June 18

How Team Sports Is Like the Workplace



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Congrats to the Los Angeles Lakers on winning their 16th NBA championship title! I’d also like to congratulate Coach Phil Jackson on his 11th major win. I’m fortunate to come from Chicago where we got to reap the benefits of Coach Jackson’s zen leadership as he partnered with Michael Jordan to bring excitement to our city and raise it to a higher level. I’m also thankful Coach Jackson moved to L.A. shortly after me and brought his magic touch with him. I’ve read his books, share his love for the Grateful Dead, and am psyched to once again be enjoying an NBA win under his leadership.

Team Sports & the Workplace

Just like a basketball team, or any sports team for that matter, we all have a role to play at work. For example, just as a power forward, guard and center have specific roles to fill on the basketball court, a marketing manager, marketing VP and chief financial officer have specific roles to fill in the office. If you’re an entrepreneur, you basically play all roles. But if you go to work for someone else, whether it’s a big company or a small company, whether you’re given a corporate title or not, there is likely a very defined role for your position. Different organizations allow more or less freedom within each specific role, but the bottom line is that if no one follows their role, you will have chaos rather than a winning team. Picture your coloring books from when you were a little kid. If you never colored within the lines, what was supposed to look like a ladybug probably looked like spilled tomato sauce. Team and workplace roles are no different. There was a time when both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were selfish but talented players who tried to do everything themselves on the court and single-handedly win games. The results of this were that they were not playing their team roles, they weren’t allowing other team members to fulfill their team roles, and their teams weren’t winning championships. Once they learned how to take that same talent and energy and channel it into a team role and also use their talent to help other team members excel at their team roles, then their teams won championships. An office environment is no different. (Good office leadership by workplace managers like Phil Jackson is key here…but that’s a topic for another day.)

My Personal Experience With Role-Filling

When I was new to the workplace, I didn’t yet understand this role-playing concept. I wanted to dive in, single-handedly take over and win (just like Michael or Kobe….except without the talent!). When I moved to LA to be in the music business and I joined the marketing department of a major record label, like most people I had to start at the bottom. Rightly or wrongly, I felt qualified to start somewhere in the middle…but my last name isn’t Geffen so that wasn’t an option. Rather than focusing on being the best grunt worker on the team, I was focusing on trying to find projects to get involved with that I found interesting, challenging and worthy of my time and skill set. My boss wasn’t happy about this because she needed me to be doing her grunt work and to be doing it well. I wasn’t happy because she was getting snippy with me as a result of her not getting my undivided attention. I just couldn’t help but look at a lot of the grunt work as being stupid and beneath me. To return to the basketball analogy, a good bench player could moan and complain all day that he’s sitting on the bench for most of the game…or he could make sure that’s he’s keeping the mood at the bench high for everybody else and then kick butt in those few minutes that he actually gets to play on the court. Once my boss took the time to recognize the situation and see that it was fixable, she sat me down and explained this role-filling concept so that I could embrace the best workplace attitude: I had interviewed for a grunt worker position and was hired for a grunt worker position and was therefore relied on to do a great job with the grunt work that was thrown on my plate. If I spent my time grabbing more substantive work from the company and let the grunt work fall through the cracks, who would do that grunt work that I was hired to do? She would have to. And that’s not the role that she was hired to play…that grunt work was in my job description…and I had accepted that role when I signed on for the job. If I wanted to grow at the company, I would need to make her life easier rather than harder and make her want to see my role bumped up to more substantive work.

Lessons Learned:

Play your role and play it well. If there is freedom to stretch beyond your role, by all means do it. But you must do the job you were hired to do. Once I understood that concept and started living it, my relationship with my boss improved and I soon had a role that better fit my skills and interests. It’s never fun to be the grunt worker, but it is often a part of paying your dues and building the foundation on which you can grow your knowledge, skill set and career. Finding the purpose and meaning behind the little things will help as you increasingly deal with the big picture.


Have you confronted problems with a boss or co-worker not following their role? Stepping on your toes? Having a role that was too narrowly-defined? Let’s hear it.

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career articles, general career advice, sports careers

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  1. Though I disagree with the assessment of Jordan/Kobe. I think Jordan was always a guy that made his teammates better and just didn't have the supporting cast, wasn't ready yet during the early stages of his career. I still think Kobe is selfish and tries to do way too much. He didn't make the playoffs with his bad cast of cronies, but once Pau Gasol was gift wrapped he's been able to win again. Both great, transcendent players, but I think their approaches were very different.

    *Back on topic. I think the underlying message here is spot on: “Play your role and play it well. If there is freedom to stretch beyond your role, by all means do it. But you must do the job you were hired to do.” I've talked before about this phenomenon here: “There's no I in Team: That's Just Bullshit

  2. Thanks. Just read your piece – good stuff! I agree with you that Kobe and Jordan have different approaches….and that Kobe can still be too selfish. But I also think he is much less selfish than he used to be. As for Jordan, I was at some games before he had a championship ring….he was never the brat that Kobe can be….but his focusing on making his teammates better was definitely something that grew over time. “Once Pau was gift wrapped”! That was good.

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