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Winning in the big leagues

WS talks to sports titan Jerry Colangelo

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in Hiring,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Office Communication,People Management,Workplace Communication

Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks, runs businesses that employ more than 5,000 people. His employees have ranged from basketball stars such as Charles Barkley to part-timers at ballpark concession stands. We spoke with Colangelo about his management philosophy and the lessons he has learned after 33 years in the business of pro sports.

WS: As the owner of several pro sports teams, it’s your job to hire winning coaches and managers. How do you pick your hires?

I look for people who are comfortable exercising responsibility. I don’t want employees bogged down by fear of trying and fear of failing. When I’m interviewing job candidates, I try to recognize the various gifts and skills they possess. I think about how those gifts can be used on the job, and to what extent their strengths match what I think we need.

WS: But with so much of your money at stake paying players’ high salaries, isn’t it tempting to meddle in a team’s affairs if you disagree with how a manager performs?

My philosophy has always been to give people rope. I’ve found they operate best when they can wield responsibility without me constantly second-guessing them. There may be times to tug the rope back, but that’s rare. It only happens when a situation gets dire.

WS: With star players earning so much money, isn’t it hard for a manager to take charge? Do you find it’s tough for managers to get respect?

An employee will automatically have more respect for a boss who’s been there, in the trenches, who’s done the same job well. It’s all about credibility. I’ve been a player, a coach, a manager and a businessperson, so I can relate to all these types of people. I like to hire and promote people who can connect to their employees and share their experiences. That identification and mutual understanding builds a strong relationship.

WS: You communicate with a wide range of people, from CEOs to athletes straight out of school. Do you act differently with them?

Not really. It’s my nature to wear my heart of my sleeve. Regardless of whom I’m with, I’ve found eye contact is very important. I recently signed a free agent, Todd Stottlemyre. A lot of teams wanted him. But he signed with us, and later he explained why. He said, “I looked into your eyes and you have the same competitive fire that I have.”

WS: How have you improved your communication skills over the years?

I’ve become a better listener. Also, I used to use my hands much more than I do today. Maybe it’s my Italian upbringing, but I realized early in my career that all my gesturing wasn’t working to my advantage. Now I’m more conscious of keeping my hands at my sides.

WS: In sports, motivating people must be easy: You focus on winning. But is that enough to motivate everyone in your organization?

No. Aside from the teams, I run a business that mostly involves marketing. My employees care about lots of things beyond whether our teams win. I find that by creating a family environment they’re more motivated, and they stay put. Many of them have been with me for 25 years or more, and that’s because they feel they work with me, not for me.

WS: You’ve been involved in hundreds of negotiations, including the NBA lockout that almost canceled this season. What’s your negotiating style?

I’m fair and candid. I think the biggest mistake people make is to negotiate from a defensive position. You can’t let fear affect how you negotiate. You can’t be afraid to ask for something.

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