Joy, Humor and “Getting Over Yourself”: Values-Based Coaching in the NBA

Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich are two of the most successful coaches in the NBA. Kerr won five NBA championships playing for the Bulls and Spurs and now coaches the Golden State Warriors. Popovich won five championships as coach of the Spurs, including two with Kerr as one of his most productive players.

Today, both coaches are widely respected as two of the best coaches in professional sports. Beyond winning together as a player-coach pair, these two men share a similar approach to coaching: Values-based leadership.

Popovich (L) and Kerr (R) share a lighthearted moment before a 2014 regular season game

Popovich (L) and Kerr (R) share a lighthearted moment before a 2014 regular season game

Kerr began coaching the Warriors in 2014. From the start, he built his team’s culture around four leadership values: joy, mindfulness, compassion and competition. To develop this list, Kerr combined his experience as an NBA player, executive and broadcaster with direct input from the Warriors players. The influence of joy on the team’s output is clear - Steph Curry dances after made three-pointers, Draymond Green emotes after every big defensive play and Kevin Durant, a new addition to the team this year, is frequently quoted saying how much fun he’s having playing for his new organization.

Over in San Antonio, Gregg Popovich is heralded as the coach who knows how to spot and develop “character” in the players he coaches. When pressed on how he’s able to identify a strong “character” in a young player, he bristles, saying that character is really a collection of specific, valuable traits that he and his staff can identify. For example, he lists Tim Duncan’s sense of humor as one of the reasons he was such a great player to coach: “Having a sense of humor is huge to me and to our staff because I think if people can’t be self-deprecating or laugh at themselves or enjoy a funny situation, they have a hard time giving themselves to the group.”

Humility is another one of Coach Pop’s key values. The Spurs have a phrase they use to evaluate new players, “Has he gotten over himself?”. The answer helps the coaching staff measure a player’s work ethic, humbleness and acceptance of his role. “Getting over himself” means that a player understands how his skills and limitations help or hinder the team’s ability to win. This concepts drives the way the Spurs attract veteran NBA players in free agency. Year after year their roster grows with superstar talents signing for less than maximum money to play a lesser role (fewer shots, fewer minutes, less media spotlight) for the chance to work alongside like-minded teammates devoted to winning an NBA championship.

Kerr won two NBA championships (1999, 2003) while playing in San Antonio under Popovich

Kerr won two NBA championships (1999, 2003) while playing in San Antonio under Popovich

Joy, a sense of humor, humility. These are the values espoused by highly successful NBA coaches. Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr use these concepts to contextualize the demands they place on the highly-skilled people they lead. These values form the lens through which they evaluate and solve challenges in the complex and highly scrutinized world of professional basketball.

A values based leadership approach also works well for people working outside the world of sports. Here’s a thought exercise you can do to start developing your own list of professional values. The next time you have five free minutes, ask yourself the following:

  • What are the values you use to guide the way you work?
  • What are the common traits and characteristics of your favorite colleagues?
  • Which traits in your colleagues frustrate you?
  • When faced with a challenge, which of your own values help you organize the way you plan your response?

As a personal challenge, try to articulate your own list of 3-5 professional values. If you feel comfortable, do this with a colleague or friend and compare your lists. Do these values line up with the values of the organization you work for? If they don’t, what can you do to start a discussion to bring these values to the forefront of your work?


Improv for Interviewers - A FastCompany Interview

Dave Collins, Founder and CEO of Oak and Reeds, was interviewed in Fast Company on ways to integrate improv into a company's interview process. Below is an excerpt of his thoughts (you can read the full interview here):

Brainstorm the questions you need to ask to get the information you need about the candidate beforehand. Have those ready, but also be prepared to go off-script if the opportunity arises. Collins uses a "question-asking funnel," where the interview starts with very broad questions, then more specific, probing questions are used as various lines of discussion develop. The key is to keep the conversation fluid, listen intently, and to be ready to follow an interesting thread when it emerges, he says.
"What I like to teach in improv is called ‘color and advance,’" he says. Use an open-ended question to get the color that the person will share in the story, then use an "advance" question to drill down into the specific skills about which you need to know.


At Goop, the lifestyle magazine famously founded by Gwynneth Paltrow, CEO Lisa Gersh leads her teams using improv techniques. In an interview with the New York Times, Gersh describes how taking an improv class led to her rethinking the way she runs meetings, divides focused and collaborative time and gains buy-in from executives.


This article describes how Palantir, a secretive data-science company in Silicon Valley, uses improv to craft its corporate culture. The article fascinatingly connects the dots of Palantir's culture (flat hierarchy, small teams and a fanatical devotion to the work at hand) to the rules of improv ("yes, and", a focus on "status transactions" and always deferring individual recognition for the good of the group). The author presents this case study as an example of how improv can be used, for better or for worse, as a cultural glue that helps to retain and motivate employees.

Also mentioned in this article is Keith Johnstone's "Impro", a must-read for anyone looking to delver deeper into the inner workings of improvisation on stage.

End Boring Meetings With Eight Simple Ideas

Take a moment and ask yourself: What was the best meeting you've attended this week? Who was there, what did you do and why was it so good? 

With so much of our time at work spent in conference rooms, it's important to think clearly and creatively about the way we spend our time together at work. Below i've put together eight simple ways you can use basic improv techniques to be more productive, engaged and entertained in your next meeting.

1. While everyone arrives, use a warm-up activity to set a collaborative tone


Meetings almost never start exactly on time, so instead of silently checking your email, why not use those first five minutes productively? In groups of 3-4, challenge teams to come up with as many ideas as possible for this year’s company holiday party. For the first two minutes, every sentence during the brainstorm must start with “yes, but”. For the next round, all sentences must start with “yes, and”. After both rounds are done, discuss as a group how changing “but” to “yes” altered the way you worked together. 

2. During the meeting, assign points of view

If your meeting involves brainstorming or providing feedback on ideas, try assigning “roles” to participants. Normal titles like “CFO”, “President”, “Finance Director” or more creative roles like “Elon Musk”, “The Queen of England”, or “An Excitable Eight-Year-Old” allow people to step outside their own experiences to think about how other people might perceive an idea. This technique encourages outside perspectives and new ideas that may not otherwise make it into the conversation.

3. Turn your challenge into a story

In eight sentences, you can tell the beginning/middle/end of any business objective by filling in the following blanks: “Once upon a time...Every day...But, one day...Because of that...Because of that...Because of that... Until, finally...And, ever since then…”. Try writing a few different versions out loud as a group and see if you can spark a new line of thinking on your KPIs and goals. 

4. Take turns asking “dumb” questions

We often say “there are no dumb questions” but still find that nobody asks any questions for fear of, well, looking dumb. Take a moment the next time someone explains a new or complex topic and propose that everyone in the room ask at least one “dumb” question. This helps mask any embarrassment and may provide important answers people might otherwise never receive.

5. Acknowledge that body language is part of a meeting’s dialogue.

If someone is learning back in their chair, staring off into space, or checking their phone, these are clear indicators that they are not engaged. When this happens, pause and check in with disengaged attendees and ask what they’re trying to say with their body language. “I noticed that a few of us are not engaged in the discussion, is this topic valuable for you?” is a way to address this kind of issue. Conversely, if people are making eye contact, leaning in towards the speaker and nodding their heads, acknowledge these behaviors and confirm that what you’re seeing is in line with what you’re hearing. Connecting the dots between what people are saying with their bodies and with their words helps to ensure that all meeting participants understand and agree to the decisions made in the room.

6. Help virtual participants feel included by describing the room

It’s very easy to lose track or forget about the people on the phone. Remember to regularly verbalize what’s going on in the room to make sure that remote participants are aware of the current mood and energy. Quick comments like “Everyone seems to be nodding”, “I see a lot of smiles around the table” or “Omar just brought in a delicious looking burrito and now we’re all jealously watching him eat it” help remote participants contribute to the conversation in more precise and productive ways.

7. Brainstorm “bad” ideas

Brainstorm Bad Ideas

The next time you and your team are stuck on a tough problem, try a “reverse brainstorm”. As a group, write down ten terrible ideas that would only make the problem worse. Often these terrible ideas are just a tweak or two away from a creative idea that would actually solve the problem.

8. Create an agenda and send it out ahead of time

I know this isn’t improv, but it seriously works! Every meeting needs an agenda, and if you’re struggling to come up with one, you probably don’t need to meet. Often the most productive meetings are the ones that never occur.