As most of my readers know, the world of sports provides many useful lessons for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or the compliance professional. I found one of the most recent interesting offerings was earlier this week when Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr turned over his coaching duties to his players in a game against the Phoenix Suns. One of the most fascinating aspects of this effort was the immediate outcry that Kerr had “disrespected” the Suns, their players and their coach. As to this view, I can only say the only disrespect going on was by the Suns players themselves, who lost the game to the Warriors by an almost 50-point margin, 129-83 and have the league’s worst record with a pathetic 12-25 record. If you want some respect, win some games.

The Suns fragile egos aside, Kerr used a very innovative technique which works on multiple levels and is something every CCO should consider in their management tool kit. Tim Bontemps, writing in the Washington Post, noted that Kerr felt like he had not been able to reach his team over the past couple of months. He quoted Kerr who said “I haven’t been able to reach them the last month. They are tired of my voice. I’m tired of my voice.” Apparently for one night the team did not hear his voice as “Rather than going through his usual work coaching the team, he allowed his players to do the work for him. From Stephen Curry to Draymond Green to Andre Iguodala to David West, the players took turns running the huddles. Kerr and his assistants, meanwhile, stood by and watched.”

The first level this technique worked on was that Kerr got their attention. He did not feel like the players had been listening to him over the past six weeks. Many, including Kerr, believe this is due to the Warriors being clearly the best team in the league for the past three years, something Kerr is very familiar with having played for the second three-peat iteration of the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan years 1996-98. Bontemps quoted Kerr again, “Just having had the experience as a player in Chicago, the three years in a row [in the NBA Finals] … I’ve talked about it a lot. You lose the freshness of the first year or two. It’s emotionally draining for these guys to play night after night, people coming after them. It’s just different. It’s different now. You guys can feel it. [From] three years ago to now, it’s different. You have to account for that. We’re trying to guide them; we’re trying to pace them. I think we’re in a good place. I like where our team is. We haven’t played well the last few weeks but we don’t want to be peaking now anyway. But we do want to be building good habits, and tonight was a good sign.”

In the business world, this is called engagement and empowerment. In the compliance realm this translates to the operationalization of your compliance program. You can move compliance outside of the corporate headquarters and into the field by engaging your employees. Here Kerr engaged his players to put together plays to use during the game. This game gave them a more vested interest in the team and hopefully from Kerr’s perspective, increased their interest in playing at their top level during the season so they can continue their winning ways during the 2018 playoffs.

Another way to consider Kerr’s approach is that leadership is about having a conversation. In “Leadership is a Conversation”, authors Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind discussed how to improve employee engagement in today’s “flatter, more networked organizations.”

It is the how leaders handle communications within their organizations that is as important as the message itself. The process should be more dynamic and more nuanced and should be conversational. It is a model of leadership which uses “organizational conversation” resembling ordinary person-to-person conversations. This model has several advantages, including that it allows a large company to function like a small one and it can enable leaders to “retain or recapture some of the qualities…that enable start-ups to out-perform better established rivals.” There are four elements of organizational conversation: intimacy, interactivity, inclusion and intentionality.

Intimacy: Getting Close

You should focus on two skills: listening and authenticity, because physical proximity may not always be feasible but emotional or mental proximity is required. As a corporate leader, a CCO should “step down from their corporate perches and then step up to the challenge of communicating personally and transparently with their people.” This technique shifts the focus of change from a top-down hierarchical model to a “bottom-up exchange of ideas.”

Interactivity: Promoting Dialogue

Interactivity should make a conversation open and more fluid. You can obtain this by talking with and not just talking to an employee. The purpose of interactivity builds upon the first prong of intimacy. The efforts to close the gap between employees will founder if both tools are not in place along with institutional support that gives employees the freedom and courage to speak up. Here social media can be a useful tool to help foster such interactivity but take care not to simply use social media as another megaphone. It is more than just social media, it requires social thinking.

Inclusion: Expanding Employees Roles

Following on from intimacy is inclusion as intimacy should force a leader to get closer to employees while inclusion challenges the employee to play a greater role in the communication process. Inclusion expands on interactivity by enabling employees to put forward their ideas rather than simply batting the ideas to others who might be a part of the conversation. This brings employee engagement into the 360-degree process by calling on employees to generate the content that validates a company’s value. Employees who become committed to a message can become the best brand ambassadors that a company can ever hope to have on its payroll.

Intentionality: Pursuing an Agenda

While the first three prongs of this model focus on opening the flow of communication, intentionality is designed to bring a measure of closure to the process. The goal here is to have voices merge into a single vision of what the company’s communication stands for. In other words, the conversation should reflect a “shared agenda that aligns with the company’s strategic objectives” that will allow employees to “derive a strategically relevant action from the push and pull of discussion and debate.” The role here for leaders is to “generate consent rather than commanding assent” for a strategic objective. This enables employees at the top, middle and bottom to gain a 30,000-foot view of where their company stands on any issue which has gone through the process.

This approach requires you to be cognizant of how communications works wherever you are and in whatever medium you are communicating. It also focuses on the cultural differences that exist across borders, recognizing that cultural differences sometimes exist within the same office or across a team. It is having as much awareness as possible of the audience you are communicating to so that you ensure the messages that you are trying to get through and the information you are trying to gain from that audience is gained in the most effective way possible. You need to be comfortable changing the way you approach different people with different cultures.

The approach used by Kerr was more direct. He asked his players to stand in his shoes for one game and take the reins of leadership. By doing so he was able to engage them more directly so hopefully they will become more focused in their approach and play actual games. It will be interesting to see the result.

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© Thomas R. Fox, 2018