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Volume 22 No. 31
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Forum: Chris Granger building culture of service in Detroit

Chris Granger has had the rare opportunity to observe the top leaders in sports. As a longtime NBA executive, a former president of the Sacramento Kings and current group president of sports and entertainment at Ilitch Holdings, which includes the Tigers and the Red Wings, he’s worked with the major commissioners in sports and picked up pieces from each of them.

“The biggest thing I learned from David Stern was attention to detail,” Granger told me recently. “David and Adam [Silver] would always be able to answer the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-level questions in advance. So, if you were with David or Adam, you needed to be buttoned up to that degree because you were going to be challenged at that level. Their command of a subject matter was, and is, incredible.” 

Since joining Ilitch in July 2017, Granger has also learned from working with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “I have seen Gary’s commitment to data, as Gary and his team really understand the fan point of view at a very deep level, and I love Rob’s openness to challenging established patterns,” he said.

As Granger begins his third year of overseeing the two teams, the two-year-old Little Caesars Arena, and 313 Presents music joint venture with the Pistons, he sat with me recently and looked back at his 20 years in sports, what’s ahead and how he’s changed as a leader. 

When compared to his previous job with the Kings, Granger said, “The scope of what we’re doing in Detroit is just inherently bigger. It’s a harder job in Detroit than it was in Sacramento, which wasn’t easy. In Detroit, we’re combining two different cultures and that just takes more time. Mentally, this is a harder job.”

Learning the business of baseball and hockey and opening an arena kept his wheels turning when he started, and he concedes, “I don’t know that I was as intentional about culture creation as early as I should have been.” But he’s been able to retool his team with a number of new executive hires who have the values he finds critical to be part of an organization of more than 500 employees.

“I want people who want to be A-plus in class. They’re not OK with an A. And I want those people who have that extra gear. We always talk in our organization about grit, and grit being the combination of passion, perseverance and resolve. It’s hard what we do, and you need people who can overcome the day-to-day grind.” 

He’s also intent on building an organization where people can rely on each other. “We talk a lot about service — not just to the city of Detroit — but service to each other. I want to make sure that we like each other, and root for each other. We want diversity and to draw from a wide range of people. And then once we have all that, we want to make sure we are united, and after it together. Everyone’s nice, and gets it, and they’re still high achievers. We have no jerks. You can recognize a jerk through the interview process, and we’ve all been around long enough in sports that it’s very easy to get five points of view on a person.”

With the organization focused on turning around Detroit and the region, Granger admits his challenge is getting time to focus on the big picture.

“There is so much to do, and it’s really easy to get caught up in the task of the day or the fire drill of the day. It’s a constant reminder to put people first. If you take care of the people, the tasks will get taken care of.” And if they leave and move on? “That’s OK. Be known as the person that helps develop talent.” 

As we end our conversation, the 48-year-old Granger reiterates where he must focus his time: “I need to constantly center myself on putting people before task and making sure that I am giving people the energy and the encouragement they need to develop. I want to make sure I’m really there for everybody all the time.”

But he acknowledges that can’t come at the expense of his own development. “I want to make sure that I’m always constantly keeping sharp,” he said, finding that learning and reinvigoration is more difficult at a team than his days at the NBA. “It’s much harder when you’re in the throes of a rebuild and in the grind of the day to day. So, focusing on my own curiosity and my own professional development is something I always have to remind myself. And focusing on your own health and well-being. It’s hard and the hours are rough. We all know it. Take care of yourself along the way.”

First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week, at the 23:55 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.