As CPO of the National Basketball Association, Joe Postiglione Sr. leads just as the best in the league play – from the heart.
Officer for the National Basketball Association. Whether you’re a rabid fan or don’t know the difference between the NBA and the MTA, his work is truly worth celebrating. The business agnostic leadership strategies he’s honed over years of discovery, renewal, and smashing success hold lessons for us all.
The former executive coach and author of Don’t Believe Everything You Think, Postiglione runs the league’s indirect procurement operation. His team is responsible for supporting business/travel, operational projects associated with the game of basketball, from individual games during the season to global events like the NBA All-Star Game and the NBA Global Games.
On the surface, his role may seem different from what you might expect a CPO in industries outside of sports and media to have, but that’s just the perceived glamour of working in one of the world’s most valuable sports leagues. “Sports leagues are typically seen as part of the media and entertainment vertical, and we're not really different from any industry vertical when it comes to indirect procurement. The purpose of the league is to produce the game of basketball. Everything we procure is of a typical indirect flavor, involving marketing, professional services, IT, facilities, and things that typically fall in the indirect side, no matter what business you're in,” he clarified.
In a sports industry that is dependent upon great coaching, the idea of hiring a coach to oversee a critical aspect of the business seems to create a very neat, if unintended, symmetry. “Looking back with the benefit of five years, the NBA is a very careful employer,” he mused. “The interviewing process is probably as arduous as I've had in my career. I had seven or eight interviews to secure this position, so I would say they are most certainly discerning.
“To the extent that it's like hiring a great coach? From that standpoint, it is, and I can say that the CFO that was here at the time was a visionary person. I had known of him in a previous life and he took the business of procurement very seriously. He knew that the NBA needed somebody to build this from the ground up to be able to sustain it. It's interesting in that regard. I don't know if that's exactly the same as hiring a coach to manage a team, but it's close.”
Central to Postiglione’s leadership approach is the application of emotional intelligence, or EQ. As a certified executive coach and an emotional intelligence practitioner with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, he has successfully managed and grown a business coaching consortium which he began prior to joining the NBA.
“Many studies indicate that measuring EQ is a much more predictable way to make an informed decision when you hire. With the unemployment rate hovering around 4% for well over a year now, selection is from a very limited pool, which can tempt managers to disregard potential red flags during the interviewing process when expediency overcomes the patience to look further,” he posited.
“EQ is the key attribute that distinguishes outstanding performers and really is the leading differentiator between employees whose IQ and technical skills are approximately the same. I come from that point of view, so with that as a background, it's more about who I’ve become as a leader as opposed to a manager.”
As with any business, making great hiring decisions is key, and that’s where EQ continues to be a significant driver of those decisions. “In addition to the procurement subject matter experience that I require, I was very keen on evaluating their energy in terms of comfort, ability, how they responded to my situational questions, and how well they listened and spoke, which proved very valuable as my original staff and new hires continue to do very, very well,” he noted. “The staff that I hired five years ago, in addition to the staff that's come on since then, continue to tell me that this is the best opportunity that they've ever had and how much they enjoy their work. I couldn't get more fulfilled than hearing that.”
“As a result, the productivity from my team is stellar. I'm very happy and proud that they gravitated to these things. This stems from the interviewing process and how I represented myself and the NBA and how I continue to interact with people that I've actually brought on my team,” he said.
“In the typical performance management process, you may meet with somebody four times a year to go over how well they are doing in their performance. I give each of my direct reports an hour of my time every month. The first half-hour of that is to talk about their performance plan, what's working, what's not working, and how I might be able to help them be successful in accomplishing their goals and objectives. That's critical to not having any surprise discussions at the end of the year. We're very interactive throughout the whole year and they know that I care and I’m very invested in their success, and vice versa, for that matter.”
The second half-hour belongs to the employee, who is free to discuss anything. “It’s not that I'm trying to get personal with them, but a human being can’t come to work, drop all of their challenges at the door, and then be expected to be super productive. To the extent they feel comfortable talking about something that is bothering them, I’m able to listen and to essentially have a coaching conversation with them. This type of conversation for me is all about listening and asking questions that can shed light on areas they are stuck in. It’s never about giving advice. It’s about empowering them to make better decisions by challenging their thinking.
“I don't tell them what to do, but I ask very powerful open-ended questions. By answering those questions and by going a step or two deeper into what they believe the answer is, I sometimes find they are limiting themselves by believing everything they think and becoming prisoner to their own thinking. By being able to help my employees be clear on the things that hold them back from living a happy productive life, it allows me to pay it forward. That’s a very good thing to be able to say.”
Starting from scratch: a procurement primer
Postiglione came aboard as the NBA sought to establish its global procurement operations. “There were no systems, no data, and you can well imagine that when you come into procurement when you're trying to build a procurement function and have absolutely nothing to go on, it's really dark. Without data and being able to interpret it, you are flying blind.
“In addition to taking six months to figure out how I could get my hands on data to know where I was starting and then build a path to where I wanted to go, I spent those first months meeting with key leadership. This was more of a conversation about helping them to get to know me. From an emotional intelligence point of view, it’s about allowing them to see how I show up, which is calm and confident. I know what I'm talking about and, more importantly, I am interested in solving their challenges and not being a braggadocio about what I can bring to the game. This was a very important step where people could begin to become comfortable with me. From there,
we could talk about how six months down the road data was suggesting A, B, C, and D, and the approaches that I thought were reasonable to take and sought their buy-in to do so.”
That proactive approach enabled leadership to focus on mission-critical responsibilities. By taking burdensome procurement-related activities off their plates, they could focus on exactly what they needed to do. “That approach allowed me to gain traction early, but confidence is earned and, of course, we had to do that. Now we're very well inculcated into the business, and I believe things are going very well.
Tacking into the winds of change management
“Change is inevitable and I've had the advantage more so than many to spend half of my career in the world of management consulting,” he revealed. “When you learn consulting skills of asking questions before you bring forth solutions, it becomes ingrained in you. We all have an internal GPS and perceiving change and being alert for and comfortable being on the precipice of change is a very important thing that I think a leader and senior manager needs to develop.
“You need to sense that some things are about to change or if they're not about to change, perhaps they need to change. As such, once you are embracing that and not fighting it, you're able to get into reviewing the current as-is environment and envision the to-be,” he added. “If you take a deeper dive into the change pool and have the ability to look at things from a Lean Six Sigma/Rapid Improvement Event mindset, you can quickly look at the process, technology, and the people that are actually undertaking an area that is in need of change and in a group activity, refine the process, maximize or acquire the technology and decide if the right people with the right skills are in place to manage things as needed.
“By bringing these folks together and seeing what we are currently doing so that your people say, ‘Oh my goodness, I didn't realize we were doing that,’ you begin to take the people that aren't so easy with change and bring them along the path of change by saying, ‘Here's how it is. How do you think it will look if we change this? Look at the process. We've just refined it from 32 steps to 16 steps.’ You’re building internal change agents with this set of activities.
“The concept of change is incredibly complex. Humans in many, many ways resist it. The key is for a leader or manager to help people understand that change is inevitable, it’s not a bad thing, and it's nothing personal,” he said.
“Each of us are on our own journeys, and I'm very thankful that my journey has taught me to never give up. As painful and troubling as life can be for all of us, inside the pain, is a lesson. If and when we learn them, we don't have to repeat them. When we don't learn, life has a way of sending them again to us in a slightly different disguise but it's still the lesson you need to learn. We only truly know what we want or should do, as a result of learning through an experience.
“The winds of change have blown hard most of my life, I don't exactly know why that is, but I can certainly say it's helped me get to where I am today and I'm in a much more comfortable place.”
Seeking truth in all things
Getting to the heart of every matter is the way forward and that is a cornerstone of effective leadership. For Postiglione, being a lifelong seeker of truth has guided every aspect of his life and work, particularly in procurement when finding the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. “What is the best alternative to a negotiated agreement? It's understanding what is the best we can get out of this agreement if negotiations fail. Assuming that both parties choose to move forward while recognizing that we have constraints and decide to push those constraints to the farthest they can be without being hurtful to either side. You've now gotten into a place which is win-win and you can choose to proceed from there,” he explained.
Joe Postiglione is not immune to the vagaries of change. It is his acceptance of change as a constant that shapes him as a leader and cultivator of talent. “You can't address a change that you don't acknowledge. That's not my saying, that's Dr. Phil’s,” he laughed. “The biggest lesson for me is to continuously remember that events are going to happen that aren't as I would like them to be. Once they do and rather than becoming entangled in the fact that they did, I instead choose to learn how to best respond. Afterwards, I review why things happened as they do so that I don't find myself in the same position again.
“Once you realize that, you are able to take a look at what's just happened to you and why. It may not be a result of anything you did, it may be a result of something you didn't do, or it might be a result of what someone else did. If you work hard to not take that personally, as difficult as that sounds … and stop fighting against it and look for the best possible way for you to pass through it. That's the secret to the success.”
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