Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 9
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

A Matter of Trust

Sports organizations are relying on the ‘strong shoulders’ of their leaders, who shared how they are guiding employees through fear and uncertain times.
Clockwise from far left: Rick Welts, President and COO, Golden State Warriors (NBAE/Getty Images); Hugh Weber, President, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (Getty Images); Martin Dempsey, Chairman, USA Basketball, and retired U.S. Army general who was chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (Getty Images); Jenny Storms, CMO and executive vice president of content strategy, NBC Sports Group (NBC Sports Group); Cynthia Marshall, CEO, Dallas Mavericks (Getty Images); Derek Schiller, President, business, Atlanta Braves (Getty Images); Sam Kennedy, President and CEO, Boston Red Sox (Getty Images); Larry Baer, President and CEO, San Francisco Giants (Todd Johnson/San Francisco Business Times); Micky Lawler, President, WTA Tour (Getty Images); Peter Feigin, President, Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum (Kenny Yoo / Milwaukee Business Journal); Eric Woolworth, President of business operations, Miami Heat (Miami Heat); Sarah Hirshland, CEO, U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (Getty Images).
Clockwise from far left: Rick Welts, President and COO, Golden State Warriors (NBAE/Getty Images); Hugh Weber, President, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (Getty Images); Martin Dempsey, Chairman, USA Basketball, and retired U.S. Army general who was chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (Getty Images); Jenny Storms, CMO and executive vice president of content strategy, NBC Sports Group (NBC Sports Group); Cynthia Marshall, CEO, Dallas Mavericks (Getty Images); Derek Schiller, President, business, Atlanta Braves (Getty Images); Sam Kennedy, President and CEO, Boston Red Sox (Getty Images); Larry Baer, President and CEO, San Francisco Giants (Todd Johnson/San Francisco Business Times); Micky Lawler, President, WTA Tour (Getty Images); Peter Feigin, President, Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum (Kenny Yoo / Milwaukee Business Journal); Eric Woolworth, President of business operations, Miami Heat (Miami Heat); Sarah Hirshland, CEO, U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (Getty Images).
Clockwise from far left: Rick Welts, President and COO, Golden State Warriors (NBAE/Getty Images); Hugh Weber, President, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (Getty Images); Martin Dempsey, Chairman, USA Basketball, and retired U.S. Army general who was chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (Getty Images); Jenny Storms, CMO and executive vice president of content strategy, NBC Sports Group (NBC Sports Group); Cynthia Marshall, CEO, Dallas Mavericks (Getty Images); Derek Schiller, President, business, Atlanta Braves (Getty Images); Sam Kennedy, President and CEO, Boston Red Sox (Getty Images); Larry Baer, President and CEO, San Francisco Giants (Todd Johnson/San Francisco Business Times); Micky Lawler, President, WTA Tour (Getty Images); Peter Feigin, President, Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum (Kenny Yoo / Milwaukee Business Journal); Eric Woolworth, President of business operations, Miami Heat (Miami Heat); Sarah Hirshland, CEO, U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (Getty Images).

When the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff delivers a presentation on leadership, he often pulls up a photo of a World War II Marine charging furiously across a stretch of Okinawa known as the “Valley of Death.”

No sane person would cross that aptly named terrain, retired U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey reminds his audience, were it not for the deepest trust in those charged with leading them. The photo conveys bravery. But it also acknowledges fear.

Fear complicates leadership. This pandemic creates fear on more fronts than any living leader has seen.

“When you distill it all down, what people really are experiencing now is fear,” said Dempsey, who after four years in the administration of President Barack Obama now teaches leadership at Duke University and serves as chairman of USA Basketball. “They’re fearful that they’ll contract the disease. They’re fearful that their loved ones will contract the disease. Their parents. They’re fearful about the economy.

“The only one antidote to fear is a sense of belonging. Nobody wants to go through fear by themselves. It’s why we’re so afraid of dying. It’s one of the only activities where you can’t invite someone along. So when leaders are looking at what they have to do in this time, they have to help people deal with fear.”

This may be the most bedeviling aspect of leading during a crisis unlike any in living memory. Complicated by the restriction of human contact and multiplied by the uncertain timeline of an easing or an end, it raises all the worries of an economic calamity, but layers on the threat of illness or even death.

For a business that relies on spectators, there might not be a worse combination.

Denying that to employees would be foolhardy; lingering on it demoralizing. So where, exactly, is the curvy line between the light of yin and dark of yang? And what is the best way to lead others to it?

Dempsey describes a tone of unwavering confidence, supported by truth and candor, delivered consistently through a mindful increase in communication at all levels.

“And in the end, the leaders themselves have to have the strong shoulders,” Dempsey said. “They really can’t afford to have a bad day, because everybody is looking to them to figure out how should I be acting right now. It is a really interesting time to be a leader. Obviously, more pressure. But more opportunity, I think.”

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey uses the photo of a U.S. Marine charging into the “Valley of Death” in Okinawa as an example of the trust in leadership required to take such an action.
Photo: getty images
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey uses the photo of a U.S. Marine charging into the “Valley of Death” in Okinawa as an example of the trust in leadership required to take such an action.
Photo: getty images
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey uses the photo of a U.S. Marine charging into the “Valley of Death” in Okinawa as an example of the trust in leadership required to take such an action.
Photo: getty images

BALANCING OPTIMISM WITH TRUTH

When he was struggling to find the balance between his own natural, but conflicting, tendencies toward both optimism and blunt candor, the Atlanta Braves’ Derek Schiller turned to a friend, Wake Forest Athletic Director John Currie, who passed along a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower that reflected that commitment to a hopeful outlook, at least in the face of others.

“During these times, regardless of what the information is, you have to be ultimately optimistic and leave whatever pessimism you have when you put your head on the pillow for only yourself,” said Schiller, Braves president of business operations, paraphrasing Eisenhower. “I think of that quote all the time now.”

Sarah Hirshland

As CEO of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, Hirshland has been guiding the organization through the postponement of the Tokyo Games, all while she and her entire organization — including the leadership team, athletes and national governing bodies — have been working remotely. She described what that is like during an interview with staff writer Ben Fischer during Part 3 of CAA World Congress Comes to you on April 22.
How has that work changed under these circumstances?
“The first thing is it really forces you to focus on what matters most. … Knowing what I know now, knowing what I know today, what matters most? … Right now, that is the health and safety of our community. …
“The second is communicate. We’re doing much more frequent scheduled calls. We have calls with the NGB community more than once a week. We have calls with the athletes advisory council once a week. We have calls with our donors and our board on a regular basis. We have a financial stability group that we’re working with. So it is a lot of communication and listening and making sure that you really are staying up with your stakeholders and they know and are feeling transparency from you. You’ve got to be nimble and adaptable. As you said, the world changes on a daily basis. And so we’re adapting and changing with it.
“And then the last and the thing that I’ve said to our team, it’s the hardest to do, but it’s critically important is to not be afraid to play offense. And to be thinking not just about reacting to what’s coming our way, but being proactive about how we can help others. Oftentimes, the greatest gifts come from helping others … that we’re really being thoughtful about how we can help others in this time as opposed to just hunkering down and playing defense and reacting to what’s coming our way. And I think [that’s] where leadership starts to emerge and where the collaboration starts to show up and we really help each other get through this.”

One of the better pieces of advice that Milwaukee Bucks President Peter Feigin has gotten came from David Kohler, CEO of the Kohler Co., an iconic Wisconsin employer. Kohler reminded him that their role as leaders was to continue to inspire in spite of the conditions, remaining optimistic even when the news was at its worst.

“I am an optimist, and it was a good reminder that I need to show that,” Feigin said. “It can’t all be doom and gloom. It’s OK to have fears because we all have the same fears. But we’ll persevere. That real dose of honesty is that we don’t have a lot of the answers. I can’t show you a road map because it doesn’t exist. But we’re going to build it together.”

It is worth pointing out that when San Franciscans opened windows and took to balconies to join a recent livestream singalong with Tony Bennett, Giants President and CEO Larry Baer and Golden State Warriors President and COO Rick Welts both joined in, captured on video and shared widely.

Baer was reminded of the role that sports played in the healing after the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, and again in New York, and across the country, after 9/11. Both were fueled by an outpouring of affection, with fans embracing at ballparks, stadiums and arenas.

Unable to play that specific role — at least in the near term — Baer has encouraged the Giants’ staff to focus on other ways the franchise can play that role, be it through digital media or charitable support. Amid so much uncertainty, those are things they can control.

“You’ve got to realize there are going to be people who are scared,” Baer said. “There are going to be people who are shocked by a dramatic change in what they thought was going to be their day-to-day routine. There will be people forecasting forward about what this means to my career and my family’s future. And you have to be there to hear people and to empathize with them, even if you don’t have all the answers.

“Leadership in many ways is less talking and more listening in times like this.”

Because they had not yet begun their seasons and traditionally play 162 games, MLB clubs face the most variables and the greatest time sensitivity.

“The hardest part about leadership for all of us right now is the uncertainty,” the Braves’ Schiller said. “In our particular case, are we going to play games this year? Will we have fans if we do play games? If we open the gates, will fans feel comfortable returning? Will I have a job tomorrow? Will my job be the same? When will we return to some degree of normalcy?

“A lot of the questions that everybody is facing all day long, we don’t have the answers to. One of the most powerful ways to lead is to be able to acknowledge that we don’t know everything. And that’s OK right now.”

A CRISIS WITHOUT PRECEDENT

On the morning the day before all sports in North America stopped on March 12, Golden State’s Welts was in a 9 a.m. meeting with San Francisco Mayor London Breed, toggling through the risks and alternatives of playing a game the following night at Chase Center. Before long, it was clear to them both that with coronavirus cases mounting and the tolerance for large gatherings declining, the only way to play would be to do so without spectators.

Hours later, Welts  told players and coaches the unimaginable news about no fans. It was never to be. By that night, the season had been suspended. The Warriors’ offices would close the next day.

“My starting place is: ‘Oh my God, we’re going to send 500 people home,’” Welts said. “‘We’re going to be this incredibly disconnected organization. There is no way we can possibly be well functioning in this environment.’

 “I could not have been more wrong.”

With a week remaining in April, the Warriors’ front office had conducted more than 3,500 video meetings, ranging from 300-person town halls to one-on-one check-ins. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attended one of the all-staff sessions. Welts said he has committed to connect with all employees each day, crafting a daily email that includes not only business updates, but advice from a range of people in his universe, from the director of the San Francisco airport to the executive who oversees sports betting at the NBA.

On a typical Tuesday recently, Welts was on wall-to-wall video calls from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with only a half-hour break, beginning with a meeting with owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber and working his way through from there. It’s typical of the new work style of presidents across sports. 

“All of our standing meetings are taking place,” Welts said. “They’re all happening on time. Nobody is late. And I’d actually say the decorum of the people taking part has improved in this format. Maybe it’s because we crave the interaction with other people. It’s working at least as well if not better than the way we used to do it.”

In Miami, Eric Woolworth, Heat president of business operations, has lived a timeline similar to that of Welts, but without the trepidation. The Heat was in a timeout with 4:13 remaining in a home loss to the Charlotte Hornets on March 11 when the league announced it was suspending play. The next day, Woolworth held a staff meeting and closed the office.

Micky Lawler

As president of the WTA Tour since 2014, Lawler has helped drive the tour’s international growth strategy, including establishing a tournament in Wuhan, China, which was the epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak. She shared her takeaway on leadership during Part 3 of CAA World Congress Comes to You:
Is there any lesson you’ve taken from this experience so far?
“No. 1, that leadership and ego, they do not do well together. Personally, I’ve always thought that, but you can see it from leadership of countries to leadership at every level. You just have to admit that we’re humble people and you need to lead with confidence, and the way you do that is just work very, very hard. Prepare yourself and prepare to adapt and to respond to different situations. You need to be ready to accept absolutely anything and just work with it and work with the goodness of people.”

“I told everybody, ‘I don’t know how long it’s going to be before we see each other,’” Woolworth said. “In a work stoppage, you’re in the office every day. Even though there are no players, you’re still working with each other. And in the aftermath of a hurricane, I think the longest we’ve been out is maybe two weeks. What are we on now — Week 7? Week 8? We knew this was going to be a marathon and not a sprint and that made it different from the beginning.” 

That absence of direct parallels to prior experience has become apparent as the crisis has continued. Because the leaders interviewed for this story each had at least two decades in the business, all had been through what they considered to be at least one major crisis.

Most had been through a labor stoppage or two. Milwaukee’s Feigin was a manager at Madison Square Garden during 9/11. Boston Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy was chief operating officer during the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Baer wasn’t with the Giants when an earthquake killed 63 and injured thousands in the Bay Area during the 1989 World Series, but he was at the game as an assistant to then CBS Chairman Laurence Tisch.

Initially, most thought back to those as self-supportive reminders that they’d led through a crisis.

“We all look toward precedent and how things were handled in the past,” Kennedy said. “What were strategies that you used to get through things or to tackle a business issue or a baseball ops issue or a personnel matter? All the rules have sort of gone out the window.”

Woolworth pointed to the scope of the current crisis as a delineating factor.

Jenny Storms

In February 2019, Storms was promoted to chief marketing officer and executive vice president of content strategy for NBC Sports Group, with oversight of more than 100 employees. In a live interview with staff writer John Ourand for Part 3 of CAA World Congress Comes to You, she shared how she manages staff when everyone is working remotely:
How do you manage effectively that many people?
“I’ve made a … personal commitment with myself that I’m trying to reach out to every single member of the team in some way, shape or form during this time. … Just chat with them, talk to them, how are they doing, are there any questions, is there anything I can help them with?
“I think what’s incredible right now is that leadership definitely is tested in a time of crisis for sure, the sports world is the best at this. We come together, we wrap our arms around each other and our people. And leadership is definitely about the business, but right now leadership is about people. Leadership is about humans and ensuring that we’re taking care of people, and especially what their needs are at this time.”

“When you’ve got a work stoppage, it’s just you that’s suffering,” said Woolworth, who has been through two of them at the helm of the Heat’s business side. “You can lean on your partners. You can lean on the folks you do business with, because they’re not going through it and they’re always there to help. In a hurricane, it’s a regional situation. The rest of the country is trying to help you. 

“This is different because everybody is going through it.”

Like Welts, Woolworth ends each day with an email to staff. His sometimes includes drink recipes and Netflix recommendations. A couple of weeks ago he included lyrics from the Grateful Dead song “Touch of Grey,” emphasizing the refrain “We will get by, we will survive.”

While the Heat seems to be navigating business effectively, Woolworth said he pines for the contact of the office, a sentiment that was unanimous among those interviewed.

“I’m an ADD crazy person,” Feigin said. “I’m a walker and a talker. I’m a big handshake person. I love to serpentine the office and talk and catch up and run the business. So it has been a complete 180 in how to adjust.”

“I want to get back in an office environment,” Welts said. “I love walking around. I love talking to people. I love having spontaneous conversations. But — this works.”

PREPARATION IS KEY

In the two books he has written since retiring from the military, Dempsey tried to reflect on experiences of his own — from West Point to the West Wing, as he puts in the one released this year — that would translate to others.

“What makes for effective leadership is hard to distill it into one word,” Dempsey said, “but if you were to distill it to one word — it has to be trust.”

Cynthia Marshall

The Dallas Mavericks CEO talked with SBJ Publisher and Executive Editor Abe Madkour during Part 2 of CAA World Congress Comes to You about how sports business organizations can be supportive during the pandemic.
If you had to impart a message to [the sports industry], either a message of hope or of inspiration, or just day to day, grinding it out, what would it be?
“This is one of those times where it’s not about us. It’s not about you, it’s not about me. It’s about all those people out there who are trying to literally battle their way through this. Our health-care workers and first responders, let’s love them. Let’s support them. We hung a big banner on our buildings this week [in April], including the American Airlines Center, just saying thank you to our health care workers and first responders. Let’s be there for them. Let’s be there for our local businesses. Let’s be there for the people who are really struggling through this.”

Trust of leaders. And by leaders.

When the Heat scattered, Woolworth took solace in the infrastructure that they had built, investing in leadership training not only for C-level executives, but for every manager with responsibility for others. Instituted as a way to get younger talent to stay even when there wasn’t a clear path of advancement, Woolworth said he’s now seeing dividends with department heads cut loose to manage on their own.

“I think what is more important than what you are doing now is what you have been doing for the last ‘X’ number of years,” said Woolworth, who is in his 19th season in his role. “If you’ve been leading your organization, making sure you’ve got the right structure in place, the right processes in place, the right people in place, then you’re probably doing pretty well in this crisis. To me it was more about what happened before than what happened now.

“If you’re prepared for it and you trust your people and your people trust you, you’re probably coming through OK. If you weren’t in a good place with your organization or you weren’t in a good place in terms of what leadership is all about, than you’re probably floundering a little bit and maybe making panicky decisions.

“The organizations that are probably doing best through this, it’s not because there is any magic pill that you can take to lead through a crisis.”

Sports played a big role in the recovery and healing from previous crises, including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Photo: getty images
Sports played a big role in the recovery and healing from previous crises, including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Photo: getty images
Sports played a big role in the recovery and healing from previous crises, including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Photo: getty images