Rebuilding a Team: A Perspective from Travis Schlenk

Travis Schlenk, Atlanta Hawks President and General Manager, met with a group to talk about his job. Schlenk came to the Hawks from the Golden State Warriors, where he helped build a perennial power. Here are some insights he had to share about his role:

Schlenk has multiple responsibilities:

  • Meet with the owners once a week; he interacts with principle owner Tony Ressler every day during the season
  • Meet with season ticket holders on a periodic basis
  • Oversee coaching staff, players, practice facility and training staff
  • Manage the scouting process, which includes 7 scouts at the national and global levels

Getting draft picks right is key to an effective rebuild. To ensure this, he travels the world looking at talent. He and his scouting team create a draft board to help them make decisions. The team begins having conversations and walks through scenarios a month prior to the draft, but the draft itself is a year-long process. He has a “tier 1” group on the draft board which consists of the best/top 30 players they are considering. What does your “draft board” for talent look like? How do you make sure you’re hiring or promoting the right person? What process do you use to ensure person-job-culture fit?

Character of the individual is most important. Schlenk mentioned that one “rainy day” person can bring the whole team (group) down. He watches players interact with coaches and teammates to determine their character. He asks the question, “What are they like as people?” He and his staff also study their work ethic and the effort they put in. Schlenk mentioned in his talk that his own upbringing influenced his approach. Growing up in Kansas, he spent a lot of time with his grandfather on the farm, where the expectation was that the work would get done before you eat. Character and work ethic are hard to measure in players, so he also talks to former coaches and teachers, and has them complete personality inventories. Deandre Hunter, the Hawks’ first pick this year, is a high character person who is comfortable being a role player on the team. His versatility and desire to play defense offset weaknesses the team has needed to address. What values do you look for in your employees? How do you assess for these values when making hiring and promotion decisions?

Resources are needed to set players up for success. In addition to a training staff, Schlenk employs a nutritionist and a sports psychologist. This provides players with the resources they need to be physically and mentally fit. In addition, the Hawks have added a local minor (“G League”) league team, the College Park (Georgia) Skyhawks. This year is their inaugural season. This minor league team provides numerous advantages – proximity allows players to practice with the professional team and get game repetitions with the minor league team; 2-way players can be easily accessed for Hawks games. What learning and development resources do you have in place to set your employees up for success? Do you have a formal onboarding process? Do you have formal programs in place for your high performers to keep them engaged and motivated?

A balanced approach to rebuilding is needed. Schlenk believes in adding veterans who can teach younger players and also fill team needs and gaps. He looks for trades constantly that fit both teams. Schlenk tries to “stockpile” draft picks because he sees these as assets for future trades. He has a 7-year plan for the team, and continually challenges the players to be the best versions of themselves. He and the coaching staff must work to convince 20-year olds to work harder than ever. What do you do to ensure your approach to hiring and retention is balanced? Do you have a plan in place to track your success and progress?

Having a team identity is important to be competitive. Schlenk shared that “We have jobs because people care”. During this rebuilding process, he wants the team to be competitive every night. He believes that it is important to keep improving and to taste success. Schlenk defines success as improving in win total and have a glimmer of hope to make the playoffs late in the season. The style of play he and the coaching staff are trying to build is playing fast by getting up and down the court, getting in to the lane and kicking it to the corners for shots and running to the corners on fast breaks, because these are the keys to easy points. What is your competitive advantage? How do you differentiate yourself from your competition? How do members of your team help you excel in this area?

Toughest part to Schlenk’s job is managing people. Managing a staff of 57, Schlenk sees it as important to keep the group together as expectations increase. His mantra is to “pull on the rope” in the same direction. What steps do you take to ensure top-down alignment? How often do you share your vision, mission and purpose with the team?

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