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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 3, 2010 12 years ago

Magic Tricks

A championship-winning sports executive shares his tips for how to win in any line of business.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Pat Williams, one of the most successful professional basketball executives of the last 20 years, is a man of stories.

Like the time a few years ago, when Williams spoke before hundreds of Walmart executives gathered for a company meeting in Arkansas. He sat down after his speech in a table in the back corner of the room, to stay out of the way and listen to the next speaker.

The man he sat next to patted his leg and said, “nice job,” Williams recalls. The man extended his hand: “Nice to meet you. I'm Jim Walton.”

A stunned Williams shook the hand of the son of one of the most famous businessmen in American history. The two ended up having lunch later that day, where Williams asked Walton about how Sam Walton built Walmart into the global retail giant it is today.

Williams gathers stories like that daily, be it in random meetings with business titans, chatting with cab drivers and hotel desk clerks or interviewing sports icons from Steve Spurrier to Tony Dungy. The stories follow a constant theme: How Williams learned a life lesson.

Williams, the senior vice president of the NBA's Orlando Magic, recently spoke to a group of Gulf Coast executives at a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance. He used his trove of stories to illustrate what it takes to be a winner in any line of work.

“You may not be in the sports business,” says Williams, “but everything you do is still measured in wins and losses.”

Williams has told many of his stories in the 55 books he has written and co-authored. His latest book is “The Winning Combination: 21 Keys to Coaching and Leadership Greatness.”

Here are four of Williams' characteristics that help define a winner in any business, culled from his recent speech and in an interview with the Business Review:

• Intense focus: Williams has asked many professional basketball players about what made Michael Jordan so special, besides his talent and competitive nature. The answers have been several variations of the same theme: Jordan didn't think about the fourth quarter in the third quarter and he never thought about his last shot — hit or miss — when he was onto the next play.

For the truly focused, says Williams, that concept has to be more than lip service. Says Williams: “The ability to block out distractions and not set a meandering path is critical.”

• Passion play: Desire is often cited as a quality in successful people, says Williams, but he believes the winners he has met have taken passion to new heights. “Passion is the most contagious of all human qualities,” says Williams. “And it always starts at the top.”

For example, Williams once asked a former Duke University basketball player what his favorite memory of Coach Mike Krzyzewski was. The player told Williams he remembered seeing goose bumps on Coach Krzyzewski's neck when he excitedly talked to a few players about a game the team had to play the next day, against a weak non-conference opponent. That passion stuck with the player 20 years later, when he re-told the story.

• Do the work: Williams says he finds it comforting when he sees sports superstars who get the fact that there is no substitute for hard work, no matter how good they are or how good their last game was. “Winners never cut corners,” says Williams. “And the word entitlement means nothing to them.”

One of Williams' favorite stories about hard work involves NBA superstar Kobe Bryant. Williams says Bryant once used the Magic's weight room for a week to get a daily — and private — early morning workout while his family stayed in a hotel in Disney World.

• Stick with it: Well-worn statements about never giving up resonate with Williams, who was a catcher in the Philadelphia Phillies minor league system before going to work in pro basketball. “At the end of the day,” Williams says, “you got to tie a knot on the end of the rope and hang on.”

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