Business lessons from the basketball court

June 15, 2011: 3:13 PM ET

No matter how the score is calculated, the most effective leaders stay nimble enough to evaluate, adjust, and make decisions based on what is needed in that moment.

By Sharon Napier, guest contributor

FORTUNE -- I've always been passionate about basketball -- as a player, a coach, and a fan. This year's NBA finals have led me to consider what I've achieved in my life, in both my work and my personal pursuits, and how my success can be traced straight back to the court.

Each point, rebound, triumph and disappointment (sorry, Lebron) strikes a similarity to how we confront business challenges everyday and the importance of rooting for our teams. Although it's been a long time since I've played the game, the squeaking of sneakers and the roar of the crowd still ring loud in my mind.

I grew up in a large Italian family, and as the youngest of five, I was always part of a team. My father used to joke that he had the perfect basketball team sitting around the dinner table. By the time I played my first varsity sport at age 14, I already knew the meaning of teamwork, while other girls were still learning the concept (thanks to Title IX, it was the first time many of us had ever played an organized sport).

We lacked a volunteer coach one year, and I stepped up and asked our English teacher -- whose only experience was connecting with students in the classroom -- to lead us. Much to my surprise, he agreed. My former teacher ended up launching a whole new career for himself as a coach, and we moved on to college basketball together. This was the first of several important lessons I learned about business on the basketball court: Taking risks can pay off big time.

As a female executive, I've had my share of challenges and opportunities. I've read countless business playbooks, gotten the degrees, and jabbed elbows with the big boys. Through it all, I kept my eye on the scoreboard. Whether points are calculated on sales, customers, or number of widgets produced, the most effective leaders keep their eyes on the scoreboard while being nimble enough to evaluate, adjust, and make decisions -- from the big, tough ones to the everyday ones -- with a strong sense of what is right, and what is needed in that moment.

As a finalist (once again) for the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year award, the famous coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University said, "People have to be given the freedom to show the heart they possess…it's a leader's responsibility to provide that type of freedom." I know this to be true. As CEO of a growing advertising agency, I've learned a lot about what it takes to be an effective leader and build a successful company. Many of the lessons I learned on the basketball court still guide me today. See if they apply to your business:

Build a talented team. This means prospecting for talented young recruits and simultaneously building the next tier. We continually seek passionate, like-minded people who share our values and provide the kind of creative problem-solving skills that make us a better agency.

Maintain full court vision. The best players have full court vision. They have the ability to see not only the straight line to where they are going, but also the big picture in the heat of the game. For leaders, this could not be more important.

Deviate from set plays. In basketball, players are given "set plays" by their coaches -- and great players are distinguished by their ability to know when to break away from them. This is true in business, too. Sure, we may start out with what we think is the right plan, but long-term growth requires flexibility and a willingness to take risks. More simply put: It takes guts.

Practice daily. In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote, "Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good." Practice means drills, repetition, and constant striving to perform at a higher level, and sometimes the character that is built in practice is what makes a player great.

Practice is inherent in our agency culture. We exercise our communication skills. We conduct agency-wide meetings on a monthly basis. We train our agency leaders to enhance their presentation skills. These drills keep us on our toes when the competition gets tough.

Listen to your coaches. Talent may win games, but good leadership wins championships. I learned early on to trust my coaches, even when I didn't fully understand their decisions. Coaches bring out the best in their players through a combination of inspiration and honest feedback. Teams must have faith in their coaches and trust that experience and intelligence guides the tough calls.

As is the case in basketball, winning takes teamwork, passion, and focus. What's more, everyone on the team -- young recruits and seasoned players alike -- must come to the game fueled up and ready to play.

Sharon Napier is CEO of Partners + Napier, and a member of the global strategic leadership team of Project: WorldWide.

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