An interview with Coach Nikki Fargas
KEVIN CRAIN: Hello everyone, I'm Kevin Crain, Head of Retirement Research and Insights at Bank of America and I'm thrilled today to host a very special event with a conversation with Nikki Fargas. Nikki has reached the pinnacles of success with a storied career in woman's basketball and when you hear my introduction you're gonna hear the word champion a good deal in that introduction. Nikki won the state championship in high school. Nikki also won the NCA championship in college playing for University of Tennessee under that great coach Pat Summitt. Nikki won two NCA championships at the University of Tennessee as an assistant coach for Pat Summitt. Nikki was a highly successful head coach at LSU and UCLA. At UCLA she won the Pack Ten coach of the year. Nikki has been a TV analyst for women's basketball and now Nikki is president of the Los Vegas Aces of the WMBA. Last year Las Vegas Aces won the regular season Western Conference Championship. So when you hear Nikki's career I think you see the success she's had in motivating players, recruiting and retaining players, executing, adapting and adjusting a game plan, executive leadership building a team with budgeting, we'll talk about that. And building and motivating a leadership team, coaches and other staff. So very applicable to other types of businesses. So Nikki welcome, thank you for taking the time too.
NIKKI FARGAS: Kevin, thank you. Let me start with a few questions and we'll just have a conversation back and forth. You've had a really impressive career as I said, through the ranks a player, a coach and now an executive. What are some of the principles of leadership that carried through as a player, as a coach and now in running a team as president? Well it starts with the culture that you set forth at your business and at your institution, in your home, and that culture that is a winning culture. I've been very fortunate to be part of, as you mentioned earlier, the legacy of Pat Summitt and the culture that was set there in this championship environment was that of trust, was that of people being of high character and high morale, you didn't see a lot of players leave her program because there was an honesty there. But we also knew that the culture was going to pull the best out of us. Even in the midst of us not knowing that we wanted to stay, we might wanted to transfer but we were able to understand that this culture is here to help us build the framework that we need to be successful for later in life. The other thing I would say that to me kind of resonates is that you've got to be an effective communicator and communication eliminates all types of confusion and you know we live by the definite dozen and one of the definite dozen, learn to be a great communicator. Pat Summitt was huge on that communication will eliminate mistakes, it eliminates confusion and we would communicate all the time. When you think about practices, whether you're calling defense, you're calling rebound or saying I've got this player, that type of communication also exists with us in my office with the Aces. We're constantly engaging with each other, we're constantly talking to each other, constantly making sure that everybody is on the same page and that we're aligned with each other. But communication also is about body language. You can have a positive outlook on life and your body follows that lead, or you can have a negative outlook on life and your body language kind of resembles that too. Silence is also a form of communication and a quiet gym as Pat would always say, is a losing gym. So sometimes we take for granted that how we walk into a room do we walk into the room with great eye contact and our head held high or are we walking into a room with bad body language and so to me those two things in particular have stood with me through my playing career and obviously as my career here as the president of the Aces.
KEVIN CRAIN: So I'd like to take that further because it's a perfect segue into a story you and I talked about. That Pat Summitt as a coach being a great communicator but also, I think, a great listener to her players. I'd love you to tell the story around a very pivotal game in a very pivotal moment that Pat actually listened and handed over the reins of the team to you to call a pivotal play. If you could tell that.
NIKKI FARGAS: So we were playing in the SEC Tournament and we were back and forth and it was a competitive game and we have a very special young lady on our team by the name of Candace Parker, so as we were coming to the end of the game, I could see that the time on the clock wasn't in our favor and so I said to Pat we've got to foul, we've got to foul. She's looking at me, she's looking at Holly Warlick, the other assistant coach and then we're like, yes we have to foul, we have to foul. So foul and we put the opponent on the free throw line and it was my scout so then I said please, please let her miss this free throws. She ended up missing the free throws and we call a time out. Pat hands me the clipboard and she literally said what do you want to run? To be able to be in that situation,that's something that doesn't happen often. You don't see that often, especially when you're talking about winning a championship and maybe during a regular season game. But when a championship is on the line, again that's the trust that she had not only in myself but also in the staff, so when she hands be the clipboard, I'm drawing up a play but there's really no real play to be drawn up because the moral of the story is, get the ball to your best player and everybody else get out the way. So we were able to get the ball to Candace Parker and she was able to go and create an opportunity for us to win and SEC Championship but had coach Summitt not taken a back seat, and said I'm gonna listen to my coaches, I'm gonna listen to their mentality right now in this moment and it was a very critical moment. I literally carry that with me as well, when there's big decisions to be made, sometimes it's good to just listen and hear what is being said in the room but also give your team an opportunity to shine. To showcase what they're capable of and why you brought them on, to your team, to your organization and that's just a memory that I will never forget. And honestly I won't forget the fact that we also were bonused because we won the SEC Championship.
KEVIN CRAIN: That's a great story and it really relates to, what they always say, that players win games. Great coaches always say players win games, right and so, you both were a player and in that case a coach. What I marvel at is you were a player, you were an assistant coach, you were a coach and now you're an executive and you're running a team. Can you talk about, now as president of the team, having to build a team and we talked about this, you have a budget. A pretty constrictive budget, you have a salary cap. So has that been in involving to being an executive running the entire organization?
NIKKI FARGAS: Well the game is played 94 by 50 so there's always been boundaries. Obviously when you step outside that boundary it's going to be considered a turn over and so we try eliminate as many turnovers as we can by having a lot of meetings one on one, group meetings, just making sure everybody knows the restrictions and the standards and the protocol that's set forth in the W or even in the NCAA. So when we're looking at how to expand. And that's what we want to do, we want to expand what we're doing here, we wanna provide more opportunities and access and you have to have people that are willing to not just touch the line, but sometimes you got to go past the line a little bit. I know that playing for Pat Summitt we went across the line and we also trained in a way that we felt no one else would train this way, no one else put in the time, you know I'm the last person in the gym and I'm the first person in the gym, the last person to leave. Are you that way in the office? Am I getting to the office before my employees or are they leaving well before I leave? Those things matter when you think about some of these principles and traits of having a very successful organization. Basketball just taught me you also got to be a team player. You also got to be ready to pass to your team mate or to another person on your team and allow them to execute or finalize the deal for you, to me it's really about that cohesive environment that you create which goes back to what I talked about earlier, which is the culture of your organization.
KEVIN CRAIN: And I'm interested, now Becky Hammon is your coach, and she's had a similar career, was a great player, now a coach. You've been a player, a coach, now you're the executive. When you work with that and I'm sure you have inclinations, because you know the game so well, right, how do you help her and how does she turn to you for help but also not be so involved, obviously in her leading as a coach?
NIKKI FARGAS: Becky Hammon is a remarkable person first and foremost Becky Hammon is a remarkable person first and foremost and what she has meant to woman by again going outside the norm, breaking barriers that are set forth when you're an assistant coach in the NBA and has been successful for the past eight years and she decides to go back to my roots, I'm going back to where it started for me and that was in the WNBA, and she knows she wouldn't be standing here today as the Spurs assistant coach, if it wasn't for the WNBA and the opportunity they presented to her but she also was- I remember this phrase, iron sharpens iron. And there's a competitive spirit about Becky Hammon, myself, our staff, I've got an unbelievable owner in Mark Davis who obviously you know what the Raiders, and what the Raiders have stood for so long. There's an opportunity for us to take a look at the W and take a look at a person like Becky Hammon who says, "You know what, this league is just as good as the NBA league and I'm going to put my stamp and leave my legacy in the game I played at the highest level." So to have Becky Hammon come into our organization, it is only uplifting what we're trying to do here in the Las Vegas community. She's already a household name, she's already someone who’s proven as a winner, but she's also someone who the players- So when you think about your number one stakeholders and for us it's our players. Without the players you don't have a league. And she's able to communicate with them in a way that is very effective because she's been in their shoes. So to be able to have a mentor in a coach along with a leader, that's just a very positive way of positioning who is going to take the Las Vegas Aces to the next level and that's what Becky Hammon is going to be able to do for our organization.
KEVIN CRAIN: I think that's great and you talked a lot on that answer and I appreciate, we study a lot around diversity and inclusion and we study a lot around gender diversity and the role of woman obviously and their advancement and companies and leaderships and being executives. But I think that is such a compelling story of her NBA experience going back to the WNBA but I think you're going to agree, you're going to see a lot of women become very successful in the NBA, I'm sure in the very near future. As some have already had that and think that's a wonderful story. My last question would be, we're talking to corporate leaders and a lot of corporate leaders are listening to this. What would be three takeaways that you would like the audience to take away from your experience, your experience working with others in terms of how they can make their team the best it can be. You obviously have done that throughout your career. What should they think about and do?
NIKKI FARGAS: I would say first and foremost one of the biggest takeaways that I've- If you talk about Pat Summitt, if you talk about my mother is as a role model for me, is that they were very humble, they were very in tune to those who they were of service to and I believe this, before you can lead you've got to follow, and we talk about there's got to be great leaders and I lived this with the definite dozen, there's great leaders and equal followers. So to me being able to understand the dynamics of following, I believe it will help understand the dynamics of leading. And leadership is also rooted in stability and drive and passion and consistently evolving with the times. And knowing that there could be a different pathway that you should at least entertain. And I like creating a culture in our business where each one of my team members, they know their voice will be heard, they know their voice will be respected and they know their voice will be taken into consideration. Now obviously the final decision of how we proceed, is left up to me but I want to make sure they know they have that opportunity to lead also even in the confinements of being in an organization. The other thing I will say is that I think the power of giving to others is so, so important. As a leader you are a source, you are a source of energy, for people, for your team, for your organization and I try to encourage the heart because I feel like we can get so bogged down in numbers, and I know we all have to meet certain bottom line numbers and budgets and things like that but just understanding that the leaders who empower others will have a more stronger and effective organization which will then result in the outcome that is far more greater that what you possibly could imagine because you are encouraging the heart.
KEVIN CRAIN: I think that's great and everything that you've said that's really a great coach, is a great coach because of their players and working with their players closely and obviously you said that. So really Nikki, thank you for sharing your experiences, having this conversation, I'm sure our listeners will greatly benefit from it. And best of luck this upcoming season. I wish you the best and also in years to come. Thank you very much.
NIKKI FARGAS: Well I appreciate that, I learned from the best with Pat Summitt and I can't say enough about her definite dozen and how I still to this day utilize those principles in everything that I do and so her leadership program- I lived it, I was part of it, I would encourage everyone to take a serious look at how the success of Pat Summitt can permeate throughout your organization. KEVIN CRAIN: Thank you very much Nikki, thank you for taking the time. Thank you.