Chemistry Counts!

4 Things NBA Champion Steve Kerr Can Teach CEOs About Team Chemistry

A Sage Who’s Not Done Learning

When four-time NBA champion Steve Kerr first took the coaching job for the Golden State Warriors, he went to Seattle to talk with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and watch the team’s training camp. Carroll asked, “How are you going to coach your team?” Carroll was essentially asking, “Have you thought about team chemistry? What kind of culture do you want to create? How are you going to lead your team?”

That meeting was a tipping point for Kerr. It helped him formulate his thoughts and become very intentional about the culture and chemistry he wanted to create. Kerr pared down all that he had learned while playing for Phil Jackson (Chicago Bulls coach) and Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs coach) as well as his own ideas and came up with four core values he wants his players to exude.

These values have become part of the Warriors’ DNA. They have created a culture that is a magnet for world-class talent and made Golden State one of the most exciting teams to watch in the NBA.

1. Joy

Basketball is a long season, it has to be fun. Warriors’ Point Guard Stephen Curry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, exudes a love for the game. After three quarters of ugly offense in Game 3 of the 2018 NBA finals, Curry never got dejected. In the spirit of child-like enthusiasm, he just wanted to make one three-pointer before the game ended. That crucial shot came in the fourth quarter to help the Warriors seal the win and go on to sweep the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4. In Game 4 of the 2022 NBA Finals, Curry had an iconic 43-point performance. Of Curry’s training routine, Steve Kerr said, “…every day, it’s the exact same thing. He’s in the training room, he’s in the weight room, he’s on the court. … It’s clockwork, but there’s also a sense of joy and energy within that work. He enjoys it so much. He loves the process.” Curry loves playing the game.

Joy causes you to focus on the journey; not just the end result. It fuels the fires of perseverance in the hard times. Joy enables you to play looser, with more freedom and aliveness, which ultimately means you’re going to play with more creativity and tenacity.

For the Warriors, a sense of humor is a big deal. Kerr wants every day to be fun. When going over game films Kerr and his coaching staff will frequently splice in a movie clip or something fun from YouTube that lightens the moment and sends a message to his players: “Don’t take yourselves too seriously.” When the players are talking trash and razzing each other it’s a sign that clubhouse chemistry is healthy. Kerr encourages this.

Joy sounds like an unconventional formula for a high-performance team, but his approach is reminiscent of Southwest Airlines’ late, affable founder and chairman emeritus, Herb Kelleher. A fierce competitor, Kelleher loved to have fun. He created one of the most joyful cultures in an industry where success requires rigorous discipline. If you think that sounds touchy-feely, check in with the company’s shareholders who have enjoyed 45 consecutive years of profitability.

2. Mindfulness

It could be in a game or at home with your family on an off night. Mindfulness is about being aware of what’s going on around you. Kerr believes this translates into being grateful for the opportunity to play the game, making a living and having a great time. Whether it is the gift of great genes, great parents and great coaching that drew out your inherent giftedness or all of the above, mindfulness is an awareness that you are drinking from wells dug by others.

There are other stimulators that raise this kind of awareness as well. For example, Kerr frequently brings in outsiders to talk to his players. Imagine listening to a child from the Make-a-Wish Foundation or a member of a Special Ops team tell their stories. These experiences give the players another perspective about what it means to be mindful in a particular situation.

In every professional sport, most players realize their careers won’t last that long. Mindfulness is about seizing the day and making the most of the relationships you have while you have them and making the most of each experience. Players who can do this are more joyful.

Kerr also incorporates mindfulness into the Warriors’ daily practices. It starts with being “locked in” on every play, every practice, every day. It’s being so focused that you aren’t distracted by the noise surrounding you. You aren’t worried about the last foul called by the referee or the next shot you need to make. When asked how they win in postgame press conferences, it is not uncommon to hear a Warriors’ player say, “I just tried to stay in the moment.”

If you can build a critical mass of players who are focused in the moment on a project, in a meeting or with a client, and mindfully aware of their circumstances, the odds are in your favor for creating great chemistry and a happier team. This is not easy to accomplish, it takes practice, but when you get there you have an advantage that is hard for your competitors to emulate.

3. Competition

People who are competitive have a drive and intensity that pushes boundaries and elevates their game. They make sacrifices (think mental, physical, emotional, social sacrifices, etc.) others don’t to become the best in their fields. And, they don’t give up easily. Competitiveness is a critical attribute in a game where thousands of young players have the same dream. And really, isn’t that true in your game as well?

To succeed at an elite level you have to love to compete. You have to want to win and hate to lose.

Whether it is a shooting competition, scrimmage or some other type of drill, the competition occurs every day during the Warriors’ practices. They keep score on everything to encourage a game-simulated kind of competition. Players can see how they stack up against their teammates every day. This gives them the opportunity to evaluate what they need to work on, where they need more focus or what they can celebrate.

4. Compassion

Being interested in what makes your players tick, knowing how hard their jobs are, the sacrifices they make and the pressure they play under is the result of empathy and compassion. Yes, being a professional athlete is a dream job. Who wouldn’t want to play in the NBA, MLB or NFL getting paid to do what you love? But there is also a tremendous amount of adversity that comes with being young and immature in a game that is now big business.

In the blink of an eye, you can be traded. That means you might be ripped from teammates you love in a city you enjoy, and your kids have to change schools and make new friends. This upheaval disrupts your entire family.

Then, you have to contend with injuries, the momentum of 20,000 fans in the opponent’s house “booing” you or living in the fishbowl of constant media scrutiny. Granted, this kind of adversity isn’t life-threatening, but it is real. Compassion puts a pressure value in all of this and simply says, “We understand the challenges of playing at a World Championship level and we’re in it with you.”

Compassion between team members is also critical. We look at the superstardom of a Steph Curry or Kevin Durant and think, “It must be nice to be that gifted.” But, great chemistry comes from teammates who understand the difficulty of playing under everyone’s expectations that you will carry the day. And, it’s the superstar extending grace and compassion in the form of a fist bump or high-five to a team member who just made a crucial mistake.

When you know that your teammates are for you and have your back, you can play with a sense of security and assurance that enables you to access your highest and best.

These four values are incorporated into everything the Warriors do. Culture can be haphazard and accidental or very intentional. Steve Kerr’s values create the kind of environment people want to work in. But make no mistake, he works at every day.

Regardless of what kind of business you are in, it’s always a people business, even with artificial intelligence and robotics on the rise.

Every great leader we’ve worked with and written about has at least one thing in common. They believe they are in the development business. Their job is to create the best place, where the best people, can do their best work. They are constantly asking, “How do I get my players to be better individually and collectively so that they have joy in what they do, their careers excel and our business grows?”

The reciprocal effect is this: When players know that a leader is for them and is absolutely dedicated to helping them get better, trust goes up. Trust creates openness and vulnerability which in turn, makes people more coachable. Whether it is accepting tough feedback, stepping up accountability or being hungry for change, trust inspires people to put themselves out there for the good of the team. And, when teammates truly trust each other, they get more done, faster.

Joy, mindfulness, compassion and competition. Steve Kerr knows when these values are firing on all cylinders the Warriors are fun to coach, fun to be around and fun to watch.

Oh, and one more thing. They are tough to beat.