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5 Sales Management Lessons from the NBA Finals

5 sales management lessons gleaned from the 2015 NBA Finals.

During the first two weeks of June, I committed many, many man hours to watching the 2015 NBA Finals (much to my girlfriend's chagrin). And throughout the series, it became increasingly clear that this particular Finals, with its Cavs vs. Warriors matchup, offered some truly compelling, transferable insights into team-building, leadership, and operations.

Want to improve your sales management and operations strategies? Here are 5 instructive lessons from an unlikely source.

5 Sales Management Lessons from the NBA Finals

Now is the perfect time to deploy these 5 actionable insights. We've just reached halftime of most companies' fiscal year, the 4th of July holiday is right around the corner, and the annual 10 week stretch of sports purgatory (unless you're a baseball enthusiast) is now upon us.

So let's revisit a great NBA Finals and take to heart the following 5 lessons.

1. The Best Top-to-Bottom Sales Team Wins

LeBron James became the first player in NBA history to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists per game in the NBA Finals.  And it mattered not.

Not when Matthew Dellevedova and J.R. Smith were gift wrapping turnovers to the Warriors, who provided incredible backup to their own star player, Steph Curry, from the likes of Finals MVP Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, who posted a triple-double in the deciding Game 6.

We've tread this ground many a time on the Ambition Blog. Every elite sales team needs its LeBron James or Steph Curry, but the path to dominance requires a core group of performers that consistently contribute stellar results. Check the Harvard Business Review graph below.

sales management lessons

Subtract LeBron and Curry from the equation. The next five players on each squad who played the most minutes would track on opposing ends of the middle spectrum. For the injury-riddled Cavs: Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova almost all fall to the left of key Warrirors personnel -- Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala (the Finals MVP, no less), Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut -- on this graph.

The moral of the story: Your core performers matter as much, if not more, than your stars. Steph Curry spent half the series in a shooting slump as LeBron James delivered game-after-game, but his core performers bailed him out, big time. Sales is an up-and-down game. Your core performers need to be there when your stars go through their next rough patch.

2. Multi-Dimensional Beats One-Dimensional

The more flexible, agile and versatile your sales team, the better your ability to make adjustments, find new competitive advantages and win deals. Hey, kind of like the Warriors did in games 4-6!

The Cavs offensive attack consisted of running iso after iso for LeBron and praying that his superhuman skill set would prevail. The Warriors, on the other hand, seemed to get buckets from everyone on the court.

Throw the ball into Draymond Green in the post, kick it out to Harrison Barnes for a mid-range jumper, or swing it to Steph Curry for a wide-open corner three - these were a lethal arsenal of tactics the Warrirors were able to deploy as needed throughout the series.

You need to be equally multi-dimensional in your sales operations. Take lead generation, for example. What's your offensive strategy? If it's cold calling/emailing until the cows come home and that's it, you're the sales equivalent of the Finals Cavs (hopefully with a LeBron or two in your bullpen). 

On the other hand, if you've developed a quality customer referral system, content marketing strategy, and savvy channel partnerships, congratulations, you're running a multi-dimensional offense that would make Steve Kerr proud. 

3. Good Leaders Listen, Adapt and Give Credit

Two words: Andre Iguadala. The eventual Finals MVP spent the regular season coming off the bench for the Warriors and averaging just 27 minutes of playing time per game. 

As documented in this SI article, that plan changed the night before Game 4. Thanks to, of all people, a Warriors video assistant.

The night before Game 4, 28-year-old Nick U’Ren watched video of last year’s Finals in his room at the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland. U’Ren, Kerr’s special assistant who is usually rebounding for Curry or putting together iPod playlists for practice, noticed that the Spursswung their series against the Heatby plugging small forward Boris Diaw into the starting lineup. U’Ren called Walton and suggested doing the same with Iguodala. At 3 a.m.,they texted Kerr, and the staff reached a consensus over breakfast. 

Iguodala's series-shifting play in games 4-6: A scheme that was cooked up at 3 a.m., and masterminded by Luke Walton and Nick U'Ren. Also worth nothing: after a successful Game 4, Steve Kerr gave all credit for the plan to Walton and U'Ren, while praising Iguodala's execution. That's the epitome of leadership.

The video assistant up at 3 a.m. watching tape and scheming up Moneyball tactics. The Head Coach following his vision and adjusting immediately. The key personnel executing. Public credit going to its proper recipients. This is how every Director of Sales Operations, VP of Sales and Sr Account Executive should strive to operate. Props to the Warriors for setting great examples for teamwork and leadership. Meanwhile, Cavs Head Coach David Blatt is still trying to figure out how many timeouts he gets each game.

4. Sloppiness Offsets Elite Performance 

Quick preface to this section: I freaking love J.R. Smith. He's the quintessential example of Bill Simmons' famed "Irrational Confidence Guy," defined as: the guy who isn’t one of the team’s best players, but he’ll have stretches in which he THINKS he is.

Yep, that's J.R. Smith. And you know, for a second I thought he might save the Cavs season in the final minute of Game 6. Guys like Smith can be a huge asset, and a joy to watch.  Smith's basketball IQ: Subterranean. His favorite shot: Fall-away 20+ footer with one or more defenders draped over him. His preferred mode of transportation on the biggest day of his career: Hoverboard.

But for every clutch shot he makes, J.R. Smith is guaranteed to repay the favor to the opposing team. Dumb fouls, careless turnovers, and all-around poor decision-making haunted him throughout the Finals, when he was needed most. Silver lining for J.R.: Matthew Dellavedova and his own montage reel of YMCA pickup-worthy, ill-fated lobs to nowhere take the Gold Medal for sloppy Finals performance. Not that LeBron was immune from sloppy play, either.

The point here - muddled execution is the back-breaker of positive momentum and offensive efficiency. Be it on the court or in a sales bullpen, unfocused and erratic execution of core fundamentals is a frustrating, yet solvable problem. Have a few J.R.'s and Dellavedova's on your sales team? They need better coaching and better poise -- the tough part is figuring out the best way to reach them.

5. Hire Experience Where it Matters. 

The Warriors had a rookie head coach. No one on their roster had made an NBA Finals. Ever. And they were going up against a two-time champion and Finals MVP who had just become the first player to make 5 straight NBA Finals since the Russell-era Celtics.

Experience is almost always an asset. LeBron's poise throughout the series proves that. And yet, the Warriors overcame the disparity. Ironically, they were largely enabled by having a sizable coaching advantage -- and a Head Coach who had a major championship pedigree as a player.

Steve Kerr is an NBA Lifer who made clutch, championship-sealing shots on a team that featured the greatest basketball player of all-time. He was a hugely positive factor for his team. David Blatt had never played nor coached in the NBA prior to this season. He was, being generous, a non-factor for his team. The lesson here: If you're going to get pedigree, get it where it matters most: your leadership.

A sales team run by a seasoned, decorated VP of Sales with a young upstart as his or her top performer will often have better long-term prospects than a team led by a rookie VP of Sales with an industry legend as top performer. Exhibit A.

sales management lessons

An NBA Finals Full of Sales Management Lessons

The NBA season may be over, but it's not even the 3rd Quarter of 2015. Here's a quick refresher on today's lessons before you begin lacing back up those wing-tips. In Quarter 3, look to:

  1. Focus extra coaching attention on your core performers.
  2. Strive to improve the multi-dimensionality of your sales operations.
  3. Seek feedback from your most trusted advisors.
  4. Tighten up core fundamentals.
  5. Consult a colleague who has excellent championship pedigree.

Who knew? The NBA Finals - a great knowledge source for new tactics and strategies. Your sales team will be operating as smoothly as Steph Curry's shooting motion before you know it.

Ambition: The 360° Sales Management Platform

Ambition is a sales management platform that syncs every sales organization department, data source, and performance metric on one easy system.

Ambition clarifies and publicizes real-time performance analytics for your entire sales organization. Using a drag-and-drop interface, non-technical sales leaders can build custom scorecards, contests, reports, and TVs.

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