How I’m taking the Raptors NBA Championship to work with me

The Idea Suite’s President and Founding Partner Fiona Stevenson reflects on the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA Finals, and on how it can inspire us to build our own high-performing teams.

And so, they did it!  THEY DID IT!!! And I find myself bursting with an unreasonable level of pride! Other than living in the amazing city to which the Raptors belong, I obviously can’t make any claim to the incredible achievements of this team – all season and, of course, the spectacular feat of last night’s NBA Finals win. And yet, this victory feels personal, and has from the start. And, judging from the extraordinary energy that has electrified this unseasonably cold and wet city over the past several weeks, there are millions more people across the country that have felt just as overwhelmed with emotion and pride as I have, all the way through this incredible NBA playoff season.

In so many ways, this outpouring of emotion seems to be on a whole other level compared to  other athletic milestones in our city’s recent history. When I watched our city’s hockey and baseball teams as they pushed for playoff success over the past few years, I certainly felt pride and excitement and, on a personal level, was undeniably inspired enough by the incredible physicality of elite athletes to consider taking up running - one day. But as the credits have rolled on each and every post-season Raptors game, and particularly last night’s, I’ve felt so incredibly motivated that I’ve simultaneously wanted to run a marathon, start an empire, and solve world hunger as soon as humanly possible. The level of motivation I’ve felt in all aspects of my personal and professional life over the past few weeks is beyond anything I’ve experienced.

As I’ve tried to unpack the why – of why it’s all felt so remarkable and at times even magical – I’ve realized it’s because, for me, this year’s Raptors team has been the perfect embodiment of a truly high-performance team.  And as those of us who have had the privilege of being part of such a team – be it on the field/court/rink or in a more traditional workplace setting  – can attest, that rare experience is every bit as magical and surreal as this unfolding Raptors season has been. Watching the Raptors take this playoff journey hasn’t just triggered a rollercoaster of emotions – it’s also unlocked precisely the sort of powerful memories (whether of crushing defeats, resounding successes, or countless displays of human vulnerability) that we’ve all felt at one time or another as members or leaders of a great team. I’ve certainly felt as though my own heart has been on the court, right alongside them, and from the outpouring of joy, excitement and pure emotion that erupted all across Canada last night, I know I’m not alone in that. With that in mind, then:

Is there anyone who would now deny that this team has demonstrated all the essential ingredients of a high-performing team? 

After all, this win hasn’t just come out of nowhere – and it certainly can’t be explained away by Kevin Durant’s injury woes, or the Warriors’ impending and unsettling move away from Oakland. Instead, it’s the result of a truly high-performing team – one that we can take away a whole lot of lessons from.  What are those lessons, then?

Strong, trusting and empowering leadership. Individual skill is important – vital, even – yet in the end, it’s not enough on its own. To be a truly great team, you need strong leadership that trusts and empowers every member to step up, and to be the very best that they can be, understanding the skills that each team member has, and encouraging them to flourish. Sometimes that’s through the vision of a Masai Ujiri, masterminding a win through big, institutional changes and hard choices. Sometimes that’s through the restrained, confidence-inspiring leadership of a Nick Nurse, offering both consistency and experimentation at the same time. And, sometimes, it’s through the inspiration of a great on-the-court leader like Kawhi Leonard or Kyle Lowry, leading by example and setting the tone for everyone around them.

A diverse team with unique and complementary skills.  I don’t imagine that many of us needs to be reminded that increasing the diversity of teams leads to better performance, but if we did, then this Raptors team is an incredible example of just how true that is. With members from all walks of life, from all around the world, and with a wide range of ages and levels of experience, this Raptors team is an effectively diverse workforce in microcosm. Each member brings something different yet complementary to the team, allowing the whole to be far greater than the sum of its parts.

A unifying, audacious goal. Every great team needs a single, shared purpose. This team’s relentless pursuit of the NBA title and their refusal to be satisfied with anything less has been admirable, even if it has resulted in some incredibly restrained post-game interviews (and my personal favourite playoff moment, when Kyle Lowry attempted but just couldn’t quite hold back his smile after beating the 76ers in the second round). It seems obvious, but coming together around a goal that stretches us to our very limits is a fantastic way to turn a group of individuals into a team – and to push that team towards greatness.

An MVP that ups everyone’s game. Will we ever be able to say enough about the impact that Kawhi Leonard has had on the team this year? Countless columns – and statues – will be dedicated to his achievement, and yet he surely deserves more credit still. Not only has he delivered time and time again, stepping up whenever he was needed, but he’s also raised his whole team up right alongside him. He’s tough, he’s strong, and he’s composed – but he’s also all about the team. Whether on the court or in the boardroom, that’s an incredible teammate to have.

The heart of the team. Not everyone is – or even wants to be – the MVP, though, and great teams are built on more than just superstars. Sometimes the very heart of the team is the player whose contributions are more subtle, and less easily quantified with statistics and box scores. The Raptors, in the end, are a team of these quiet heroes – from Fred VanVleet’s dedicated, unshowy defense against Steph Curry, to Serge Ibaka’s clutch offense when it really counted, with absolutely everything Pascal Siakam did in between. One man, though, was the true heart of this Raptors team. The quarterback strategist, extraordinary starter and supervisor to the second line, who truly stepped up when it counts (21 points in the first half of Game 6!) – honestly, what’s not to love about Kyle Lowry? To borrow the catchphrase of a certain diminutive Toronto Blue Jay, height doesn’t measure heart – and nor does it measure the importance of a dedicated supporting player to a truly great team.

Resilience, especially in the face of crushing defeat. Setbacks are inevitable in our pursuit of goals. Coming so close but falling short, and having to pick ourselves up and come back stronger is the name of the game. But great teams like the Raptors take each failure as an opportunity to learn and do better. Years of disappointment, whether in the playoffs or the business world, can break even the most remarkable performers. For truly great teams, though, they act as sources of inspiration and essential learning. Lost by 1 point in a game that mattered more than any before it? You can wallow in that defeat, and let it knock you down – or you can follow it up with a 4 point win in an even bigger and tougher game, and take a championship home with you.

The sideline advocate.  Take away his iconic, meme-laden status as Canada’s goofy uncle (and 20 million albums sold), and Drake’s just a guy who believed in a group of people and what they were capable of, and put himself on the line time and time again to show them – and the world – that his belief was unwavering and absolute. And, like any good advocate, he hasn’t spent the past weeks, months and years counting the lost millions from radio stations that have banned him or former fans who were turned off by his unapologetic fandom. He’s spent them supporting his team, no matter what. When you look at the crowds that filled the streets last night, you can see the countless Raptors fans who did exactly the same.

And it’s fleeting. Oh so fleeting. In the end, even the best things can’t last forever. Sometimes you’re on an incredible team, and it’s amazing, and then, suddenly, it’s over. One person leaves the team, a cascading effect follows, and things aren’t ever quite the same. No matter the strength of a dynasty, there’s always another great team coming along looking to take the throne. The Warriors looked unbeatable not so long ago, and now they’re going home disappointed. The Raptors – no matter how great this team is, and has been – now have to try to turn an incredible playoff run into something larger – and if they can’t keep the likes of Leonard, Gasol and Green (or replace them well), then they’re likely to be looking at an expensive rebuild. Sometimes, after the excitement’s over, you almost wonder if it really ever was.  

And yet…

Though some of my grand post-playoff ambitions will surely fade as the high of tonight’s win subsides in the weeks to come, the motivation to create and foster a high-performance team in my workplace is a spark that has been re-ignited by this team, as I’m sure it has for leaders all across this great country. Every team is different, of course, and not every moment can be the final seconds of the NBA Finals, watching heroes somehow – somehow – find a way to get the job done. Sometimes, you have to strain and struggle to keep an incredible team together, and work to create a legendary dynasty – and sometimes, when the time comes, you have to rebuild, looking back on what came before for inspiration. But as long as we, together, push ourselves to create and encourage truly great, high-performing teams of our own, then the spirit of this Raptors team will live on – and the Larry O’Brien trophy won’t be the only legacy that this great team leaves behind.