Former NBA player and entrepreneur Charles Smith asks: “Is versatility your blessing or your curse”


As the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks face off in the NBA Finals, I wanted to share leadership lessons from someone who has been in their shoes.

Warren Harding High School in Bridgetown, Connecticut, was a state basketball powerhouse when Charles Smith played there in the early 1980s. The school’s success was not only due to the fact that the future player of the NBA and other gifted athletes roamed the field. As Smith said in a recent edition of the Corporate Competitor Podcast, the team’s secret sauce was that the basketball coach was also the cross country coach and required basketballers to run cross country. -country. “The coach thought that being able to do things that other athletes we were competing against couldn’t do, like running cross country, would give us an advantage,” said Smith. “No matter who we played against, we were better conditioned than any team in the state. And that led to championships.

Versatility has become a constant in Smith’s life, whether as a professional basketball player or as a businessman. Smith was the 1988 Big East Player of the Year and Pitt’s all-time leading scorer. More than 10 years in the NBA, first with the Los Angeles Clippers, then the New York Knicks, with a short stint with the San Antonio Spurs, he played in all positions of the team except point guard. game. “Now that was a gift that I was big enough and nimble enough to do all of these things,” Smith noted, “but it was also a curse because I could never master a thing.”

However, Smith says that, overall, his versatility has taught him to be “more open and accept” to take on any role needed to help his teams. By the time he retired from basketball as a player to apply his tremendous communication and team building skills in business, he had become someone who could “go into different environments with different people. ‘different backgrounds and be an entrepreneur and an effective leader.

Upon “retirement,” he held leadership positions with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) and the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), where he helped establish the NBPA Foundation, a goal-oriented organization. nonprofit to support retired players in need. He then launched the Lifestyle Services Group, a company dedicated to helping athletes and artists make the transition from sport to business, from prospect to professional to executive.

Smith has learned to wear different hats including business development, marketing, and most recently facilitation. In 2021, he assumed the role of master broadcaster in partnership with Fierce, Inc., a global leadership development and training company whose client roster includes Apple, Coca Cola, HBO, and Turner Broadcasting Systems. One of Fierce’s critical areas of focus is helping teams communicate better.

Smith’s area of ​​expertise is communicating with employees to help them develop broader skill sets that will make them, yes, more versatile and valuable as teammates. Smith explains the concept in terms of the 80-20 rule. “We all have a skill set that makes us good at what we do. As we hone our skills, we become 80% excellent at what we do, ”he said. “But what about the remaining 20%? The 20 percent we’re not great at? Are we just avoiding this space or are we striving to be better in it? I want to live within that 20 percent margin where you have flaws, because if you move that needle just 1 percent, you’ve accomplished something great.

Smith is happy to let others obsess over finding their “strengths,” choosing instead to identify the flaw and spend the time it takes to make it a strength – or at least a weakness. He admits it can be difficult with leaders who have had tremendous success using their strengths. In such cases, and they are the rule rather than the exception, Smith says, the ego can get in the way. “It’s hard for people who are very successful to push themselves to go into an area that they’re not comfortable with. You don’t really want to jump in that pool. But if you want to be bigger and you want to build a dynasty, you have to live in and grow up in this imperfect margin. “

Adopting a change like this may come naturally for a man who has already lost 30 pounds to adjust to an NBA coach’s decision to take Smith from power to small, but Smith says it’s is more difficult for many in the corporate world. That’s why part of the services it offers is teaching leaders how to have the difficult conversations they need with their C-Suite teams.

“There is an old saying in sports,” Smith explained. “The game tape or the practice tape don’t lie. If you’ve messed up on the floor, anyone can see it. It’s much easier to hide in a business, which is why Smith advises leaders to be direct with themselves and their teams when expectations aren’t met or accountability is overdue. He prefers to take into account that other people have their own backgrounds and perspectives as a starting point for such conversations. But such recognition does not amount to “false tolerance,” which can poison relationships and allow problems to take hold.

“Ultimately, it’s about learning effective communication and understanding connectivity with the human being as a whole to build trust,” Smith said. “The accommodation is positive. Tolerance is negative.


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