Navigating Change: What We Can Learn From Kobe Bryant's Career

Last week, Kobe Bryant played the final game of his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers. Sports media outlets have given much attention to this story over the last few days. Journalists have focused on Bryant's 60-point performance in his final outing, the impressive numbers that have led people to compare him to Michael Jordan, his polarizing personality, and the scandals he has faced on and off the court. What I find most fascinating, though, is how he was able to stay with the same team for 20 years - the only player in the NBA to ever do so - navigating a constantly changing landscape of teammates, coaches and franchise culture.

Learning how to play with new teammates can be difficult. In a fast-paced environment, it is critical to quickly develop mutual trust and figure out how to operate together to be successful. In many organizations, employees also need to work through regular turn-over. Strong lateral relationships are key to the success of any team, particularly one experiencing change. Those who are most effective at building lateral relationships do so by understanding the current status of the relationship, including areas of alignment and misalignment, and having an awareness of what support, resources, knowledge, etc. they need from each of their peers. As difficult as it is to mitigate changing team members, it can be even more difficult to work through changes in positional leadership.

Since 1996, the Lakers have had 10 different head coaches, each with his own style and vision for the team. In business, that level of turnover can be devastating to an organization, and to the employees expected to perform every day. In Bryant's case, there's another level of nuance - Byron Scott, the current head coach, was Bryant's teammate his rookie season. Scott went from being Bryant's peer, to his competitor, to his superior. It would have been easy to mismanage this situation. However, these two men, as coach and player, were clear allies working toward the same goal and with a level of mutual respect. They defended each other through a difficult season for the Lakers, displaying the power of their roles as leaders, each in his own way.

We see the same situation play out in the business world, particularly in middle management. Individual contributors are promoted internally and this move from peer to superior can be challenging for the new manager and his/her team. Moreover, the manager is often expected to own this transition alone. In reality, it is also critical for direct reports to learn how to manage the relationship with their boss.

For both the manager and the direct report, it is crucial to understand the interdependencies of the relationship. What "power" does each individual bring to the relationship (i.e. knowledge, skills, reputation, etc.)? How can these be leveraged to mitigate each other's areas of weakness to help both be successful? It is easy to forget sometimes that bosses are equally, if not more so, dependent on their direct reports as direct reports are on their bosses.

In addition, the most successful relationships between managers and direct reports are those in which there is a mutual understanding of goals, values, and preference for how to work together. Effective managers clearly articulate their vision for the team, have an understanding of their own default style of management, and are flexible in their management style to match the needs of the individual direct report and the unique situations. Direct reports, on the other hand, most successfully cultivate a relationship with their boss's when they understand their boss's goals and objectives, their own goals and objectives, and intentionally manage the relationship by setting mutual expectations for how to work together.

While it may seem to complicate the direct report-boss relationship, there may actually be benefits of having been peers first. From their time as teammates, it may have been easier for Bryant and Scott to understand each other's strengths and how these aligned with a vision for success. While it may feel like "the flavor of the month," to effectively navigate any changing environment, with teammates or leadership, it is critical to intentionally invest in building strong relationships. True success - on the court or in the office - is never a solo endeavor... even for a superstar like Kobe.