Why the executive team at a company is like the NBA

Posted by Arjun Moorthy

Sep 20, 2011 6:55:00 PM

When I recently joined HubSpot as a VP I was excited for a number of reasons, particularly the chance to work with a phenomenal executive team whom I'd met during the interviews.  I knew the role would entail long hours but I did not realize exactly what kind of commitment I had signed up for then.

hoop dreams

A few weeks into the job, at a new hire lunch with HubSpot's co-founders, an employee asked our CEO "how do you balance work & life?"  Brian thought for a second and said "I'm not sure how; I don't know that it's possible."  I was surprised and piped up that I knew other CEOs who find ways to spend time with their families and yet work long hours.  But I missed the point Brian was implicitly making.  That while you can balance work and life for a period of time, it's a precarious setup and, at least at the executive level, you will have to put work first at some point.

Indeed, when I met my former CEO and mentor Francis DeSouza recently, he said something similar: being in the executive team at a company - startup or Fortune 500 - is like making the NBA.  It's tough to make it and once you're there you can't say "I won't travel for away games" or "I had a great season last year so I'm going to take it easy this year."  There's always more you can practice your jump shot and more video footage of the opponents you can study and if you don't there's a huge list of people more than happy to take your spot on the team.  Similarly there's always more follow-up you can do, more analysis/research you can conduct and more travel you can do to meet yet more customers, partners or employees.

Of course, burn out is a risk and I've found that past 60-65 hrs/week my output tends to degrade in quality.  But as much as I'm a strong believer in quality over quantity there's just no getting around the fact that work never ends at this level.

This sounds bleak but it isn't meant to be.  Indeed, there are several aspects of being management that are fun - more control over what you do, ability to execute at a greater scale because you have to team to work with, working with incredible teammates whom you learn from everyday etc.  But it's an all-encompassing job that I don't know how to turn off - even at night. 

Blackberrys, 24/7 operations and round-the-world-development can be blamed but the reality is that as part of the executive team you are building a company, not just doing a job.  Talk to any business owner from time immemorial and they'll tell you that their mind is always at work because being a business owner is who they are.  Sure you'll have a social life with friends and go to your kid's soccer games but you likely won't make every event because you can't make that commitment.  And it's that lack of predictability that proves your allegiance to the NBA first.

I am still thrilled to be in the NBA and knowing what I know now I worry less about that elusive work/life balance.  Someday I will drop out of this league but it'll hopefully be my choice.  It'll be nice to have a World Championship ring or two by then.


I was reading an article by Jeff Atwood on why not to become a programmer and it occurred to me that the difference between people in the NBA and the minor leagues is that in the NBA the players either have always loved what they are doing or have found a way to love what they are doing.  Contrast that with the minor leagues where players may like their basketball careers but also admit to other interests at a comparable level.  

Similarly at the executive level of a company you tend to find people who really love their role, or claim to (sometimes fooling themselves).  So if you don't love your role perhaps this is an indiciation not to seek a promotion in that same line.

Topics: career path, career advice

Career Advice I Wish I Knew Earlier 

Hello.  I started this blog to distribute some of the best career advice I have been given over the many jobs I've had.  I've been fortunate to work for and with some great bosses like Brian Halligan, Francis DeSouzaNancy Kamei, and Rick Roberge, and some unique companies, like The Boston Consulting Group, that invest heavily in making each employee a success even after leaving the firm.

The advice and training I received here stands in contrast to my experiences with some not-so-great bosses and companies I've also worked for.  I'm continualy amazed at how valuable good advice has been in my career so I hope to pass on the good advice, and insights from mistakes I've made, via this blog. 

Thanks in advance for your comments, particularly when you can improve upon the ideas posted.

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