NBA team Phoenix Suns has reached the Playoffs for the first time in 11 years. This year, unlike any other before it, the team has a competitive advantage – emotional intelligence. This episode features Jeff Bower, Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations for NBA team Phoenix Suns. Jeff joins EI at Work co-hosts Marie El Daghl and Genos International CEO, Dr Ben Palmer, to discuss the role of emotional intelligence in the sport industry.

The following is a shortened, edited version of the transcript from EI At Work episode 3. Listen to the full episode here.

Emotional intelligence has long been referenced in corporate leadership but today’s guest talks about it in the context of sport. Jeff Bower is a Vice President of NBA team Phoenix Suns. He speaks about the role EI played in leading them to their first playoffs in 11 years. Welcome to Emotional Intelligence at Work brought to you by Genos International.

Marie: Firstly, tell us about how you even came to learn of emotional intelligence.

Jeff: The whole thing was a bit accidental. A long time acquaintance, Jeff Summers from Genos North America reached out to me. We had initially met years and years ago at a college basketball game and mutual friends of ours introduced us and that was it. And then last year, Jeff reached out to me, I believe, over a weekend, saw what I was doing and some of the other things that I had been involved with as well and started to explain to me what he’s been up to, what the uses and the whole EI programming that he and Debbie had embarked upon. And it struck a lot of curiosity in my mind. And so, we continued to talk about it and dug into it. And during the whole outset of the pandemic, we really immersed ourselves completely into it and all that emotional intelligence and how it factors into everything that we do, both at work as well as personally.

Marie: And what was it specifically that you did with Genos North America? Was it a certification course?

Jeff: Well, exactly, after finding out the amount of information and the amount of questions that it could pose, Jeff then explained to me how I could really dig into this if I were to go through the Genos programming and so that’s exactly what we embarked on. And I went through the Genos training and the teachings and the exercises and with each exercise I was finding, it was just running through my mind how this would be so beneficial here. This would be a real asset to have in this situation, how helpful it would be to be able to apply it in this type of setting because everything that we do in sports is all about the human touch and the relationships that get built and the relationships that get stressed over time that add up to peak performance or failed performance in many cases. This was something that I thought could be an extreme benefit to us and to all the people that we work with and around the game.

Marie: We’re going to talk at length about the benefits for the team. Did you see any benefits for yourself personally as either as a leader within the Phoenix Suns or personally at home and in your day-to-day life?

Jeff: Well, I think the first thing that jumped out is the almost safety net of a checklist going into sometimes very candid situations and conversations and ability to go into those things with a little bit of a plan, with a little bit of an idea of one or two areas that are probably the key parts to have a successful outcome. And being able to kind of plan and have almost a checklist, if you would like a pilot would, that could be followed in coming to an outcome or coming to a successful discussion and really understanding what people are looking for, what people’s motivating needs may be in order to move things in the right direction.

Ben: Can you talk about the staff around an elite sports team like the Phoenix Suns, talk about EI and coaching? You know, what difference do you see EI make to the way a coach interacts with players?

Jeff: First of all, I think the awareness drives you towards being a better listener and towards trying to figure out what’s being unsaid that is probably where the answer lies. I think so much of success hinges on being able to pull out the answer or the behaviour as opposed to put it in some of the young men that we all work with as a coaching staff or as a front office staff or anyone in athletics. We deal with the elite, and with great people and driven people, many times how a problem or a conflict is presented determines how people respond to it. And having that understanding that gives them a chance to find the answer and nudge them along the way, whether it’s through realising the emotional reason aspect of it or the having a little bit more empathy in the situation as to how it may make the individual feel, every phase of your model is a factor, frankly.

Ben: When I’m hearing you speak, I’m thinking about behavioural agility. You know that capacity to kind of read the room, the capacity to read an individual and really take a more individualised approach to what you’re doing, whether it be demonstrating a little bit more empathy, asking the right question that gets the person thinking. In the corporate world, Jeff, when we roll out an EI programme, we see sometimes a 5% improvement, a 10% improvement, sometimes a 15% improvement. I know at least with the elite sports teams that we’ve dealt with here, even if you get a 1% or 2% improvement, it can have incredible benefits. The Phoenix Suns have come a long way, haven’t they, over the last couple of years?

Jeff: It’s been terrific and it’s been a great process. We have a coaching staff that is their actions and their behaviours and the relationships that they’ve built with our team have really been a driving force behind our improvement. And the trust that exists between our players and our coaches that the trust that exists in our locker room from player-to-player has really been our strategic weapon. It’s been a competitive advantage for us as a group and something that we’ve benefited from greatly.

Marie: From a practical perspective, you did the EI certification through Genos and then have you been building programmes and rolling them out yourself for the office team with the coaching team and the players? Practically how did it work?

Jeff: We actually had Debbie do a presentation on EI and the aspects of it for our entire staff. And then following up from that, we have weekly dispersals of examples of EI and how it’s been a factor in different businesses, different organisations, different industries where EI has had a role in solutions. And then throughout our interactions, we have utilised many of the areas in the concepts to adjust our strategies and our questions along the way. So, it’s been a rather organic integration that has been something that we’ve just continued to build layer upon layer.

Ben: One of the things that I’ve certainly found about the concept, Jeff, is that it’s one of those things, the more you study it, the more you kind of realise you’re at the tip of the iceberg. Looking kind of into the future, both in your own organisation, perhaps, but also for some advice, perhaps for elite sports generally, what do you see as other areas and potential for EI in your space?

Jeff: Well, I think emotional intelligence obviously is something that is a part of any interaction between players, coaches, front offices, any place where you have to work with more than one people. Your ability to succeed in many ways is going to be determined by EI. Personally, I really feel that this is where the analytics movement was 15 years ago now that it’s become a way of life in sports. I believe that human performance and EI and mind setting and the ability to take a proactive approach with mindset and strategies to allow yourself to be more successful is where our industry is going to go and that’s where the competitive advantage really lies. The ability to turn intangible assets into tangible outcomes was a challenge that was given to us several years ago by an owner and that really ignited a lot of thoughts, like how do we take these relationships in our locker room that we have? And as you grow a franchise and as you grow a basketball team, how do you turn those relationships into strategic advantages that create competitive edges? And that’s all about relationships; it’s all about performance. It’s all about selection. It’s all about finding the right guys that fit the picture that you want your group to be and that’s a large part of this.

Ben: That’s one of the probably the biggest things that’s been really resonating with me lately is how EI really oils, if you like, the quality of relationships. I’ve been looking at some of the work like that of Barbara Fredrickson. She’s got a book out called Love 2.0. If you think about Susan Pinker in her book The Village Effect about centenarians, the thing about relationships and enhancing them is it helps you lead a happier, healthier and longer life. Also, perhaps one of the things you’ve given me here is that is a real key to performance, particularly in elite sports, I think it’s a key to performance, obviously, in organisations as well.

Marie: With sports, I mean, with your team, you must every season swap players, buy new players, etc. And so you have new people that come into the fold, how do you accelerate the process of those relationships in that trust building?

Jeff: One of the most important things is knowing who you want to be and knowing what your team makeup is going to be all about because if you want a tough team, you have to recruit and bring in tough players. If you want a team that shoots the ball well, you have to bring in players that shoot the ball well that’s what we found over the year. The idea of changing the behaviour habits of a player and he’ll be different for you, that rarely ever happens. So, finding players that fit the DNA of your team, that fit the culture and the chemistry of your team and really that match your values, as an organisation is such a crucial part of this. When you bring a new guy into your group, basically you’re saying this is who we want to be. And this new fella, he fits the rest of our players. And that’s something that we spend a great deal of time with, researching and trying to find out what their patterns and habits have been from the past and what we’re likely to see them bring to our team right now.

Ben: I suppose, to finish off, Jeff, I’d really like to ask you if you reflect back on your experience to date with EI and the things that it’s done for you, what would you say to leaders who are currently sitting back thinking about or considering bringing in some EI training and development to their organisations or teams? What are one or two key things that you’d say?

Jeff: I think what I would say, Ben, is that not only is this a tool, what it is, is a way to help people create value for themselves. It’s a way for you to really reach out to your people, to give them a set of tools that they can use to be more effective in whatever their job is, or their relationship is with their team or with their business or with their boardroom. I think that’s how valuable this tool really can be. Any time you can help an individual be more effective and add more value to their business, to their team, to their company, you’ve helped that person. And I think for me that’s been an immense eye-opening experience because you see people change and you see people be more open and more willing to listen instead of more intent on having their viewpoint being heard. And that’s when we see results change and outcomes grow and impacts become multiplied across the board.


A big thank you to Jeff and our hosts for sharing their insights with us.

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