Kerry Chandler explains why human resources is one of the NBA’s most valuable players.
Business is changing: With the advancement of technology and greater opportunities emerging around the world, many firms are expanding overseas. The same goes for professional sports.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) has become a global sports and media business, with 14 offices in markets worldwide. This year, the league continues its globalization with 12 teams set to play 10 games (eight preseason, two regular season) in 10 different international cities, including in Europe, Asia and South America.
For those who make the business of sports work, such as Kerry Chandler, the NBA’s Executive Vice President (EVP) of Human Resources (HR), the game plan is different when overseeing a global team.
“When you’re talking about being successful as a global business,” Chandler said, “there are two considerations to keep front of mind: understanding the cultural nuances and then executing on all the things we need to do from a business perspective to deliver for our fans and partners around the world.”
Chandler has built an HR team capable of supporting all 14 of the NBA’s offices–including ones in Beijing, London, Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro–first and foremost by ensuring that she has the right people in the right places.
“I make sure our HR team has the level of background to support a global business,” she said, “meaning they understand cultural nuances as well as how policies and programs may need to be different outside of the U.S.”
Once the right staff is in place, the key to a successful international team then becomes a matter of striking the proper balance between what is important from a league-wide perspective and what makes sense locally.
“Here in the U.S., we have the advantage of being closer to our core business, which tends to lead to a visceral understanding of the NBA brand and its value to our partners,” Chandler said. “Our colleagues outside of the U.S., they often know the local culture better than we do and can translate that brand value into something that is locally relevant. So we have to find that balance and make sure we’re always transferring knowledge between colleagues on a global basis.”
Career Passport Stamps
Chandler began her career in an industry much different than professional basketball: Her first job after graduating from Lincoln University was an entry-level HR position with McDonnell Douglas Corp. (now the Boeing Co.) in Saint Louis. It was there that Chandler realized her love for HR, and while working also earned her master’s degree in HR Management from Washington University.
Chandler went on to hold various executive HR positions at Exxon Chemical Co. and Motorola Inc. She even interviewed for an HR Director position with the NBA while working for Motorola, but turned down the offer to stay with her then employer. It was at this time that Chandler expanded her global experience and pursued a second graduate degree in International Management at McGill University (Montreal) as part of a global International Masters in Practicing Management program. Eventually she did leave Motorola, moving to the East Coast to take on the role of Director of HR Strategy for IBM Global Services.
After working in the high-tech industry for several years, Chandler shifted gears and began working as the head of HR for ESPN—her first exposure to the sports, media and entertainment industries. She then went on to serve as Senior Vice President (SVP) of HR at Hong Kong Disneyland, where she was responsible for the overall HR strategy—a role that proved to be valuable to her current position with the NBA.
After her stint in Hong Kong, Chandler took on a non-HR role as SVP of Corporate Responsibility for The Walt Disney Co. in Burbank, California. Here she was responsible for developing overall strategy and direction for the company’s corporate responsibility efforts.
“That was the job I was in when Commissioner Stern came calling to see if I’d be interested in joining the NBA, some 10-plus years after that first interview,” Chandler recalled. “I think, in particular, my experience in Hong Kong was attractive to the NBA at that time. The NBA has been a global company for quite some time, but it was really expanding further into Asia, particularly China, at that point.”
With more experience, particularly in international markets, under her belt, Chandler decided the NBA would be an ideal, timely professional opportunity. It also would get her back into an industry she had come to love during her days at ESPN.
“I learned early in my career that as much as I love HR, it is equally important to me where I do the work and that it’s at a company where I have a personal passion and interest in the product,” Chandler said. “I’ve always been a big NBA fan, and the fact that the NBA is a global organization was icing on the cake.”
Spanning the Globe
Since joining the league in 2007, Chandler has been responsible for leading its global HR strategy, including recruiting, employee relations, compensation, HR information systems, learning and development, and HR Generalist functions. She and her team also interact monthly with the head of HR for each NBA team to discuss any issues and share best practices.
Simultaneously, the NBA has continued its international initiative to grow the game of basketball around the world through television, digital media, merchandising, sponsorship of grassroots events, and ticket sales. Therefore, everything Chandler and her team do from an HR perspective is funneled through a global lens.
“If we are instituting a new program,” she explained, “we need to look at how it not only makes sense for our employees in the U.S., but how it also might resonate for employees in our other offices outside of the U.S.”
This is where collaboration between team members becomes crucial. “I have several HR functional areas under my leadership, and one of the things I stress is that we all have to work extraordinarily closely together with our HR colleagues outside of the U.S.,” Chandler said. “We are all dependent on each other, and I try to model that with everything we do.”
In addition to collaboration among team members, Chandler also promotes the value of cross-functional experiences when such opportunities exist. “Anytime we have a short-term opportunity in one of our HR functional areas where we need assistance, we present that opportunity to the HR team globally and provide people the opportunity to say they would be interested in gaining different experiences,” she explained.
As such, an employee on the HR Generalist Team might be interested in and able to help out on a compensation project, or someone on the Compensation Team might be able to assist with an important recruiting event.
“It’s a way of helping employees in their current functional areas get experience in other functional areas.”
These opportunities exist globally as well. For instance, the NBA currently has a key HR opening in its Hong Kong office, and two U.S.-based HR employees have gone there for a period of up to a month to help out while the position is vacant.
“These opportunities are phenomenal for people, particularly early on in their career,” Chandler said. “It also gives them an appreciation for what it is like to work in one of our regional offices. They always come back with a heightened level of sensitivity and knowledge in terms of how we need to interact with our international offices.”
And when such cross-functional opportunities exist, whether internationally or domestically, Chandler pays close attention to which staff members raise their hands to take on the assignment.
“You have got to be open to other opportunities,” she stressed. “It is not just my responsibility to develop your career, and it is not just your responsibility. It is a shared responsibility. It’s our responsibility to put the opportunities out there for people to take advantage of them to the extent that they have the skills and will to do so.”
Building a Winning Team
In addition to employees who are willing to take on new opportunities to develop their careers, Chandler seeks out professionals with not only the technical competencies for the job but also the right work ethic.
She also looks for true HR professionals: “To be an HR professional, you are often called upon to conduct yourself, and to provide guidance and counsel to employees and managers, in a certain way.”
Chandler notes that the HR profession is one in which influence is very important, and the role often requires one to serve as the conscience of an organization.
“It’s about finding the balance between the needs of the business and the needs of individuals, and in doing so you are often called upon to have a voice that may be the only differing voice in the room,” she said. “Sometimes it’s also calling people on certain behaviors when it’s not necessarily the most comfortable thing to do, but what I have found is that by doing that you become more valuable to the organization.”
Chandler notes that NBA Commissioner David Stern often gives her professional feedback. “But he would tell you I give him a lot of feedback as well, and that’s one of the things that makes our relationship a great one,” she said. “Doing that is not necessarily something that comes naturally, but the better leaders come to appreciate you for it.”
Above all, Chandler stresses the importance of team members who are enjoyable to be around and who draw from their own set of unique experiences.
“I find that the more diversity on our team, the better team we are,” she said. “I am very happy and pleased with the HR leadership team I have right now. Independently, they couldn’t be more different.”
Oftentimes, that’s the kind of chemistry that breeds success. ♦
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