The Impact of “Forced Evolutions” on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Corporate Culture
Nic Barlage rejoined the NBA team in September 2017 in his current role, becoming the youngest team president in the league. Now 36, he has since played a key role in the $185-million renovation of the Cavs’ home arena, including integrating 24 new or existing sponsors into the renovation and securing a naming-rights renewal with Quicken Loans that renamed the arena Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Nic sat down with host Jim Andrews for an All Access Interview that explores how the Cavs sustained a positive culture and created unity through the organization’s pandemic response and its support of Black Lives Matter and other social justice platforms. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Creating and sustaining a positive corporate culture is critically important for someone in your position. I’m wondering what has been the impact of the events of 2020 on organizations and how has it changed the stewardship of corporate culture?
Nic: Culturally, I’m extremely proud of how we have responded when faced with adversity this year. We’ve become more connected and our communication has grown, whether that’s weekly virtual town halls as an entire company or the fact that our executive team meets every morning from 9 to 10 to set the course for each day because everything is happening so quickly. We have been intentional about communications in the face of not having the human interaction that we were used to in a normal office setting.
Jim: With the rise of the social justice movement in the U.S. this past year, there was a large spotlight on the NBA, the teams and the players in terms of the response and support for Black Lives Matter and other platforms. I know you are proud of some of the steps the Cavs took to help create unity in Cleveland, but also understand there was some blowback on the local level, not necessarily fans, but local business partners. Can you talk about that and how you handled it?
Nic: First and foremost, the NBA is very progressive under the leadership of Commissioner Adam Silver. The league really leads from the front on issues and movements like this. As a team, we were one of the first in professional sports to hire a full-time executive to lead our diversity, inclusion and community engagement, a gentleman by the name of Kevin Clayton. Since his arrival in early 2019, the transformation the organization has undergone has been incredible. It has bred a degree of authenticity in how we connect with our community that has literally been invaluable. So when the George Floyd situation happened, we were in a strong position that allowed us very quickly to say, “How do we educate ourselves, our team members and ultimately our community?” And then as we transitioned from the education phase
to the action phase, “How can we influence reform and policy, and work with officials to be part of a positive change and creating a level playing field for everyone in society.” This is a divisive issue, so you are going to see blowback. But if someone can’t deal with equality, humanity and education, then we have a problem, because we have people in our community that are dealing with systemic racism and have been for a really long time and we have to do better.
Jim: When it comes to the divisiveness, is your approach to try to persuade those people that you are doing the right thing, or do you at some point just ignore the naysayers?
Nic: If we just cast those people, or those perspectives, off, all we are doing is creating a greater divide within our society. We try to meet people where they are, listen to them and educate them that this boils down to equality, humanity and education. And that conversation really dissolves much of the emotion and allows for understanding. Not that they are always going to agree or that we will get off the phone call perfectly aligned. But if we have a chance to bring them on the journey with us, we are going to try to do that and not just cast them away.
One of the exciting opportunities for us is that sports is something that unites all types of people. So let’s use that power to create positive change. And Cleveland is one of the first cities to have a three-team alliance among ourselves, the Browns and the Indians addressing three tent poles: education, police reform and voting. As an organization, we feel it is our time to educate, drive equality and ultimately lift up humanity. If we focus on those things, people can let go of the divisiveness of the narratives that are out there and concentrate on the movement we will see incredible impact and incredible change. We just can’t forget the way we all felt in June and just go brick by brick by brick as we lay a strong foundation that we can build off of as a society and make everything better.
Jim: In the action phase, are there tangible efforts we should look forward to?
Nic: As a league, all of the owners have committed $1 million a year for ten years, so $300 million, to economic empowerment in black and brown communities. For us, here in Northeast Ohio, we are sharply focused on the digital divide–following the lead of what our chairman, Dan Gilbert, and his wife Jennifer have done in Detroit—as well as addressing police reform in a positive way, such as an accountability system that creates transparency.