Leadership & Teamwork Lessons from a Legend: A Conversation with Earvin “Magic” Johnson

December 1, 2020 Cliff Skelton

It is hard to believe it’s been just over 40 years since the 20-year-old rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson led the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers over the Philadelphia 76ers for the 1980 NBA championship, the first of his five league titles as a player. His performance has become a legendary example of leadership, achievement and teamwork – and he’s using this same formula for success in the business world.

As Chairman and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, over the past two decades, Johnson has led the investment conglomerate that provides high-quality products and services focused primarily on ethnically diverse and underserved urban communities. From investments as diverse as Starbucks coffeehouses to movie theaters, financial services, facilities management, and food services, Magic has achieved as much success off the court as he did on it.

Magic was gracious enough to spend some time with our clients and associates virtually last month to share his perspective on issues ranging from leadership and teamwork to role models, continuous learning, and inclusion. I sincerely thank him for his time, insights and generosity.

At Conduent, we’re executing our own companywide transformation rooted in quality, efficiency and growth. Our team aspires to be the best at helping our clients achieve the most successful business outcomes for their customers and stakeholders. Learning from successful people like Magic is a way to model ourselves after the best.

On a personal note, I am always interested in learning more about leadership and teamwork, dating back to my service in the United States Navy where I was fortunate to serve as a fighter pilot and a member of the US Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels.  What strikes me about Magic’s leadership presence is his humility and accountability for performance, both as a player and a CEO, qualities I witnessed in Blue Angel Demonstration Pilots. 

Below are some additional perspectives I took away from our conversation:

The secret for success: It is important to have confidence, but also to be accountable and open to feedback… otherwise known as confident humility. What also resonated for me is the importance of building a culture that is good for all members of a team so they have a passion for their work and will over-deliver for customers and partners.

Inclusion:  No discussion of leadership – in business or sports – is relevant if it doesn’t address diversity and inclusion where every employee feels like a valued member of the team.  For Magic, it starts with opening the lines of communication, so everyone is working together towards a better outcome. “Diversity of opinion, diversity of strategy, and diversity of ideals are good for a company,” he said. He cited creating minority internships, supporting organizations financially or adding minorities to boards of directors as examples of what companies can and should do to bring about change.

Role models:  Magic mentioned both of his parents as role models. His mom taught him the importance of sharing with others, such as when she redistributed some of his snow-shoveling earnings to his siblings. His dad, who never missed work or was late during 30 years in the auto industry, instilled in him the importance of doing the job right, like breaking up the ice to pick up trash in the freezing cold to earn extra income.  His dad told him if he did that job halfway, then he would settle for doing many things in life halfway. “That day, that moment, I became a perfectionist,” he recalled.

Continuous learning: The late Dr. Jerry Buss, owner of the Lakers, was instrumental in helping Magic chart a course for success beyond basketball. He opened the team’s books so Magic could learn the business. He introduced him to business leaders who would become mentors and partners.

Among his key takeaways: Staying focused on the customer experience and understanding what your customer wants instead of making assumptions, such as when he built successful movie theaters in urban areas or when he tailored Starbucks coffeehouse menus and music to the tastes of local customers.

Even successful Hall of Famers face hurdles. Whether it was losing to Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics in the 1984 Finals or his short-lived TV talk show in 1998, Magic conducts a “SWOT” analysis of his own capabilities and debriefs with his team so they can learn and improve, beginning with himself. He also understood that tough competition made him stronger.  

To sum it up: we win as a team

Magic offered so much depth and insight during our conversation, and it was a privilege to hear his perspective. At Conduent, we have placed significant emphasis on strengthening our culture centered on teamwork and leadership and putting our clients at the center of what we do.  Many of the principles that Magic discussed parallel the values we live at Conduent…  and we’re starting to see the benefit in our client service delivery, and in our operational and financial performance.

I personally took away how important faith, family, learning, inclusiveness, client focus, selflessness, giving back, and communication are to making better leaders of us all, and our teams stronger. He said it’s about “winning together,” and that will continue to be our objective as we create lasting value for our clients and the millions of end users who rely on us each day. 

About the Author

Cliff Skelton

Cliff Skelton, Conduent CEO: Cliff is driving Conduent’s strategy to deliver mission-critical services and solutions to global businesses and governments, creating exceptional outcomes for them and the millions of people they serve. As both CEO and a Member of the Board, he is focused on leading Conduent to growth and long-term success. Cliff has significant experience in large-scale operations and enterprise transformations, as well as deep knowledge of technology. He joined Conduent from Fiserv Corporation, where he most recently served as President of Fiserv Output Solutions, providing services for companies across multiple industries and driving both top-line and bottom-line growth.

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