Naji: Hello, leaders of the world. Welcome to spread love in organizations, the podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love. I’m Naji your host for this episode, joined today by Ben Shields, senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT. Ben studies the multibillion dollar sports industry to identify broadly transferable management lessons in areas such as leadership, communication, data driven, decision making and innovation. Ben teaches a number of courses. And I had the privilege to be in one of those where he’s the faculty and he’s faculty director of two programs, the formula one extreme innovation series and the global executive academy. His other sports work at MIT included co-hosting counterparts podcasts from MIT, Sloan management, but also other podcasts that he built before that. Prior to MIT. Ben served as the director of social media and marketing at ESPN. He oversaw social media strategy and also worked on marketing strategy for several ESPN brands and sub-brands including the sports center, da da da campaign, an Emmy award winning: It’s not crazy. It’s sport brand campaign.
Ben. I am thrilled to have you with me today
Ben Shields: Naji. It’s such a pleasure to be with you. On your podcast. I am a big fan of what you’re building with this podcast and honored to be included.
Naji: Oh, thank you so much, Ben. Uh, I would love to hear first your personal story from communication to sports to now being, uh, senior lecture and professor at MIT.
What, what’s the common thread what’s in between the line of this amazing journey you had?
Ben Shields: well, I’d say there’s probably three common threads. One is passion. Two is hard work and three is luck along the way. I have been so fortunate throughout my career to be working on interesting projects with interesting people and doing very rewarding work, I guess, just to foreground a little bit for your audience.
This is my eighth academic year. At MIT Sloan. And as you mentioned, my work largely focuses on the impact of digital technologies on the sports media and entertainment industries. And I also have a soft spot for leadership and communication. It is what makes the world go round being effective at both leadership and communication.
So that’s another key area for me prior to my life, as an academic at MIT, as you mentioned, I was at ESPN, the sports media firm of the Walt Disney company and had an credible opportunity there. To help them build and implement their social media strategy in the earlier days of that space. And prior to that, I had a life changing experience at Northwestern university where I was an undergrad and as part of my finance aid package, I had a work study obligation.
And my freshman year, I got a job through the work study program at the gym. I love sports. I might as well work at the gym, but then there was a staff member within one of the schools of communication at Northwestern. And she said, Hey, there’s this professor Irv rain who is looking for a research assistant.
And he can pay you through the work study program. I said, sign me up. He’s interested in sports. He’s interested in media. He’s interested in entertainment. Sounds great to me. And I signed up as a work study student for him, ended up going on to do my master’s and PhD at Northwestern, with Irv as my, my advisor.
And that changed my life. And that’s because of the, the chance that he gave me. And I’ve just been so grateful for that throughout the entire ride that I’ve had. And we’ll never forget it for as long as I live.
Naji: Thank you, Ben, for sharing, uh, this part of your, uh, your story. Uh, I I’d love to go into your research on the sports industry.
And as you said, your, uh, you, you have a, a passion for leadership and coming, uh, what are the transferable. Management lessons that you think we should all learn from, from what you’ve seen and what you’ve researched more broadly as leaders. But if you have any idea also for the healthcare leaders, is there any transferable skill that you think we should focus on?
Ben Shields: You know, Naji? It’s a really interesting question. I enjoy studying sports because I do think there’s so much that can be learned from the. Other industries about how successful teams operate. You know, there’s a couple things that come to mind. The first that’s really interesting about sports is performance is measurable and there is a common goal for teams and that is to win.
Win enough games to win the division, win enough games to win the championship, whatever the case may be. But the goal is to win and every single person on the team, whether they play the game or on the coaching staff, or are in the back office, they’re all aligned on that singular clear goal. And the way it’s very easy to.
Put in place performance measurements to understand how people are contributing to that overall goal, that type of performance measurement, as it relates to an overall goal, seems like such a simple concept, but it’s really hard sometimes to apply in context outside of sports. You know, often when I’ve worked with other organizations, they, I think rightly so push back and say, look, you know, we’re not playing a zero sum game here.
We don’t have a competitor, like a sports team would have on the other end of the court, but there are still ways that you can create sense of what a win or a loss can be and rally people around achieving that common win. And measuring people’s performance along the way. So I think that’s the first thing that I would say that’s really inspirational in sports is having that clear goal and measuring performance as it relates to achieving that goal.
The second is less data focused and I think a little bit more on the soft component, which is around creating and maintaining, uh, winning culture and. What I appreciate most about studying sports teams is that the culture doesn’t necessarily just start and end with some words that are plastered up against a wall, right?
In the locker room. It is the collective set of actions. On a daily basis, even minute by minute basis that the coaches, the players, the trainers all take that form, the culture and the best teams we’ve seen over and over again are almost obsessive about ensuring that the culture is sustainable and that all the little actions ladder up to.
What the team wants to be and how it relates to their efforts to win going forward. So those are the two things that stand out to me about studying sports teams and, and how they do their business. One is that measurable performance and relation to a overall goal. And the second is the creation of culture.
And then the mainten and instance sustaining of that culture on a minute to minute, minute to minute basis with daily actions, behaviors.
Naji: I love it. And it’s definitely relatable to what we do, having this common, the shared purpose, right? As, as a company and also building those small steps, we talked about how each one contributes towards this shared purpose or this common goal, right.
For, for getting, for getting there and performance management and on the winning cut. Um, do you have like specific examples? Right? We hear a lot and we’re seeing today and I’m personally convinced what’s going on with great resignation and all other things that there’s been a bunch of research showing that toxic cultures in fact are the first, the first reason.
And it’s always. Linked to management somehow, right. There is definitely a culture environment that you can build overall in a team. Uh, but then there’s really the management. Who’s the first line with his people. And what is the culture being built inside the culture? Have you seen this in. In sports team.
Any thoughts about this? When you say winning culture, how this is built and is there subcultures that sometimes can ruin this winning culture?
Ben Shields: Sure, sure. Well, Naji, I’m so glad you brought that up. There is a culture that I’m been following for a long time, and that is the Miami heat NBA team. And if you are an NBA fan, You have probably heard about heat culture, some of you that are NBA fans may have great respect for it.
O others may. Be tired of hearing about the heat culture, but the reason why you might be tired of hearing about the heat culture is because it consistently has produced results. And the heat culture is I think almost become institutionalized as a team and a place where certain types of players that are focused on hard work.
Team play physical, mental strength, sacrificing yourself for the betterment of the overall team. Those are the types of values that have been almost inculcated into heat culture over time to the point where. The team has developed at least externally this competitive advantage where they now have a reputation for finding undeveloped talent, bringing them to the team and to, into the heat culture and taking that undeveloped talent and turning it into.
A highly capable NBA player. Even this year’s team has a number of different players like max STR Y. Before them people like Duncan Robinson. And for those of you that aren’t NBA fans, I apologize for dropping those names, but what’s really interesting is that that the, the culture has produced results.
And then it is almost a virtuous cycle where people come get better. And the team gets better and then more people come, they get better as a result. And I think that’s the combination of both having the structure in place. And then also making very clear to the players that if you buy in, you’re going to get results.
So the benefit is on their side too. What’s in it for them is they’re gonna get better or two. And so that’s a, I think a really interesting model. Clearly there are other examples in other sports. Winning is very hard. And the, the through line of winning teams often is the culture and the leadership as stabilizing forces as players come and go.
Naji: That’s a, that’s a great example. Uh, you shared with us Ben, um, you should, you said in the beginning around leadership communication, and this is practically what keeps the word going, uh, in those, in those days, crisis after crisis tensions, war, uh, unfortunately these days, um, where do you think leadership communi is?
And as a, as someone who teaches this, where do you think we should take it?
Ben Shields: Well, that’s a very big question. NA and I appreciate you asking it look fundamental to effective communication. At least in my view is mutual understanding. And I think part of the challenge that we face as a society. Is
there, isn’t the mutual understanding between differing groups sometimes. And when you don’t have mutual understanding, then everything else crumbles, right. By the way, mutual understanding doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person.
But in some of the communication challenges that we have as a global society today, party a and party B aren’t even operating from the same set of information. They’re not even operating from the same mutual understanding of the issues. They, and so when we get in that type of situation, That foundation of mutual understanding.
If that’s broken, then that’s going to set off a whole host of other challenges. So from my standpoint, it is absolutely critical whether it’s in our teams or organizations or other parts of our society, that we prioritize immune mutual understanding because if we understand one another. Then we might have a little bit more empathy or even more respect for one another’s opinions and we can engage in a dialogue to productively move things forward.
But without that foundation of mutual understanding, that’s gonna be a real challenge.
Naji: I love this. And so agree with you, Ben I’m, you know, I talk a lot with, uh, with my teams and even through MIT with the class about healthy debates as leaders, creating those safe places for us to share what we think, our experiences, our, our biases, because we all have different lenses right through this and have those healthy debates.
So I love how you framed it into mutual understanding as a beginning.
Ben Shields: Yeah, well, I’m, I, I applaud you for, for focusing on that, you know, there’s, there’s just so much value in creating a safe space for debates. I mean, you know this as well as anybody, when someone can share a different point of view that might lead to a, an idea that no one else was thinking about, right.
If someone can share a different point of view and also be heard. Well, then that’s just gonna encourage the person to share the next time. They’ve got an interesting idea. And so, so much of our work is relationship based and we’ve gotta create those conditions for people to feel comfortable sharing their points of view and being open to those points of view as well within our teams.
It’s critical. Indeed.
Naji: Uh, if we talk about data now, everyone wants to take data driven decision and you’re one of the experts helping the word and leaders look at data differently, but yet we see. So many decisions being made and critical decisions around the word, really out of opinions, misinformation, personal judgment.
I’m not gonna go into examples. Like there’s bunch of those that everyone is seeing these days. Uh, so as you see this kind of constantly happening in the word and being a teacher about those, what is what’s, what are your thoughts and how do you think as leaders we can improve this?
Ben Shields: Sure. Well, just by way of background, you know, I’ve always loved data.
When I was a kid, I would play fantasy basketball with my dad and I would calculate the scores just from the, the, the, the box scores in the newspaper. And, you know, we didn’t have the online fantasy sports that we have now when I was a kid. And then, you know, I, I continued to do a lot of fantasy. Did some graduate.
Research on the topic. Then when I went to ESPN, when we were working in social media, the amount of data that we got back on our content instantaneously was really exciting. We could start to make some data driven decisions as well, just based on the amount of information that we had. And so I, I love data and evidence based decision making.
is more often than not going to lead to a better decision. Right? I think we can all accept that. I think my main reflection, especially when working with executives and other leaders that are trying to grapple with how to incorporate data into their decision making, what I try to say is, look, it’s not an either or proposition.
It’s not either you use data or you don’t, it is both. And meaning the world is complex. I have a friend Ben Amar who often says that data can help you be less wrong in your decisions. I, and I also try to recognize in executives that look. There’s a reason why you’ve been as successful as you have been as a decision maker.
Right? You’ve got expertise, you’ve got intuition. And so we can’t necessarily completely shut that away either. So what I try to. Work with students or, or executives on is striking the right balance between what data you’re incorporating into the decision making process, as well as your intuition and being super clear about, you know, what, with this particular decision I’m going to follow what the probability says and being very clear on the times where, you know, what.
With this particular decision. I see what the probability is, but I’ve got a, an instinct here based on a lot of other external factors that are not measurable, and I’m gonna go in that direction. And I think if we could just be upfront about that and be transparent about what is the logic and reason and rationale for the decisions that you’re making.
Sometimes it’s going to be re really reliant on data other times. Look, intuition is still powerful. Right. Um, and just being upfront and transparent about that. I think we’re gonna, as, as decision makers be much better off going forward. And by the way, that’s I think I, you know, Naji, I’m sorry. I think what I would, what I would say is to me, I’m a very PR I try to be very pragmatic in my work.
That is just a pragmatic way of looking at it. It’s not either, or you it’s either you use data or you use your intuition. It’s both and, and you’ve gotta negotiate the appropriate balance.
Naji: Yeah, and this is, this is so powerful as an advice like it’s both of them and I love, uh, how you share it being upfront on how you’re making decisions.
This is, this is really powerful. Yeah.
Ben Shields: And then the great thing is that, you know, you and I both have been in plenty organizations. Now you can go back and see how effective that decision was. That’s that’s always possible. Right. You know, you can, you can have a, you can have 10, 10 possible decisions and you can say, you know what, I’m following the probabilities on six of them and following my instinct and tuition on four of them.
And by the way, you know, six months later, when you do an after action report, you see how you did versus what the analytics show.
Naji: Yeah. Totally Ben. I would go now, uh, on a section where I will give you one word and yeah, I want your reaction to it. What’s top off mind to you. So the first word is leadership
Ben Shields: I have my own way of thinking about leadership. I should say my own sort of, um, Definition, which is not mine. Um, this definition is, is from a mentor and friend of mine. Um, and it is leaders, great leaders make those around them better. Great leaders make those around them better. And as a teacher, as a and an organization, That is my north star.
Like I want, if any student comes and works with me or, you know, thinking back on, on my days in, in the corporate world, if anyone came and worked with me and spent some time with me, I, I want them to be better as a result of that interaction. That’s that’s my north star. There are other technical definitions of leadership.
There’s lots of great work and research on it, but for me, that’s what it comes down to make others better.
Naji: What about innovation?
Ben Shields: Excitement wonder the art of what’s possible.
The part of our work that gets me outta bed in the morning. It is hard and yet incredibly rewarding when you come up with a new idea and it moves things forward. I encourage anyone. And this is similar to I’ll. Just throw another big word out there to you. If you don’t mind. I don’t mean to, to go word for word, but I also, when I hear innovation, I also think creativity.
And one thing that I work with a lot on with my students is, yeah, you may think you’re more technical. You might not be traditionally creative or you might not be traditionally innovative, but everyone can be, everyone can be innovative. Right. Everyone can be creative. So I think that that’s, um, I think that’s a reality and something that I, I try to get everyone to think about.
Naji: What about influencer?
Ben Shields: I think about the fact that people connect with other people fundamentally on social media. I think that if you are truly influential, Then what you post or what your message is, should actually leave to some sort of action or behavior change. Right? Oftentimes we see quote, unquote influencers with millions upon millions of followers, but may not actually an action.
And there’s. Interesting work a few years back from a colleague at MIT Sloans and on all on that question too. So it’s a bit of a problematic term. I think that’s why the industry has impart gravitated a little bit toward the creator terminology versus influencer, but it’s an exciting space and I monitor and do research on it very closely.
Naji: Yeah. Well, I learned a lot through the creator economy that, that you teach us on how to look at this and the responsibility we have as leaders. If at some point we’re influential or we’re creating, uh, some, some content and ideas.
Ben Shields: Yeah.
Naji: What about spread, love and organizations?
Ben Shields: Ooh, I, first of all, I. I respond very positively to it.
You know, I was thinking about your podcast, you know, in preparation for this conversation and you know, what, what comes to mind? There are a number of things that, what comes to mind when, when I hear spread love and organizations. One thing that I thought would be interesting to talk about is feedback within organizations.
And I think that. Feedback often can be construed very negatively, right. Especially when it comes to constructive feedback, like how could you possibly spread love in organizations and also give people constructive feedback? You know, it seems like those two ideas could be op in, in opposition, but I actually think that if you have very strong relationships with your.
Employees and your teams where there is mutual understanding in place, where there is trust and crucially, where your employees know that you as a manager have their best interest in mind, then constructive feedback is not about putting the other person some down constructive feedback is not about demonstrating your superiority.
Constructive feedback is to go back to the leadership definition from a friend and mentor constructive feedback is making those around you better. And so I think it is possible to spread love in organizations while also providing constructive feedback in a way that makes others better. I don’t know.
How does that resonate with you Naji it?
Naji: Yeah. I, I love that you’re bringing this because it’s something I think people we always have in mind as leaders and for me, it’s it spread love an organization is exactly this, you know, if you genuinely care about someone. You will tell them the truth you will get, you will help them outgrow you will, you will be here for them.
Right. So I think you summarized it beautifully around this trust about, uh, yeah, really this caring culture that will help you go there. Right. And I’m sure you’ve had. Mentors. And usually the toughest feedback are from people who loves you most, and it can be tough, but you know that they are doing it for you and for you to be able to be at your best.
So, yeah, it’s spread love is really about this is having this level of care mm-hmm for, for us to be able to be at our best and for us to be able to deliver on our shared purpose. So I think,
Ben Shields: yeah, I, I, I think that’s outstanding. I see that very clearly. And you know, the other thing that I would say is that the, the other side of that constructive feedback coin is around positivity and optimism.
And thanks to my mom, I am built as a positive and optimistic person , but that doesn’t mean that. You know, you mistake my kindness for weakness, right? That doesn’t mean that because I look at things optimistically. I can’t offer. Critical point of view or a piece of feedback that’s going to help you as an individual and us as a team.
And so I, I think it’s possible for both optimism and positivity to coexist with, uh, a, a, a strong pension for, for constructive feedback and, and the ability to do so, again, with, with some love and some caring. Yeah.
Naji: Yeah. I’m I’m I totally agree with you. You know, I reflected a lot about feedback in organizations because some would give and some others would just, you know, go through processes and we don’t even give this feedback.
Right. And at the end we cheer, we cheer up. Like it was great, even though it’s not. And it took me back to my humanitarian work know in moments of war and tension. And one of the aspects we always did. Every single urgency, every single. Every single time we went out in an ambulance, we would come back after, regardless how it went.
We would do a session of debrief and we will literally tell each other the truth. Positive or negative, but we will, like we debrief. And, and again, it might sound obvious because we had people’s lives in hands, but actually this discipline on doing this built out of a culture where we, we cared for one another and we were all here for the same purpose, which was helping people build this.
Amazing culture of being always at our best and saying, okay. Yeah, like it was a hard discussion in the ambulance, but this is where it happened and it helped me grow. And next time I’m not, you know, I’m gonna learn of it. And if something was positive, well, great. Like let’s all learn from this and move forward.
So I try to Institute this, you know, positive feedback group, not all, only when things go bad in, in companies, but constantly for us to be able to grow and learn.
Ben Shields: That’s right. And it builds trust too. NA yeah. I mean, I just think about people that have given you valuable, constructive feedback in the past, you know, you’re probably more likely to trust them and then go back to them in the future.
You know, if you’re really, at least I could just say with, with my own life and my mentors and the people that have had an impact me, you know, I’ll pick up the phone and call them, Hey, I’m working through this issue. I know. That I’m going to get an unvarnished point of view. I may not agree with it. I may not follow the advice, but there’s that trust there based on the, the numerous of, of, of more difficult topics that we’ve, we’ve covered in the past.
Naji: totally agree. Any final word of wisdom, Ben, for leaders around the.
Ben Shields: Well, I’m not necessarily in the business of being able to provide wisdom or advice. I would only say that reflecting on. What you are doing, the message of your podcast is just to remember that in the day to day hustle and all the different deliverables and all the data and all the communication, all the messages, information, overload, everything that we deal with on a day to day basis.
Our work as leaders is about connecting with other people. Building trusting relationships based on mutual understanding. And if we can do that, whether it’s in the sports context or in the academic context or in healthcare or whatever it may be, then we’re gonna have more fulfilling organizations and reward more rewarding lives.
Naji: Thank you so much, Ben for this inspiring discussion today.
Ben Shields: Thank you, Naji, it’s a pleasure. I appreciate you having me.
Naji: Thank you all for listening to spread love and organization’s podcast. Drop us a review on your preferred podcast platform
Follow us on LinkedIn and connect with us on spreadloveio.com. We’re eager to hear your thoughts and feedback. Most importantly, spread love in your organizations and spread the word around you to inspire others and amplify this movement, our world so desperately needs.