcate a culture of continuous improvement, leveraging the innate drive of his up-and-comers, who play with an energy and passion that belies their record. As reported from a Sixers practice:

“The players whooped and hollered when their teams made a shot, and argued over foul calls like they were in a playground pickup game. It was a happy gym. If you just listened to the sounds, you would have thought the Sixers were a winning team.”

Once the Sixers turn the corner, this culture will be important in influencing the behavior of players and management alike in the quest for the franchise’s first championship since 1983.

Although the Sixers’ plan may not lead to a title, they should be commended for the steps they’ve taken in pursuit of the long game. They are modeling the disciplines of strategic leadership and are a test case from which we can learn, regardless of their fortune and our own basketball passions.

Some of the concepts and examples in this article were adapted from “Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future” by Steven Krupp and Paul J.H. Schoemaker (PublicAffairs, 2014).

See the original article.