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6 Business Lessons from Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks

The coming out party for Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks is now official, as last night they rolled up Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat to take the NBA finals in 6 games.  The story lines in this series ranged from Lebron gone missing in the fourth quarter of much of the finals to Nowitzki playing with a 101 fever and a sinus infection in one of the games.  In fact the Mavericks were a fascinating watch all through the overdrawn NBA playoffs, as they impress you as a throwback, seemingly the oldest team playing professional basketball.  Chalk one up for those old geezers, by NBA standards, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry.

So why I am writing about this in a business blog?  Well, sports have long served as metaphors for business because of how simple things tend to be in sports.  Business has so much noise that we often lose the essence of what is important.  Here are six lessons to be learned from Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks:

Stay the Course

Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry lost the NBA Finals, ironically enough, to these same Miami Heat five years ago in 2006, blowing a 2-0 series lead and surrendering four consecutive defeats and suffering the gut wrenching feeling of watching their opponent celebrate on Dallas’ home floor.  Nowitzki talked about how he lived with that every night for the last five years.

Flash forward to June 12, 2011 and the Mavericks turned the tables, celebrating their 4-2 series win on the home floor of the most overhyped team in sports history.  For the past few years, Dallas dealt with other embarrassing playoff losses, got bounced from round 1 of the playoffs a few years ago by a bottom seed, yet through it all never faded into the abyss of irrelevancy.  To his credit, eclectic owner Mark Cuban changed coaches and re-arranged the furniture of players multiple times around the centerpiece of Nowitzki until he caught lightning in a bottle and forever changed the franchise.

In business, small business in particular, there are many times as an owner you’ll suffer defeat and embarrassment to the point where you just want to chuck it all, sell the business and go retire, tail firmly tucked between legs.  Sticking it out is tough to do, especially with the well-meaning advice from family and loved ones who tell you as an entrepreneur to go get a real job.  Keep chopping away at the basic elements of your business that make you special and unique, and eventual success becomes an inevitable, non-surprising outcome of the hard work.

Make Adjustments

The knock on the Mavericks going back to the Steve Nash years was that they could put up a lot of points but had a porous defense.  Their game scores would be in the 120-111 neighborhood, with the gameplan to outscore the other guys.  Enter Rick Carlisle, one of the those changes that Cuban made, with a renewed focus on turning a team many said could not play defense into a defensive force.  Out of six games in the series and two regular season meetings, only once did Miami eclipse the century mark (103 in game 5 won by Dallas).  That says a lot about the wholesale change in philosophy that Carlisle was able to make on this team.

While staying the course in your business, you may have to question some very basic assumptions about what you can and cannot do or should and should not do, and change accordingly.  That may be to enter or leave a niche market, totally change your product line, or anything else.  If the changes necessary are consistent with your values for the business, anything is fair game.

Change the Game

Despite Carlysle’s musings during their playoff run, Dirk Nowitzki is not one of the top 5 players in NBA history.  The competition is just too steep  with the legendary achievements of others.  He may be the best seven-footer to ever play shooting forward though!  Instead of a big, clunky lummox in the game to take up space, Nowitski offered speed to the basket, ball-handling skills, and a ridiculous shooting touch that has now set a new bar for NBA general managers seeking forwards.  To his credit, Lebron James is also establishing a prototype of the uber-athlete point forward.  Notoriety that came from these Finals will most certainly trickle to the schoolyards and pickup games where the next generation of league stars is formed, with little kids wanting to be like Dirk and favoring the swish over the slam dunk.

One of the best ways to succeed in small business is to similarly change the playing field, do something that no one else has been doing or even considered, and do it better than everyone else.  This is how breakthrough products like the fax machine and iPod come about, yet it doesn’t have to be confined to products.  It can be setting a new standard in process, delivery, or some other benefit that customers were not demanding (market driven) but knew it when they saw it.  The key question you might want to ask for your business is:

“What challenge in our industry have people been accustomed to living with, that if it were to change would revolutionize things?”

Elevate Others

Guys like Nowitzki, Jordan, and yes, James are all great scorers, but their ability to pass and draw traffic away from teammates creates stars and makes careers as the other guys get their 15 minutes of glory.  You may be a star in your  company, but if you’re a one man band you may never be able to get over the top and get the brass ring.  Your ability to get role players in your company involved in meaningful work, instruct others, and successfully delegate stuff that you can do but shouldn’t be doing will multiply your impact on the business.  That’s why great CEOs of America’s leading companies get paid so much more money than everyone else in the company.  The ability to leverage the talent around you is fundamental to success whether that talent is on staff or outsourced.

Seek Trusted Counsel

If you watched any of the Dallas Mavericks playoff games including the finals, you saw that ABC had some interesting human interest pieces about a guy named Holger Geschwindner, Dirk Nowitzki’s long time mentor and personal coach.  When Nowitzki hoisted up the trophy last night, an emotional Geschwindner was caught on camera in the stands.  Nowitzki realized that no matter how good he was, there was always the ability to get better, and for that he needed an entrusted coach to see what he couldn’t see in order to improve.

Today in business, particularly for small businesses where owners are so busy with the day to day theatre that they have little time for anything else, a myopia occurs where we become isolated and turn inward only for all the answers.  Top business leaders have a coach or get involved in Mastermind Groups in order to get that needed third party perspective, candid feedback and correction, and advice that gets them through sticking points and generates success.

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Small Business advice is closer than you think

Take the High Road

LeBron James and Dwayne Wade pretty much flipped the bird to the karma forces in nature a few days ago when they clowned for the cameras and made sport of Nowitzki’s illness in game 4.  It made big news and, as poetic justice goes, Miami lost the next two games and the series.  Nowitzki was understandably ticked off about having his manhood called into question with the suggestion of a faked injury, and vented as much as he would ever do with about 2 sentences to the media.  What many don’t know is that Nowitzki put a gag order on his teammates, many of whom were chomping at the bit to come to his defense.  Dirk didn’t want the distraction on something as meaningless as these antics and did not step into the arena of mud and retaliate, except of course in the fourth quarter of the final two games of the series.

You will face similar distractions as you run your business, often in the form of ethical choices that have a short term gain that may be game changing, but come at a long term cost that might be totally destructive.  Once I faced the dilemma of risking a 7-figure sale for my company for a customer from Europe who unabashedly asked us to provide duplicate invoices, one being much lower, in order to defraud his homeland’s government of collected taxes, all as a stipulation of getting the highly sought after business.  That sale was critical to making payroll and the cash flow of our business, and taking exception to that request was a character stand I felt we just had to make.  We got the business and much more anyway and our company president was able to look himself in the mirror everyday without regret.

Business isn’t sports, but this most recent NBA finals provided plenty of instruction for small and large businesses alike if you were paying attention.  What you learn and apply rests solely with you.

Feel free to post comments and observations below.

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  1. Mike O'Horo June 21, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    As a hardcore hoop junkie and early-stage entrepreneur, I found your analogy enlightening.

    I’m now at the stage where my co-founder and I may have taken the venture as far as we can on our talents. We’ve partnered with skilled people for some critical business functions, but I have this growing sense that I’m approaching the place where I’ve got to find some critical talent. The problem is that, having never done this before, I don’t know exactly what kind of person or persons I need.

    How do I identify this skill need? I don’t know what I don’t know.

    There are many consultancies and other resources who likely could answer that question, but they command fees beyond our means right now. Where does the bootstrapping founder go for advice and guidance?


  2. Karl June 21, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    Boy you ask a lot of questions.
    1) Outsource as long as possible to bootstrap without bringing on the extra talent. Guys like me virtually provide services like sales and project management at a great bang for the buck.
    2) If you must hire, be uber specific in your job descriptions, post to linkedin and job boards, and include a performance component in the compensation. Those who sign up are confident they’ll get the bonus and you can be too that you’ll get better work. Then make sure you pay it when they perform or you will lose them.
    3) IDing the skill? Whatever you’re doing that you are spending a lot of time on that you are not very good at or don’t want to do is a job for someone else. As a small business owner myself, I have to painfully remind myself I cannot do it all.
    It’s a virtual, outsourced world my friend. Good luck!

  3. 0092directory January 4, 2012 at 6:25 am #

    great ideas for different ways of presenting a topic.
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