Grant Hill and Nzinga Shaw of the Atlanta Hawks: Inclusion and Diversity are Good for Business and Must Start at the Top of the Organization

Atlanta Hawks Grant Hill, Nzinga Shaw: Inclusion, Diversity is good Business

If you’re a longtime sports fan like me, you’ve probably heard of Grant Hill.  He was the guy who threw “the pass” to Christian Laettner that led to him hitting “the shot” that beat Kentucky in the Eastern Regional Final in 1992 that put Duke into the Final Four, which they eventually ended up winning.  From there, Hill went on to the NBA where he played for 19 years, and earlier this year he was voted in to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

While many of you probably knew that, you might not have known that he went from playing on the court to being a co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks — also serving as Vice Chair of the organization. And last week I had the honor of hosting a conversation with Hill and Nzinga Shaw, the Hawks Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, during the Diversity in Tech Summit held in conjunction with Salesforce’s World Tour Stop in Atlanta.  The event was organized in partnership with The Atlanta Tribune: the Magazine.

Shaw, who is the first person to hold such a position in a professional team sport in the US, and Hill discussed a number of interesting issues around leadership, the benefits of inclusion and equality, and why diversity has to be part of the corporate culture in order for it work.  Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. To see the full conversation, watch the video below or click on the embedded SoundCloud player.

Small Business Trends: Okay, so, let me start with you Grant, because we just went through, I believe we went through about 27 years just encapsulated, but when you were at Duke with the high top fade getting ready to throw that pass, did you ever imagine or dream that you would actually be an owner in the NBA at that point?

Grant Hill: No. I think back then though, I mean, I had no idea. I wasn’t even sure that the NBA was a possibility and I was sort of in the moment, had a great time at Duke. It was a great experience playing for Coach K. and my teammates and going for, pursuing championships at that time, but it was a lot different back then than it is now.

The NBA wasn’t as accessible and it was just a different time. College basketball was really big and so being an NBA athlete wasn’t necessarily on my radar and definitely the idea or the concept of being an owner of an NBA franchise was not on my radar. Now, in saying that, my father directly, or indirectly, planted the seed. My dad played in the NFL, played back in the 70s and 80s, has worked in professional sports really since the early 80s with the Browns, Cleveland Browns, with the Baltimore Orioles, and for the last 20 plus years, with the Dallas Cowboys. And he tried unsuccessfully during the early nineties and even late eighties to try and put together a group and buy a sports franchise, tried looking to win the Patriots in the ’80s, the Bullets in basketball in the early ’90s and then the Cleveland Browns when they left and then the NFL awarded them a franchise.

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So, I had that experience of sort of living through him having planted the seed of possibility at a very young age, but in ’92, with the high top fade and all, I was not thinking about … All I was thinking about completing the pass and making sure I stayed eligible for the next semester.

Small Business Trends: Nzinga we just talked about you taking this position, the first of its kind in professional sports [CDIO – Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer]. When you were brought that opportunity, what were your first impressions, what did you want to do with it?

Nzinga Shaw: Well it was a very unique situation Brent, because at the time the Atlanta Hawks were facing a public facing racial crisis, and so I was a part of Edelman’s organization to spirit in diversity and inclusion there, and I got a phone call from Austin and Berg who happened to be one of Edelman’s largest clients at the time and they said “Do you have time to come to our office? We’d like you to meet with someone who we think is a potential crisis client for you. And so I ended up meeting with Steve Koonin who’s the CEO of the Hawks and Scott Wilkinson the general counsel.  I’d like to call this story turning a tragedy into a triumph, because at the time they were facing really the toughest thing that they’ve ever faced in franchise history.

They became aware that their controlling owner and their general manager had both been involved in trading emails regarding the African-American fan base, disparaging fans, et cetera, and It all culminated in a board call in which the general manager at the time had said some disparaging things about a potential recruit to the team who was of African descent, and so the question for me was, “Can you help us? We think this is going to become public, we have to restore our reputation in this city. We are in the city too busy to hate; this is the hope of Dr. King and just don’t know what to do.” And so I joined Steven and Scott in the executive committee as a crisis counselor to help them out this, awful travesty, and so while I was doing the work I began to realize and recognize that diversity and inclusion could really be leveraged as part of their business moving forward and really managed in a sustainable way, If executed properly, and so one of my suggestions to the CEO was that he implemented a CDIO goal. I was not thinking about myself at the time but I just recognized that this was low hanging fruit and there was really an opportunity to create something for the NBA.

The NBA had just been through this with Donald Sterling and the LA Clippers two months prior to the Hawks going through it so I wondered, “is this a trend in the NBA? What can we do to fix it?” And so when I made that recommendation they ended up coming back and said “We’re going to hire a CDIO” and then after some long prayer sessions, ans talking with some mentors and really thinking about what the opportunity was, I told Steve, “I’m gonna raise my hand and apply of for that job”, and he said, “Well why would you leave your stable position, you’re doing well, you helping us in the middle of a crisis, why would you do that?”, and I said, “Because there’s nothing but upside, we’re at the lowest point that we can possibly be, and everything from here will be a win, and I want to be a part of that winning team” So that was my reason for joining the team and starting, getting involved in this work at the NBA league level.

Small Business Trends: That’s great. The NBA is really interesting because, first of all, its numbers are going through the roof. But it’s also a league that has been, I think at the forefront of minority ownership. You had Bob Johnson, of course you had Michael Jordan, we have you, but they’ve also been at the forefront of having under representative minorities, blacks, go into coaching, head coaching positions, general manager positions. So it seems like the league is really good at leading social change. When it comes to diversity and inclusiveness what can other leagues, and maybe even outside of sports, other industries learn from what’s going on in the NBA?

Grant Hill: Well you know I do agree I think as a professional sports league, and I’m not, let me qualify this answer by saying I’m not a huge follower of other sports, I’m all in with the NBA, but at least from my vantage point we are very progressive and you know it starts with our leadership, starts with former commissioner David Stern, current commissioner Adam Silver, if you look in the league offices I think really reflects diversity, you know our deputy commissioner is a man of color, Kathleen Behrens is one of the top league executives there and has a tremendous role and responsibility. So I feel that it starts at the top and you know much like I feel our organization in Atlanta, we strive to reflect on what Atlanta as we know is very diverse and I think that the league does that as well, we have a very diverse customer base, diversity in term of players; we have 25 percent of players at opening night this year were born outside of the continental US.

So that speaks a little bit to the game becoming a global brand but you know I think the game of basketball in general, kind of speaks diversity to me. When I was younger you’d go to the park to play basketball and there might be two teams of five playing, and 20 people on the sidelines waiting to play, and as a captain, who might have the next game, to play the winner, you’re gonna pick the best four players to play with you, so you can win. The object is to win, the object is to be successful, and I don’t care if your black, white, brown, gay, straight, if they can help you win; I feel like that spirit sort of exists in our sport.

It’s one of the closest things to a meritocracy, in that you know, it’s about talent, and I really do believe that. I can’t speak to the past, I can only speak now to the present, but I do feel that our leadership gets that, and understands that, and that’s sorta of the idea of our sport, of winning, the competing, and being successful. So as a league, as a franchise, we want to be successful, we want to be the best Atlanta Hawks organization that we can be. It’s like saying okay with the Hawks we’re only going to hire people who live within 2 miles of the arena downtown. I mean that would be foolish, you want to hire the best, I don’t care where they’re from, and so I think that is our mindset. I’m proud, not that we don’t have room for improvement but I do feel like we with the leadership of Zing, and Tony Ressler, and Steve Koonin, and collectively, we’re leading the way, not just in the NBA but in professional sports and that’s something that I’m very, very, extremely, proud of, especially considering what had happened two years ago, prior to Nzinga’s arrival.

Nzinga Shaw: I also think that, we have pulled this function out of HR were diversity traditionally lies, and have done something very unique with is to make it report into the C suite, reporting directly to the CEO, and I think when business functions report into the CEO and have, the responsibility of interacting across the board in the organization, and really helping to drive revenue, and helping to drive marking decisions, and things beyond administrative tasks, that’s when the organization really takes the work seriously and that’s when people in the organization start to realize that, this is something that’s real this is something that’s championed from the very top as Grant just said, and then also I just remembered when Grant became part of the ownership team.

Grant Hill: And I would just add, piggybacking on that, I do think Adam Silver really wants former players involved, and obviously a majority of players in the NBA are of color, but just to have that perspective on the emotional level. There’s a certain perspective, whether it’s the rules committee, competition committee, all that sort of that role encompasses as an owner, to bring that perspective and understanding, he’s been really bullish on that, with the amount of money that a lot of these guys are currently making, and guys like Lebron James is talking about wanting to own a team at some point.

I think you’ll see more and more, people of color, in ownership positions whether as a majority partner or vice chairman or minority, whatever role that might be, and you don’t see that in other sports, you don’t see that in football, you know there’s very few, I don’t want to say there’s none. So I think that’s important, it’s got to start at the top of the league, it’s got to start at the top of an organization as you said, for it to be credible within, and you know Nzing is involved in all aspects of our business and every new part of it, and she holds us all, holds me, accountable.

Small Business Trends: That brings up the perfect question around impact. How does these initiatives, how does inclusiveness, how does equality, how does that impact the Hawks’ business.

Nzinga Shaw: You know I think it impacts our business in many ways, and I’ll just give you an example, I mean we think about inclusion from variety in perspectives. I think nine times out of ten, when we’re having a conversation about diversity and inclusion people think we’re talking about race, sometimes gender, and now starting to talk about sexual orientation, but we’re talking about a lot of different things. We’re talking about families that may have some sort of sensory need, like autism or PTSD, and figuring out ways to include them into our arena experience. We just opened up a re imagined arena, State Farm Arena, as you all know, the renovation was just finished, and so part of that is to include a sensory inclusion room, a room for families that have this need right? So that if your child happens to have autism and maybe your other children don’t, you can still come to the game and have a great experience and be in the building, and so when you think about how that impacts business, well that now opens up doors for people that have traditionally stayed away from sports.

We think about the LGBTQ community which is really low hanging fruit in the Atlanta community, we are now the third largest city for people that are openly out to reside here. We have the third largest Pride in the nation. We’re the only sports organization in Atlanta to march in Pride, and we’ve been doing it for four consecutive years and will continue and will build upon that because the LQBTQ community has said to us “We need to know that there’s a sports team that embraces us, and we will be loyal fans, and we will bring business, and we will engage in the ways that you want us to but we just need to know that there are allies out there.” and so I think really thinking outside of the box in terms of inclusion and how you curate experiences for new and emerging communities and how you make whatever happens in our building very real for these different types of communities that’s how long term business is created, we don’t do it for the business we really do it for the culture to make sure that the Atlanta Hawks brand is something that resonates whether we’re on the winning streak or the losing streak. It’s got to go beyond wins and losses on the court. It’s got to be a brand that resonates with people so that they decide to spend an evening with us, knowing that we may not be the victors that night.

Photo via Michael W. Thomas/MWT Photography

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

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Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.

3 Reactions
  1. I think Grant Hill hits the nail on the head regarding “winning”. Regardless of color, sexuality, whatever, we need to hire THE BEST. That being said, need to be careful as many teams including coaches, medical staff, support staff are beginning to tilt to the other side…too many people of color. Diversity in hiring THE BEST should be the goal…diversity to be diverse creates losers. Imagine if an NBA team were to have 50% white guys, or 20% Chinese….nice diversity, but LOSERS. Same can be said for many current professional sports teams. All for hiring the best, just avoid the “other” that goes into the hiring.

    • Grant also said that having organizations have leadership that more fully represents and mirrors the customer base is good for business, as it provides much needed perspective that you do not get if your management team only looks like a percentage of the customer community, or have experiences limited to one way of doing things. He also said it would be ridiculous to only hire folks that live in a two mile radius of the arena, just because they’re the closet to you. Limiting your search in any way – whether its only choosing people who went to a handful of universities, or only have certain degrees, or only look a certain way – limits the organization. It’s all about finding the talent wherever it is – and if you need to go outside the traditional business norms to find the right people, you do it. So looking out to get that broader perspective that is inclusive of the entire customer base doesn’t mean you’re creating losers, it means your casting a wider net to make sure you’re creating a winning team.

  2. Yes. It really must start and must be encouraged all throughout the organization.