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Ackerman worked for and alongside Stern at the NBA for some 30 years and considers the former commissioner to be one of the most influential figures in her career.
The theme of their conversation, an edited transcript of which is below, was male-to-female mentorship in the sports industry, though it covered the full gamut of leadership topics.
Val Ackerman: This session grew out of conversations I had with Leaders about the role of mentors and how important it is to develop future leaders in the business of sports. Talk to successful people in almost any field and it’s almost always that he or she had someone successful in their life who they worked for, looked up to, who opened doors for them, or who otherwise helped them advance in their careers. The sports industry is no exception.
The good news is that there are growing numbers of women in sport who have assumed mentorship roles for the next wave and I proudly count myself among that group. I talk to young women all the time about the experiences I’ve had; I try to give advice and an encouraging word and I’m going to continue to do it. But the fact remains that male executives continue to dominate the uppermost levels of the business. And so the point of this session was to explore the continuing importance of male mentors to women who are looking to advance. And how those relationships can get optimized.
I had the privilege of spending 16 years at the NBA – from 1988 to 2005. So I started there 30 years ago. When I started there the number of women executives in basketball was pretty low; I remember going to board meetings and it was me, Jeanie Buss and Susan O’Malley who were the only women in the room at the NBA board of governors meetings; and I can tell you there simply weren’t any women of stature or experience who I could look up to or latch onto. One of my heroines was actually the great Pat Summitt, who did so much for basketball, she was so tough; I revered her. The world is a lesser place because she’s not in it right now.
So when I joined the NBA, David, you were in your fourth year as commissioner, and really it was you and our good friend, long-time deputy commissioner Russ Granik who filled that mentor void for me and Russ and especially David remain close friends and a source of counsel to this day. Working for David was the ideal training to become a commissioner. It was everything from the little things like how to deal with fan mail, which mostly involves complaints about the officiating. You used to forward those to me back in the day because you wanted every bit of fan mail responded to. You’re a saver, so I still remember in your office you would have all these clippings of articles you found interesting and put it on a stack and the stacks used to grow because you didn’t throw anything out, and I’ve acquired the same habit. And then little things like how do you hand a team a championship trophy then get out of the picture. Not to mention the big things like branding, globality, social responsibility, technology – all those threads that come together in the mind of a commissioner, I remember getting from you, not to mention all the work habits of preparedness and being thorough. I remember every time I went in to talk to you I was always so nervous and I knew you were going to interrupt me after 30 seconds so I had to get it out fast but all those things are still with me today, so in front of this group I want to publicly thank you for all you did for me, and I know when the Big East came looking for a commissioner you put in a good word so I really appreciate that.
You had to have a mentor when you were coming up the ladder, so can you say how important or not that was to you?
David Stern: Everybody has a mentor. You learn things from people you want to follow and people you don’t. And the people you don’t can be even more important than those you do. I was fortunate, starting as a young lawyer at the Proskauer firm to have a mentor by the name of George Gallantz, who could be very tough with respect execution, detail and verbiage. What George taught me – and I did this with other people when I turned it around – was when I handed him something, if he decided not to look at something, it was ok to file it. That’s a big burden, and I carried it on with people at the law firm and at the NBA. What, are you waiting for me as the backstop here? Just give me something that you’re ready to go with. Don’t leave questions. And at the same time as being mean, all of a sudden he would show his gentle side and you would learn about him, his family, his brother, his wife’s family and the like, so there was a humanity he was open to demonstrating, and there was not.
Val Ackerman: With your 30-year run as commissioner of the NBA, you mentored legions of executives. I’m one of many, many. You have your diaspora scattered around the sports world and elsewhere. When you were in the role, did you grasp the impact you had on the people looking up to you? Did you have a philosophy of teaching? Were you conscious of your stature as a mentor?
David Stern: I only put it together after the fact. I treated everyone like they had to get it perfect, and to the extent that there was a difference between what their output was and perfect, we would discuss it on a regular basis!
Val Ackerman: Discuss is probably the wrong word!
David Stern: We just pushed each other. The culture was, we would get back from an All-Star game and say ‘that was good, but what are we going to do to make it better next year?’ And it wasn’t me with a whip, it was everyone beating themselves together saying we’ve got to do better because that’s what this is about. And it doesn’t matter who is doing it, whether it’s Kathy Behrens, who we stole from New York Cares, which was the inspiration for NBA Cares – not very imaginative, but perfect; Ayala Deutsch, who tells everybody what they can’t do based on copyright and trademark law, and a whole slew of people – not men, not women, but people, and devoted NBA employees. And we exacted a price from each other in terms of making sure that what we were doing was done in the cause of the relentless pursuit of perfection. And we didn’t spend a lot of time focusing on race, gender or what have you.
Val Ackerman: Let me pick up on the theme of relentless pursuit of perfection. Having been in this business for 30 years, it’s not only that we’re pushing ourselves to do great, do better, do more, but there are so many sacrifices that you have to make in the business of sports. For the women in this room, if you want to rise in this business you have to be prepared to pay your dues, make sacrifices and work your ass off. Our business used to be quieter in the summer. It’s not anymore. The summer months for a sports league that runs in the fall/winter/spring are not idle. You have live sports events that you can’t phone into; you have to be there. They’re often on weekends. It’s been noted how challenging it is – and my two daughters are 26 and 24, so I was one of you who had to work through a difficult career while raising young children – that’s the price; the sacrifices are the price you have to pay, and I guess my question to you, David, is looking back, is there anything about that – a young woman aspiring to rise or even a senior executive in the business – should be thinking about as they do their jobs, have their lives, raise their children, pursue perfection. How do you knit all of that together?
David Stern: I think that it depends. When you’re focused on going from 24 people to 500 people, no less 3,000, which I think the NBA now has in all its offices, the kind of things we’re talking about now we weren’t focused on back in the day, but it’s changed and it’s on the employer to have policies like parental leave – which is for men and for women; the expectation is that it will be taken. And not that paternity leave means that you’re going to be on your phone working on your case or whatever. It’s evolved and it should evolve and it’s really on the CEOs, and I think Adam Silver and his team are doing a spectacular job of evolving the NBA to be a best-in-class organisation. When you’re pushing and pushing and pushing like we were and your big questions is can we survive because your league is too black, says the media, and no-one will accept a league going from white to black and you’re going out of business, it tends to focus you a little bit more on being in business and how you can get out from under it. But now that sports has become so big and dominant in terms of its own business, it should embrace all the things you’re talking about. And I can understand you saying that’s easy for him to say now, but he didn’t do it all, but we did it in our own crazy way. We certainly recognized diversity as an enormous strength that opens you up to the greatest pool of people. And we’re equally proud that our people are out there at other organisations doing a great job. Only one of them heckles me on a regular basis.
Val was my special assistant, crazy also, and she understood that execution and detail are what make organisations great. I don’t care what anyone says. I valued hard work. More than brains or looks or anything, hard work: I grew up at Stern’s Delicatessen and every day you did the same; you mopped, you packed up. When we finally went to electric registers, my dad gave me ‘L’ as my identification letter, for lazy. You grow up with certain values but society changes those values. I used to say that you have to think of an office and many places as a solar system, and the planets are not spheres, they’re squares – they get to be spheres by bumping into each other and levelling off. And that’s ok. But if you’re a women in those circumstances you’ve got to make sure that those edges are as sharp as everybody else’s; you treat everyone the same and you have to be able to speak up about something and do what you have to do so that when the spheres get formed, you’re part of the operation.
Val Ackerman: The hard work part: I was in a corporate law practice, I worked hard and thought it was hard. I came to the NBA and worked twice as hard. We had a lot going on – late nights, weekends – and I think you set the tone on that, in a good way. Learning how to delegate was not your strength – you wanted to do it by yourself, but learning to be a good delegator is a big part of learning how to be a good leader. How is your evolution on the journey of how to delegate?
David Stern: I would say to Russ [Granik], who was deputy commissioner, and then Adam [Silver], ‘what’s going on, you or I could do this immediately and we’ve got ten people who aren’t getting it done’, and they said ‘David, that’s not the way to look at it – it’s their responsibility – we can’t do everything, you can’t do everything so go back to your office, sit down and relax.’ I did, dutifully. I learned to delegate – you have to. I learned from my assistant – she gave me three ‘Ds’ that I had to do; delete, defer, do. I took my lead from her. You learn from being in the heat of the battle. I think there’s a lot I would do differently – not the intensity of who I was, but the recognition of time off as part of the process of being a father, a mother, a son, a caregiver; that’s the best part of what’s happening now in corporate America. You shouldn’t go to companies who don’t have that and you should deprive them of the talent that they’re missing. Companies are coming, however slowly, to it. I wish this were not necessary, this forum. I think the good corporations are getting it and I think the bad ones deserve to be shunned and go out of business.
Val Ackerman: As someone who took two weeks of maternity leave with my second daughter, glad to hear you say that. What can leaders in the sport business do – as a commissioner you can only do so much because it’s the teams that are doing the hiring? I can say a lot, form working groups, preach and do my part but at the end of the day they’re making the decisions, so what can a commissioner do?
David Stern: I’m going to make a confession. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Jesse Jackson. When I suspended Latrell Sprewell [for choking his coach during practice] and I was getting a lot of heat, Jesse wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated saying ‘no matter what colour you are, you can’t strangle your boss in America’. I used to use Jesse as a tool as well – I would call up an owner and say ‘you’re being let down by your general manager because you have a white general manager, a white coach and five white assistants and Jesse is liable to come and start picketing you’. And they made changes. Slowly assistant coaches came to be hired who happened to be African American; we began to see a change. You take small victories. In the case of the schools, you communicate with the presidents; if their coaches aren’t doing the job, just because they’re catholic institutions doesn’t mean their hiring is divine.
Val Ackerman: What leadership advice you would give?
David Stern: One is you’re going to have screw-ups and what you’re ultimately going to be judged by is how you responded to something you maybe didn’t anticipate and in some cases couldn’t even imagine. I wouldn’t dwell on what we did bad. Number two: You should get to a point where you trust your gut. When Magic Johnson was HIV Positive, I went to him because I thought we should be supportive – and we ultimately changed the debate on AIDS in this country, it was incredible. I began to understand the power of sports. I had an owner call me and say ‘I think you might be a little bit ahead of yourself, maybe we could do some polling?’ That’s the only leadership moment I had in 30 years as commissioner when I thought ‘this guy is crazy’ – this was an opportunity for us to lead. I got off the phone quickly. When you feel comfortable with that, do what you do, the best you can, with all of the facts you have and don’t look back. There is no perfect answer so if you feel good about yourself and it, go for it.