Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors President and Alternate NBA Governor, made history in 2019 when he led the Toronto Raptors to victory, bringing the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy home to Canada for the first time. However, his leadership journey started long before, and stretches far beyond, his time in Toronto.
Masai sat down with Kikelomo Lawal, Chief Legal Officer, Ombudsman & Corporate Secretary, Interac, at the 2020 Interac Annual General Meeting of Shareholders (AGM) for a fireside chat about leadership, diversity, building authentic relationships and corporate citizenship
Kikelomo introduced Masai as “strategic, cerebral, a student of the game and architect of some brilliant trades, a gentleman, an upstanding person, and a proud Nigerian.” She would also add “humble”, as Masai doesn’t attribute his successes to anything special about himself. As he shared with Interac, his recipe for leadership is one that anyone can follow — with the right commitment.
Here are five leadership lessons from Masai Ujiri:
- Lead by example
Masai spends time sharing knowledge about sports and life at Basketball Without Borders camps where young people learn not just the game, but how to win in other areas of life. Masai said he embodies leadership at Basketball Without Borders by following the schedule and participating in activities just like anyone else.
“I wake up with everybody at seven in the morning, go spend all day in camp, and come back. It burns you out, but that’s life,” Masai said. “I have to show it by example. I would never be one of those [famous] people that’s going to show up, take pictures for an hour, and then leave.”
Nor would Masai feel right about participating through donations alone. “Giving money does not find a pathway for [the young people],” he said. You can only show leadership by showing up.
- Assemble your dream team
Masai joined the Toronto Raptors as general manager and executive vice president in May 2013. Since then he’s had the opportunity to shape the organization and build its team for the future — on and off the court.
“The only thing I would say that I micromanage, ever, as a leader, is hiring people — those key leaders in the organization,” he said.
Masai insists that anyone joining his team meet one criterion: They must be smarter than him. That may sound like a slightly tongue-in-cheek rule, but Masai insists it’s true.
“Leaders are scared of hiring people that are smarter than them. To me, it’s the best thing that could ever happen to you because those positions are going to be filled so well,” Masai said. “And they are so smart they are going to hire smart people too. It trickles down, and it elevates everybody.”
- Make sure your team is an inclusive one
Masai noted, traditionally speaking, women haven’t held many key positions within NBA clubs.
“If you entered an NBA practice facility or training facility, all you saw were men,” Masai said, reflecting on his experience in the industry. “I know, because I worked in that environment for a long time before it began to change.”
However, Masai leads his team differently. “There are many [women] who are very, very smart and have input in everything we do.”
Hiring more women brought new levels of creativity, problem solving, and new styles of leadership to the Toronto Raptors. “[Women] can be leaders. Big leaders.”
The Raptors have more women during his time at the helm, he said, and that has opened the door to more talent.
“We hired 14 women,” Masai said, “and we won a championship.”
- Finally, rally your people …
Early in his tenure as GM, Masai recalled saying to his staff: “Get me a campaign. Find me a campaign that is going to really resonate.”
“How do we become Canada’s team? We started to think of all the different strategies, and plans, and things that you can do to start to build that.”
That’s how the Raptors’ famous We the North rallying cry came to be: Masai’s goal was to bring people together. He wanted to unite not just the Raptors organization in the hunger for an NBA Championship, but all Canadian basketball fans.
- … and together, you will do something extraordinary
“You can’t be ordinary,” Masai said. “If you want to stand out, and you want to make an example for the youth, and for the future of whatever we’re doing, you have to push the envelope. You have to make the difficult decisions. You have to hire the right people. All those things are going to really elevate your culture.”
And what is the ultimate purpose of this refusal to be ordinary? “It’s simple. Win,” Masai said. “I’m telling you, that’s what it comes down to.”
Masai’s focus on success permeates his whole life, whether sports, philanthropy or supporting future generations. “When you’ve won on the court and you’ve won off the court, then you can start to bring people along and you start to teach winning.”
The Toronto Raptors’ victory was felt coast-to-coast. Like Interac, a 100 per cent Canadian-owned organization, Masai understands the value of Canada.
“We have to take advantage of the people we have, the diversity we have, how big it is, and how kind people are,” he said. “It’s amazing to work in this country and feel that you can push, and you will be supported.”
Click here to read what Interac employees learned from Masai and how they will use those lessons in their careers.