UTSA professor tells how to manage human resources like the S.A. Spurs

Mark Lengnick-Hall

Mark Lengnick-Hall

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(June 12, 2014) -- To paraphrase a New York Times columnist, sports are like business, simplified. Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs can teach us a lot about how to manage human resources in a business. We can win in the marketplace if we follow their example.

Build teams around key employees. The Spurs have the "Big 3" of Tim, Tony and Manu. The Spurs invest more in these players. They protect them, and they take efforts to retain them. Businesses need to identify their key players, those who are in strategic positions and have a direct impact on organizational success. Invest more in them: training and development, rewards and retention efforts.

Complement your key employees with support specialists. The Spurs have Danny Green and Patty Mills to make three-point shots, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter for rebounds and Kawhi Leonard to defend against opponents' stars. Invest less in your support specialists so you have the flexibility to replace these employees when necessary, or make them key players when they demonstrate greater value. Like the Spurs, you may have to trade away a Richard Jefferson in order to get a Boris Diaw.

Identify talent that other companies overlook. The Spurs coaching staff has been amazing over the years at finding talent that other teams have ignored, such as Kawhi Leonard. Businesses, too, can seek out talented employees that competitors overlook. For example, recruit professionals at lesser known colleges and universities. Use the "moneyball" approach.

Prevent employee burnout. Part of the Spurs' success this year can be attributed to Popovich's strategy of constantly monitoring his players' health and preventing fatigue and injury by limiting their playing time ("managing their minutes") -- even when the players resist. We forget that in business, it is easy to overwork our key employees, leave them in the game too long, and create fatigue, health issues and burnout. In today's environment, it is sometimes necessary to demand that your key employees take time off for recuperation.

Create opportunities to develop your future employees. The Spurs frequently bench their starters -- creating opportunities for other players to develop their skills and learn the system. Businesses can do this, too. Rotate employees into new job assignments. Create temporary assignments to build particular skills. Use naturally occurring absences (e.g., illnesses and vacations) by key employees as opportunities for developing other employees.

Build stronger teams by mixing younger and older workers. The Spurs have found a good mix of older and younger players, and they capitalize on the strengths and minimize the weaknesses. The older players have the experience and well-honed skills, but they tire more quickly. The younger players have the energy and enthusiasm, but lack the experience. But when they are combined -- the wisdom and skills of the older players with the enthusiasm and vitality of the younger players -- they are a daunting foe. Businesses can use combinations of older and younger employees to leverage wisdom with energy.

Create a sense of shared purpose and interdependence. The Spurs constantly stress passing the ball and making plays as a team. They are all committed to one goal: coming together as a team and winning a championship. Businesses, too, need to create an overarching goal that brings employees together in a common pursuit.

Review, restore and renew your organizational capabilities. The Spurs recognized two major weaknesses in their capabilities: they couldn't defend some of the better "bigs" in the league, and they had diminished three-point shooting competence. Some deft recruiting and trading helped them restore their strengths and shore up their weaknesses. Businesses need to do the same, periodically assessing their current stock of human resource and organizational capabilities. Nothing stays the same, so you have to constantly adjust to keep up with your competitors.

Basketball players and employees are not like other organizational resources. They have feelings, emotions, and sometimes they get sick or injured. There is always that unknown factor that cannot be planned for by coaches or managers. However, effective human resource management enables basketball teams and businesses to maximize their chances of winning.

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This story was republished courtesy of the UTSA College of Business.

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