Terdema L. Ussery II Featured

11:59am EDT March 22, 2006
Where Terdema L. Ussery II goes, success follows.

That caught the attention of the Dallas Mavericks, which brought him into its game nine years ago with one purpose — to lead change. And that he has done.

In his first year, he led the funding campaign and secured naming rights for American Airlines Center. Since his arrival, the franchise has grown to $117 million in annual revenue, according to Hoover’s Online, and increased its corporate sponsorships, ticket sales, television revenue and community activity.

On top of that, he and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban started HDNet, the nation’s first high-definition television network, of which he also serves as CEO. Ussery spoke with Smart Business about how to lead change and succeed in business.

On leading change: The most important thing to recognize when there is change is that it cannot be dictatorial because automatically, there’s going to be a lot of anxiety among staff. Change, by definition, brings anxiety because everyone wants to know, when the paradigm shifts, what does it mean for me?

Communication is critically important in letting people know, honestly, what the purpose of the change is, what the goals and objectives are, and how that person may or may not fit in, and then giving them the opportunity to show that they want to fit into the new paradigm. You really have to spend time talking to people, communicating with people, reassuring people, and for those that have a different agenda, getting them out before they create too much damage internally.

We’ve seen some of that, where people are not happy with change so they want to, in some ways, sabotage change, and that happens in different ways. It’s just being vigilant about knowing who your staff is and knowing people who are really trying to get after it and knowing those who aren’t happy about the change and are going to be disruptive.

On hiring and managing employees: Hire the best people that you can and give them as much room to run and do what they need to do. Multiple tasks require folks with multiple talents.

Instead of looking for people with an expertise in one area who can only operate in that area, you look for people who are extremely bright and agile, who may have his own expertise but have the ability to learn quickly and do other things you need. It’s more hiring people who are bright, that are passionate, who have the ability to go across zones if you need them to.

I don’t believe too much in micromanaging. It’s important to empower smart people so that they have a sense of accomplishment, of fulfillment, so we try very hard to let the people that are in this company run the company. We’re more of a forgiveness organization than a permission organization.

We’re not a company that sits around, has a lot of meetings, spends a lot of time betting whether or not this is or isn’t a good idea. If someone comes to the table with a good idea that we think is going to be impactful, we move pretty quickly. And if it fails, we can always ask for forgiveness, but we don’t want to stifle people’s creativity.

Bottom-line focus is fine, but at the end of the day, you want people who are fulfilled by their jobs because those people are going to do the best. When people aren’t being paid, when the 40 hours is up, are people still buzzing about what they’re doing? Are they still happy to be at work? Are they still trying to get their jobs finished, not because they’re going to be graded down or they’re going to get overtime, but because they’re enjoying what they’re doing and they’re excited?

It’s more than a bottom-line focus. It’s really enjoying having a sense of purpose and feeling as though you’re making a contribution to something larger than yourself that’s meaningful to people.

On balancing life and work: You can get so caught up in what it is you’re doing professionally that you forget about the other side. Something has usually happened that has jarred me and made me realize the importance of trying to have balance.

I try to stay cognizant of the fact that you’ve got to stay healthy, and not just physically but emotionally and psychologically, to be the best you can at work. I think I’m pretty good about telling guys to get away, to get out of the office, go take a long weekend, go do whatever to refresh yourself. Trying to remind them keeps me aware, as well.

When I was at Princeton, my first year there, myself and a couple guys pulled an all-nighter to prepare for an exam — that was a badge of honor, right? But I didn’t do well on the exam. One of my roommates, who had a different methodology of studying, which was just to study consistently, was doing a lot better than me, and it dawned on me that this whole idea of cramming and going til you can go no more is not a good thing.

In the workplace, it’s the same thing — you can work until you burn yourself out, but then you’re doing nobody any good.

On succeeding: The second you believe that there is some unalienable right to exist, it’s the second that the clock is ticking to your demise and ultimate downfall. Every day, one of the things we try to instill in people is a sense of urgency.

The second we start believing because we’re winning or because we’re good — and it doesn’t matter the industry — the second you start reading your own press and buying into it is the beginning of the end. You lose your competitive edge. You lose your ability to be flexible. You lose your ability to listen to your customers and what they’re saying.

It’s waking up every morning and being in an attack mode as opposed to a passive mode — aggressively going after the things that you need to get done that day to be successful, and when you get into that kind of pattern, it makes it easier to multitask. It’s trying to be better today than you were yesterday.

If you can do that, if you can slice your life that thinly, then it helps keep you going. I don’t look out six, seven months and say, ‘I have to get this done.’ I say, ‘How good was I today? What can I do to get better tomorrow?’

No one stands at the base of Everest, starts climbing it and stares at the top all the way up. They’d never make it. You come up with an effective plan and focus on execution.

Keep your head down and focus on taking great steps because any one misstep can cost you your life. Focus on executing every day the best you can, and eventually, the air gets thinner and it gets cooler, and one day you’re going to take that next step and it’s not there, and you’ve made it to the top.

Advice for new CEOs: Start off the job by doing nothing but listening. Spend the first few weeks just listening — the secretaries, the senior management, the middle management, your customers, all the constituents that are going to impact your life.

Just listen to what their concerns are, what their issues are, what their goals and objectives are. What are the issues? Are you having fun? Are we delivering the way you thought we would?

Then distill that information, and from there, start talking about planning for the future. You’d be surprise at some of the stuff you hear.

How to reach: Dallas Mavericks, www.dallasmavs.com