Seventeen days can make a tremendous difference.
The date was May 25, 2011. The Dallas Mavericks became the National Basketball Association’s Western Conference Champions for only the second time in its thirty-one year history. The 17,000-plus fans were anxious for a celebration. The team held up the trophy, smiled, posed for the obligatory photo-op, and then exited the arena – leaving ESPN reporter Doris Burke looking for someone to interview.
Asked why the team left the celebration, the Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki said, “We’ve got one of those trophies already. This is nice for a day, but we set our goals in October to win it all. We haven’t done it yet.”
On June 12, Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks teammates celebrated and celebrated and celebrated after winning the 2011 NBA championship. The goal had been accomplished.
We live in a world where every participant receives a certificate. There is an almost cultural temptation to celebrate even the most mundane accomplishment. By walking off the floor, Dirk and the Dallas Mavericks reminded us of the difference between milestones and goals.
Lessons for Leaders
Milestones are progress markers along the journey, but they are not the destination.
Conventional wisdom encourages us to celebrate the small successes required to achieve the final goal. And yet, lingering too long or celebrating too much at a milestone can result in missing the ultimate goal. Leaders must maintain the delicate balance of celebrating progress and maintaining focus. Here are three ideas you can use with your team.
1. Ensure clarity and buy-in on the goal and the payoff. Notice Nowitzki’s words when describing the goal: “We set our goals in October to win it all.” This wasn’t simply his goal or the coaches’ or even the owner’s goal. Everyone owned and embraced it. The team knew that the opportunities for success would increase exponentially when everyone embraced the challenge.
2. Understand and continuously communicate where you are in the process. The journey to a NBA title is a two-stage process: (1) an 82-game regular season which determines your seeding in the playoffs; and (2) a four-round tournament where the champion must win 16 games out of a possible 28. You must remind yourself and your team where you are in the process lest they lose focus.
3. Get in touch with the soul of your team. This is incredibly difficult to do. It requires total commitment to the team and its goals by the leader. It is not enough to have your finger on the pulse. You must be totally in-sync with the team’s thoughts, emotions, frustrations, and physical capacity. You can’t fulfill your responsibility without time invested in building relationships with each team member. Understand their hopes and dreams. Nourish their aspirations. Be the person who prepares and pushes them to deliver their best performance on the largest stage. Develop leaders at every level to help you.
The media has credited Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle with “pulling all the right strings” during the team’s playoff run. To understand the magnitude of that compliment, consider this:
• The NBA playoff process is a two month grind spent riding an emotional roller coaster consisting of four rounds.
• Each series is the best of seven games. By the end of a series, each team knows with at least 90 percent certainty what to expect from their opponent.
• The pressure builds with each round as you move one step closer to the ultimate goal. The cost of losing any series is going home for the season.
• The physical demands increase with every round as well. By the end of the season, everyone is playing hurt. Every player must push their body to its limit to compete.
• On every team there are players who have experience playing on a stage that large and those who don’t. You must keep every player ready to contribute because you never know when he might be called into service with the game and series on the line.
• You can do everything possible to put your team in position to win, but you can’t play the game. That means your success is totally in the hands of others once the game begins.
Your world isn’t that much different.
You – like the Dallas Mavericks – live in a world where your competitors possess similar if not superior talent. Every team is well coached and scouted. Over the course of time, you know what to expect from your team and your competitors in most situations. The difference between winning and losing comes down to preparation, focus, and execution.
The best leaders honor and acknowledge the milestones without losing focus on the goal. They are willing to delay gratification without stifling motivation. They know the difference between milestones and goals. And, they choose the right time to celebrate.