I was sitting in a cavernous hotel ballroom yesterday afternoon, one of a sea of women eagerly listening to Billie Jean King share her thoughts on the role of relationships in success, the impact of Title IX on women's progress, and the keys to teamwork. This was the 33rd annual Simmons Leadership Conference for women, and it seemed everyone had stayed to the end to catch this talk (and, as it turned out, some tennis balls popped from the stage) by the sports legend.
Because HBR is running a special Insight Center right now on the secrets of great teams, I listened especially to hear what Billie would say on that topic. What a happy surprise when she moved to that part of her talk by saying "I've just been reading this fascinating article about teams in the Harvard Business Review ..." (Billie Jean King is an HBR reader!) The article that had caught her eye was Sandy Pentland's "The New Science of Building Great Teams." She went on to read from it, annotating each quoted bit with her own experience.
You might think of Billie Jean King as a standout individual performer—who can forget how she went to battle on behalf of her gender against that consummate chauvinist Bobby Riggs? But even as a player, she always competed on teams. She's spent plenty of time as a coach since, and helped to build organizations like World TeamTennis. Numerous boards have benefitted from her contributions. She's really all about teamwork.
"The 'natural leaders' in teams are charismatic connectors," she read aloud from her HBR, and then paused to emphasize the point. "I was thrilled to read that," she said. "And I know we all like to project, but that's me that he's writing about." She read on: "They are democratic with their time—communicating with everyone equally and making sure all team members get a chance to contribute." She looked up at the crowd. "I've been in plenty of situations where that doesn't happen at all."
Billie Jean did much more than cite HBR, of course. She offered her own hard-won wisdom on teams. To her, great teamwork comes down to two factors: the leader has to be trusted; and the team members must be not only involved but committed. She told a story about the US Fed Cup team she brought together in 1999: Monica Seles, Venus and Serena Williams, and Mary Joe Fernandez. In the first meeting, she announced to this group of superstars that they would meet at eight the next morning and head over for practice. The first comment came from Serena: "I don't think I want to go to practice that early."
Billie Jean and the rookie coach she was mentoring, Zina Garrison, exchanged glances. This was just the kind of "moment of truth" Billie had been telling Zina to watch out for, because depending on how it is handled, it either builds or damages the team's potential. Billie paused for a moment then said matter-of-factly: "I have this one rule: that we all go together every day as a team. And everyone shows up on time." Serena shrugged, then said brightly, "Okay, great." And everyone showed up at 8:00.
King also shared what she'd learned from longtime DuPont CEO Ed Woolard (surprisingly described by her as "one of my few mentors"). His philosophy of managing people's performance was to "reward personal achievements that helped the team." He lived by legendary basketball coach John Wooden's advice that "it's better to have a person who makes the team stronger than to have a superstar."
There was more, but for me the major revelation was that a superstar like Billie Jean King is so team oriented. And here was another surprise: that someone so associated with victory over men doesn't see gender in adversarial terms at all. She's not anti-men, she's pro-equality. That, in fact, is the whole basis of World TeamTennis, the coed professional league she's boosted as commissioner and part owner. Its whole point is to give equal weight to male and female players competing for their teams—and it was the first professional sports league to do so.
From what I can tell, World TeamTennis is the embodiment of what Billie Jean King believes in. "To live a full life, you have to know how to lead and you need to know how to be supportive," she said. Some situations demand that we perform one role, and others call on us for the other. Concluding her prepared remarks to this audience of rising leaders, she kept the message simple: "Please remember, we're all on the same team as men and women. And please, be a good team member."
This post is part of the HBR Insight Center on The Secrets of Great Teams.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 04/06/2012.