“You’ve got to believe you can do it”: Raptors coach Nick Nurse on leading teams through disruption

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse knows a thing or two about leading top-performing teams. 

He’s racked up the accolades across his unconventional career spanning 15 teams in 5 countries. Last year, he led the Raptors to their 2019 NBA Championship win and earned the title of NBA Coach of the Year. 

Courtside in the NBA may seem like a world away from the frontlines—but the challenges of building a winning team are universal. Leaders in both settings are tasked with establishing a sense of mission and vision, laying out the game plan and unifying the team around execution. 

We had the chance to speak with Nurse from inside the NBA bubble about what it takes to build a winning team—on the court, or on the floor. Here are some of the highlights: 

You’ve had an amazing career—from your first head coaching gig at Grand View University at 23, to the British Basketball League, to the NBA D League. What did you learn from being part of so many radically different organizations? 

NN: When I went to Europe to start coaching, I went from small-town Iowa to Birmingham, England, a city with millions of people. To be dropped right into that was eye-opening. Then, I went to Belgium and experienced a whole other culture and a whole other set of dynamics with players—from where they came from, to the language they spoke and the food they ate. I ended up coaching a game in something like 33 different countries. I think it gave me such a worldly view. The travel and experiences made me open-minded. You get to know people from different cultures, and you get to communicate a little more clearly. 

Your frontline takeaway: Your frontline workforce is made up of people from many different cultural backgrounds, generations and experiences, too. Open-mindedness and clear communication are the foundations of effective frontline support. 

What are your guiding principles for how to build a winning team? 

NN: That’s a big question. The first thing is that you’ve got to believe you can do it. When you look at the plan laid out in front of you, you have to say “we want to win it—and we can win it.” You’ve got to start with that belief.

Close behind that, there better be a concrete plan of action. What are the things we have to do to get there? That’s when we get into the minutiae of how we play. How are we going to guard, how are we going to attack on offense, what are our rotations going to be… we start fine-tuning that from A to Z. You have to ride a fine line between being thorough and being prepared, but not overloading them with too much. 

Your frontline takeaway: Those who support the frontline know this fine line all too well. There’s a wealth of information that the business wants the frontline to know—but firehosing them with all this information at once is a recipe for forgetting. To strike the right balance, work across departments to prioritize frontline communications and push only the right messages at the right time.

What makes a really good coach? 

NN: I always say that the x’s and o’s (the tactics, strategies, plays we run, etc.) are about 15% of my job. The other 85% is leadership—building chemistry and getting these guys to believe they can become even more than they think they can, individually and as a team. You have to push the bar up. 

But I will say this too: That 15% is the first gauge of trust that players have. They need to know you’re super competent in that aspect. Then, the trust and communication will start to open up. 

Your frontline takeaway: The frontline hasn’t always gotten the same attention and investment as corporate employees do, but fortunately the tides are turning. When you help frontline employees realize their potential, you reap the benefits of better performance and better business outcomes. 

You’re one of the most innovative coaches in the league. What’s your process around experimentation? 

NN: A lot of it comes down to my training. When I was coaching in the British Basketball League, nobody gave a darn about what I did or didn’t do. So I was trying all kinds of stuff that I thought seemed reasonable. Then I had to go through the process of selling my reasonable thoughts to the team—putting the ‘why’ behind it. They tried it, it started working and it built momentum.

It comes down to testing, selling, communication, proving the experiment works and building on it from there. That’s pretty much it. But all the fundamentals have to be in place, or it would all fall apart.

Your frontline takeaway: This formula of communication, testing, and measurement applies to frontline support, too—you’re always tweaking the frontline support playbook to improve effectiveness and achieve better results. But unlike in basketball, the plays aren’t taking place in real-time in front of you—so it’s crucial to get the right tools in place to be able to measure the impact of your efforts

How have you coached your team through disruption and stayed focused on the goal? 

NN: The biggest thing is to have a super open mind. The environment is different and changing all the time. So, we’re going with the flow. When something needs to be adjusted, we quickly adjust the sails for a couple days to get things back on track. 

I’m also impressing on my coaches, medical staff and front office staff that we have to exude this incredibly positive attitude about being here. We have to be continually talking about how great the bubble is. We walk five minutes, and we’re in the gym. The rest time and recuperation time is amazing. The coaching setup couldn’t be better. We’re constantly trying to deliver those messages. 

Other people might say, ‘oh, you must miss people,’ or ‘oh, every day is the same.’ We don’t talk about that. We talk about how we’re getting better, we’re getting stronger and we have a mission to accomplish. 

Your frontline takeaway: Agility is the name of the game right now as businesses adapt to the impacts of the pandemic. And agility depends on having an engaged, resilient frontline workforce. Now’s the time to step up the positive messages, recognition and support to ensure everyone understands the role they play in the mission you’re accomplishing together. 

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

Let’s work together to drive frontline performance in all the right ways.