What happens to the taste of a stew when you add something fiery hot, meaty, and so overpowering that it can stand on its own?
Last Spring the Golden State Warriors, winners of 3 of the last 4 NBA Championships, announced they had acquired free agent DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins is 6’ 11”, 270 pounds, and started in the NBA in 2010 after one college season with the Kentucky Wildcats. During his first season with the Sacramento Kings, Cousins was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. From 2015 to 2018, he was named an NBA All-Star. He is also a two-time gold medal winner as a member of the United States national team, winning his first in 2014 at the FIBA Basketball World Cup and his second in 2016 at the Rio Olympics.
DeMarcus Cousins is a headliner, not a rookie.
So, what happens to the culture of a team when you add an outsider, who is the top player and recognized four times as one of the best in the world?
Have you ever been able to add a headliner to your team?
Let’s assume for the moment that you have a championship team. Most of us do not have a championship team, even if we are winning to some extent. For this exercise, assume you are not just competitive, you are the top dog in your market.
You are the best. You know it. The people on your team know it. The numbers prove it. Most people respect your accomplishments.
There’s that “big butt” that keeps showing up, distracting you from continuing your reign of dominance.
No team is perfect. A competitor gets stronger (the Lakers acquired LeBron), then you get an opportunity to add someone who is arguably the best in their position when they are healthy. Someone who is a “headliner.”
The possible rewards of acquiring a headliner are tempting, almost overpowering. However, there are also serious risks to consider.
The Risk of Losing focus
"Focus" is such an ambiguous term, yet it's the all-encompassing word for a championship mentality. What’s the focus?
For the Warriors, the primary target is to win a third consecutive NBA Championship. It’s a BHAG (Jim Collins – Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal) and a ONE Thing (Gary Keller).
A headliner can be a distraction because he brings ego, unnecessary drama, possible turf fights, etc.
Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr and the team can make it clear to Cousins that the team is more important than any single player. Cousins is emotional on the court, some might say he is an egomaniac. I don’t know how humble he is, or is not.
Keeping their focus on the team and winning, when Cousins fully recovers from his Achilles injury the Warriors may have checkmated their competitor’s attempt to overcome them.
The test will be to see how the team behaves when they are behind in a game, are getting what they feel are bad calls, or they lose a few games in a row. Any coach or team can look great when they are winning. A true championship team and coach behave well and remain focused when under pressure.
Weigh the risks, not just the rewards.
The Warriors are huge champions. They are today, or are close to becoming a dynasty.
However, the focus needs to be on the road ahead, not looking at yourself or living in the past (the rearview mirror).
Long-term champions manage their ego so they still can make it from Point A to Point B without disaster. Assumptions of ongoing grandeur are avoided as they keep winning step-by-step.
What are the risks of adding a headliner like DeMarcus Cousins?
Performance: Cousins has been the premier big man. However, statistics predict his performance could drop by 8% or more due to his Achilles injury last season. He still would be strong, but he may not fully recover from his Achilles injury.
Injury: What if Cousins gets another debilitating injury?
Emotions: Could his attitude set him back? He has 115 technical fouls and 14 ejections during his eight-year NBA career.
Friction: Could Cousins’ attitude, or one or more Warriors player responses to him, cause friction and distraction?
Cost: What if Cousins offends another top Warriors player and they demand to be traded, or there is another significant cost directly linked to adding this headliner?
Attitude: Cousins is Dr. Jekyll now, but is there a Mr. Hyde coming?
Slow down. Fully consider the risks AS A TEAM before adding a headliner. Only move forward with unanimous agreement.
Some of the rewards are also significant:
Better: Cousins could enable existing players to spend more time on their strengths.
Unpredictable: Cousins might make it more difficult for the competition to discern the Warriors next bold moves, play-by-play and quarter-by-quarter.
Rewards: If the headliner helps the Warriors win a third NBA Championship, then everyone gets richer - Higher revenue, market share, brand loyalty…
How do you pursue the rewards with what I call, a low CRT:
Cost: You can afford the loss. Cousins could cost as little as $5.3 million. That’s a lot of money to most people, but spare change to the Warriors. The investment is worth it.
Resources: Every organization’s success is dependent on their people. Get your people involved in the decision and determine how much of their time will be invested as your organization gives the headliner an opportunity.
Time: Pilot the headliner. Test her/him with your team beyond conversations. Discuss typical scenarios. Role play. Hire the person for a day or week to test how she/he handles the reality of your world. You can afford a short-term test. If the headliner adds value then extend the test time. If not, you have not lost much.
Don't disrupt the bond your people have
Most winning teams have a strong bond of respect and servanthood between players. There are differences, but everyone understands their strengths and weaknesses. Everyone understands how to work together as an efficient, effective group that is stronger as a team than as people working independently.
The Warriors shine in this area, and their coach Steve Kerr is an inspiring role model.
So how do you add a headliner to the mix when the current team is working so well?
First, all of your key team members if not the entire team, participate in the decision to add the headliner. Why? Because everyone, not just the boss, has to commit to make it work and help the headliner be a productive contributor who loves being on her/his new team.
One benefit with Cousins is that he is a known entity with the All Stars and Olympic players on the Warriors. They have already played ball with him, and fully support the addition of DeMarcus to their team.
Second, a headliner can be the latest “shiny object” for many leaders, absorbing the majority of their focus, time, and energy to the detriment of the team who got them where they are.
If your team makes the decision to add the headliner, fully understanding the risks as well as the rewards, then everyone should be prepared to proceed as a team. It should be clear to the headliner that she/he will receive equal attention, not more than existing team members.
Steve Kerr, the coach of the Warriors, is a former player on Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. He has experienced first-hand what it’s like to be on a team with a dominant headliner, supported by other strong players. Kerr has been able to do something uncommon by shifting his career from being a great player who now is a wise, humble, inspiring coach.
Kerr can pull this off, if he continues to humbly, respectfully inspire the members of his team to continue their focus on integrating their strengths for the best of the team, rather than one person’s statistics, publicity, or compensation.
The saying, “There is no ‘i’ in team” is especially true when you add a headliner to a cohesive team, or you have a team with multiple headliners and superstars. The addition of Cousins means all five Warrior starters have been All Stars, and three of them are part of the top six scoring recordholders in the league. Exciting, but not easy.
Do you want to grow your business more rapidly? How about achieve significantly more profits? Is a headliner your answer?
In most cases, the answer is “no.” A headliner cannot help you, unless you are willing to make tough decisions about how you need to change, and the adjustments that need to be made to your organization. Or, you already have a strong company culture, leadership habits, and best practices. Then a humble headliner can help you transform good or great into the best.
DeMarcus Cousins probably couldn’t make the New Orleans Pelicans a championship team, or the Sacramento Kings.