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The Wright Way: Timberwolves President on building organization

What drives the man who runs the Timberwolves? Find out in a one-on-one interview with Chris Wright, president of Minnesota's NBA franchise.
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By: Jeff Prouty, Chairman and Founder, The Prouty Project

As a young entrepreneur, I had an advisor who reminded me of the importance of doing things in the “right right way." Do things with a touch of surprise, elegance, simplicity, class, he said.

When I think of doing things in the “right right way”, I immediately think of Chris Wright. Chris is the President of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and it’s been an absolute joy getting to know him over the past four years.

We sat down a couple weeks ago (with the NBA lockout fully underway) to talk about strategy, teamwork, culture, coaching, and a host of other engaging topics. Please enjoy the excerpts from our lively 2-hour conversation:

Chris, you were a professional soccer player before getting into sports management. Who are the best “coaches” you’ve had in life?

Three come immediately to mind:

1) My grandfather. My grandfather was a fisherman in England, and he always inspired me to look beyond what was immediately apparent and in front of me. Explore opportunities. My soccer skills ultimately created a lot of opportunities for me.

2) Edward J. DeBartolo. He owned the soccer and hockey franchise in Pittsburgh (Spirit and Penguins), and the football franchise in San Francisco (49ers). He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and he gave me an opportunity to run a “front office” for the professional soccer team.

3) Glen Taylor. I joined the Timberwolves in 1991, our first year in the Target Center. Glen bought the team in 1995. I appreciate Glen's loyalty to me as a leader, as well as his loyalty to the Twin Cities community.

Any soccer coaches that had a big influence on you as a young man?

Mike Smith, one of my coaches in England, taught me the concept of the “runway”. How long will it take to get to your goals? How will you adapt along the way? What does it mean to lead during the journey? Can you get a team/people to follow you?

Coach Smith was great at coming alongside people, making people better by partnering, helping them in a supportive way.

You’ve been with the Wolves now for two decades. What are your personal aspirations as you think about your career?

I aspire to some level of ownership in a sports franchise, someday. I get excited about helping create the vision, mission, and strategic direction for sports franchises.

One of the sportswriters said you have the “toughest job in the Twin Cities." How do you feel about that?

I enjoy the challenge, and we’ll keep working hard to build a winning team both on and off the court. I believe if we do two things really well—put fans at the center of everything we do AND hire people who “wear the jersey every day”—we’ll be successful.

Every day, each of our employees (about 120) need to be thinking about one question:

What value are we creating for our stakeholders?

I also want all of us to learn from other organizations. Look externally, what can we learn from other businesses? What can we learn from other basketball and sports franchises?

You must feel great about the Lynx winning the Women’s NBA championship ring?

Yes, it’s a reminder that Rome was not built in a day. Be patient.

An old basketball friend of mine always reminded me, “It’s not the 5 best players, but rather the 5 players who play best together.”

The Lynx play loose, they have fun, and they played with a level of confidence all season. They are very talented, and we have this core group for a long time.

What can the Twin Cities community do to support the Timberwolves and the Lynx?

We have to create value for the community.

We have to create an experience that the community wants to buy into.

I would ask the community to challenge us as a professional sports franchise.

How can we be of value to:
--your family?
--your employees?
--you, as a leader?

We want to prove to the community, every day, that we are worthy of their support.

What do you think about Coach Adelman?

The hiring of Coach Adelman is phenomenal for our franchise. He’s the 6th winningest coach in the history of the NBA, he’s coached in two NBA championships.

He’ll put a great staff together. As an experienced leader, he has the systems, the contacts, the knowledge and he knows how to win.

With a young, talented team, he’s exactly what we need.

With Mr. DeBartolo and the 49ers, you’ve been around some winning franchises.
What observations do you have about “great teams”?

The best teams, anywhere, have great chemistry, they collaborate with each other and have a high level of respect for each member of the team.

The great teams get everyone on the same page, and they work at it every day.

And Mr. DeBartolo relentlessly pursued "winning."

As the sales and marketing “whiz” for the Timberwolves, how do you deal with the volatility of team performance? Winning seasons, losing seasons?

I have no control of team performance on the court, therefore you manage and control what we can control. We have to be able to adapt all the time.

And, we’re in multiple businesses, with sponsorships, concessions, suite sales, ticket sales, communications, etc.

It’s tough to forecast wins and losses, which makes the annual budget a tough, tough exercise.

Since this article will be read by folks from around the world, what is the “vision” and “mission” of the Minnesota Timberwolves?

Our vision is to build a championship-caliber sports franchise with a commitment to long-term profitability. We will establish a winning culture fostering teamwork, passion, and fun that positively impacts our community.

Our mission is to provide the ultimate sports and entertainment experience at exceptional value, with unparalleled customer service, while engaging our community.

As season ticket holders for the past three years, we’re committed to supporting the Wolves. We also appreciate your desire/drive to come say “hello” when we’re in the Target Center with our guests.

We appreciate your loyalty, and as I remind our team every day: Put the fans at the center of everything we do. And put on the “team jersey” every day.

Thanks, Chris, keep doing everything you do in the “Wright Wright way." It’s been a joy getting to know you and seeing you in action.

Jeff Prouty, Chairman and Founder: Jeff founded the Prouty Project in 1987 after 7 years with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis and New York City. He specialized in working with senior management teams and boards of directors on strategic planning and team issues.

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