Five Minutes with… is a blog series, featuring change-makers who through their work, passions, and personal stories have shown a commitment to addressing domestic and global issues.
On the heels of the NBA’s decision not to host the 2016 All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina in response to a state law that eliminated anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, Kathy Behrens, President of Social Responsibility and Player Programs for the NBA, discusses the league’s commitment to social impact and inclusivity, the importance of hard work, and her pick of the best basketball players of all time.
I believe you recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of NBA Cares. Congratulations! I imagine that you’ve seen some important changes around the issues that the organization has touched on since its inception, but have also seen changes in the NBA itself and its business practices because of the success of the NBA Cares?
Have you seen it permeate throughout the organization as a whole?
Yes, I would definitely say it has. I think for us here at the league office as well as for our teams, the NBA Cares programming is in our DNA now in a way that it wasn’t maybe always as evident. It’s something that’s changed the culture of our company in terms of how people feel about working here and the opportunities that they have to engage on important social issues and to work with so many great organizations. Our work is not just about what we do with our players and our teams but it’s very much what we do with our employees so that part has been one of the great consequences of the program.
We’re starting to see an increase in the sports-philanthropy nexus and how it’s being used to drive change. At the organizational level, like with many of the programs you lead, and at the individual level with athletes like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Lebron James and many others.
What is the most exciting program that you are working on at NBA Cares?
It’s not just any one issue. It’s the full and complete recognition that we have, our players have an opportunity to engage in really meaningful ways to have good impact in our communities and on issues that matter. And how we do that – whether that’s a PSA campaign or a whether it’s a social media campaign or whether it’s an event or whether it’s a program that we are doing that teaches the values of the game that we think matter beyond the playing court. We just did an event that we are going to do more of going forward with our junior NBA program coaching young kids to build character and we brought in one of our partners Athlete Ally and another partner organizations and we had about 150 youth coaches, and talked to them about homophobia in sports and the way that some coaches use language to try to motivate and how inappropriate it is and how that language has bearing on how young boys view women, other girls and gay men. It’s a really powerful program and they are really great partners and that’s the kind of thing that excites us because we can really have an impact on another generation of athletes not just the ones who are going to make it to the NBA but ones who are going to be leaders in business and in their communities in the future.
“…we can really have an impact on another generation of athletes not just the ones who are going to make it to the NBA but ones who are going to be leaders in business and in their communities in the future. “
Sports sometimes levels the playing field. It’s the one thing that despite our differences, unites us as opposed to dividing us as a society. How does the NBA work across industries to help show other organizations on how they can come together on inclusivity and work across lines that are much more beneficial than separating?
We focus more of our attention on just working within our own league because it’s not just the impact that we want to have at the league level – we have 30 teams in the NBA, another 12 in the WNBA so we are still learning and trying to improve, and we are really focused on getting our own house in order. We have got a lot to do to even improve the way we go about these kinds of things. We put a lot of attention into the details of helping our teams and sharing best practices and working together at all levels and all issue areas with all of our teams and leagues so that’s really what we’re focused on rather than necessarily other industries or other professional sports. We have got a lot to learn from what those organizations do and we are always watching and trying to learn and then just trying to execute within our leagues and our teams.
The NBA has a record of inclusion of women as referees, in the league office and as coaches. It leads me to believe it’s a part of the culture of the organization. As a leader and a woman who has successfully navigated a predominantly male-dominated industry, what advice do you give young women looking to emerge as future leaders in the industry?
I always tell people that there’s no substitute for hard work. Hard work is one of those things that levels the playing field. Doesn’t matter what school you went to or where you have a degree from or what your background is. If you’re willing to work hard and if you can work well in a team setting, then that’s a pretty good leveler. Especially for young people who are just starting out there’s no substitute for that, and being a good colleague and being someone who people want to work with. So it’s the hard work and great attitude where people can find success. I’m all for ambition and desire that people have to continue to learn and grow and challenge themselves, but at the end of the day you want to work with good people and that means you have to be a good colleague and you have just got to work your butt off.
What is one of the toughest decisions that you have had to make in your professional career?
The hardest decision probably was to leave New York Cares and come the the NBA. That was 16 years ago. I was at a great organization, had great colleagues and loved the work that I was doing there and so it was very hard to leave. It worked out for me but it was very difficult. I’m sure as Judith has probably said, when you run your own organization you take it all on and it’s hard to walk away from that. And that was hard to do with New York Cares. It’s worked out for me and I’m thrilled with it but that was a very difficult decision.
What is the best advice that you have ever received?
It’s probably ‘work hard and be a good colleague’. The most transformative work experience that I have had was with Mario Cuomo. Working for him really brought home those two ideals that I focus on. One is how to carry yourself with other people and watching the Governor do that day in and day out both with those who agreed with him and those who didn’t agree with him, and then just seeing his work ethic and aspiring to that level of commitment for something. So it’s not necessarily advice as it is more the role models that I’ve had and certainly I put him right up there among the top.
How do you deal with failure?
When you play sports, you’re going to win and you’re going to lose. You can’t be afraid to lose, you can’t be afraid to try something, you can’t be afraid to take risks, you can’t be afraid to challenge yourself. You also can’t be afraid of what’s going to happen when someone second guesses you. That’s the lesson you learn when playing sports, not just at the professional level but at every level. Having grown up playing sports those are lessons that have stayed with me. I’m not fearless or reckless, but I’m not afraid to make a decision, I’m not afraid to voice an opinion. I am pretty confident without being afraid of what the consequences might be, and I think that’s important. If you’re going to try something you have to be willing to try things that might not work.
What are 3 words that best describe you or your leadership style?
Inclusive, Trusting, Approachable.
What are you reading right now?
Who are your top 5 greatest basketball players?
Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Michael Jordan, Chris Paul, Dikembe Mutombo