The Secret to a Winning Team: Hard Work

By Dori Meinert Oct 12, 2015
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SAN ANTONIO—“Outwork everybody." That’s one of eight rules for a winning team that Susan O’Malley, the first female president of a professional sports franchise, shared at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Emerging LEAD(HR) Conference on Oct. 9, 2015.

Of course, “women seem to know that already,” she said.

O’Malley was 11 when she wrote in a school paper that her goal was to run a sports franchise. Her teacher said she was being unrealistic. But O’Malley was undeterred. In 1991, she became president of the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) basketball team at the age of 29. She spent more than 20 years with Washington Sports and Entertainment before leaving in 2007.

She picked up many leadership lessons along the way. Her rules for a winning team include:

Make your bed every day. This was her father’s rule. His theory was that “motion creates motion. If you start out working in the morning, you will continue.”

Plan your work and work your day. “If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?”

Set expectations. She recalled how annoyed she was with an intern who cheered for the team’s opponents at one game. After she chewed him out the next day, he apologized, saying “Nobody told me I had to cheer for the Bullets.”

“The lesson I learned from that is you can’t assume people know what’s right,” she said. “People need to know what your goals are.”

When you mess up, make it right. In an effort to reduce the turnover in season ticket holders, she and other senior executives personally called the ticket holders to ask if there were ways they could improve. One man complained that there was gum stuck to the bottom of his seat and that had gotten on his pants. He hadn’t told anybody before then because nobody had asked.

“I personally went over there and took a scraper and popped it in a bucket,” O’Malley said. “I wanted the guy to know he’d been heard.”

After they started the customer service campaign, the ticket renewal rate went from 64 percent to more than 90 percent.

Do the right thing. “We all get to make decisions every day, and sometimes it’s only us who knows the difference,” she said. During a long losing streak one year, she recalled someone at a community dinner suggested the team would be better off losing the last 11 games to gain better odds in the next NBA draft lottery. (In the draft lottery, the team with the worst record has the most chances for the No. 1 pick.) “Who’s going to know the difference?” the person asked. Coach Wes Unseld told the man: “I’d know the difference.”

Have fun! Celebrate the victories. When the Washington Capitals were having a losing streak one year, the coach took them bowling. The team inexplicably won the next several games. When a reporter asked how the bowling factored in, the coach explained that they were practicing—practicing having fun. “The team had forgotten how to enjoy playing,” O’Malley said.

People make the difference. O’Malley recalled the scene from the movie “Moneyball” in which a talented player was traded because he didn’t care if the team lost.

“Sometimes it’s not always about talent. It’s about heart,” she said.

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

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