From the Court to the Board: Magic Johnson’s Three-Point Play for Business Success

From relentlessly over-delivering to creative improvisation, Magic has a few big thoughts on perfecting your business game.

The biggest perk of working in the professional speaking business is getting to talk shop with world-class innovators on a near-daily basis. But no matter how many charismatic leaders I meet, the advice that sticks with me tends to come from my sports heroes — the ones who mastered athletics long before business. And of those few, I’ve had the fortune to work with one of the all-time greats: Earvin “Magic” Johnson. He’s taught me that success in the board room looks a whole lot like winning championships on the court (just like we’ve all suspected).

Magic has done it all, soaring to success in all of his endeavours over the past three decades. A pioneering black athlete, he’s one of only seven basketball players to win an NCAA Championship (against Larry Bird, no less!), an NBA Championship, and an Olympic Gold Medal. From his debut as Rookie of the Year with the Lakers to his legendary “Junior Skyhook” in the 1987 NBA Finals, Magic’s career will always be marked by superhuman inventiveness, astonishing consistency, and infectious positivity.

But it’s off the court where Johnson has really worked his Magic. Whether it’s owning a Major League Baseball team, or succeeding as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and motivational speaker, Magic has parlayed his skills and tenacity from the court into the world of business. As he puts it, “The same principles apply as a basketball player and a CEO: focus, strategy, discipline.”

Among his many accomplishments and accolades, Magic founded the now-billion dollar Magic Johnson Enterprises (MJE) while still in the NBA, led a 125-store Starbucks franchise to unusually high sales, created a wildly successful concession venture, SodexoMagic, and recently launched The Playbook, a compendium of his thoughts on business and life. No stranger to adversity, Magic responded to his 1991 HIV diagnosis by becoming one of the most powerful advocates for HIV/AIDS prevention, awareness, and research, helping to dismantle the stigma associated with the disease in the process.

With an enduring professional career on the court and now in business, Johnson is also establishing his personal legacy with his latest venture, Magic Johnson Development Corporation, which develops commercial property in long neglected minority urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Clearly, there’s a lot we can learn from Magic in our personal lives, but here are a few key lessons he also teaches us about business.

His Secret Isn’t Up His Sleeve

One of the most powerful points that Magic makes is that a person’s success should come as no surprise to anyone — when they see how hard you work. At the same time, it’s also about knowing how to work. Here’s Magic’s three-point play for success.

1. “Success requires rigorous preparation.”

As Magic aptly points out, whether you’re making a business pitch or playing in the NBA Finals, you should prepare for best and worst-case scenarios. By gaining a true understanding of the questions you’ll need to answer, you can respond to anything appropriately and confidently. This also builds trust and credibility in those rare moments when you have to say, “I don’t know. I’ll get back to you.” You can be sure your associates will know that you will indeed get back to them with an effective response.

But it’s not always about finding the right answer: it’s about building confidence among your team. Even if and when you do make small mistakes, they’ll know that you’re the best person to handle all the big picture challenges.

2. “Over-delivering can be the difference between being great and being legendary.”

Over-delivering is part-and-parcel of being an exceptional performer, and Magic recalls the first moment his father instilled this philosophy in him as a kid. Working for his dad’s trash hauling business during the frigid wintertime, he’d dash to trash cans and back to the heated truck as fast as possible to avoid the cold. But one time, just as he made it back into the warmth, his father handed him an ice shovel and pointed to the pieces of trash he’d missed that were still frozen under a layer of ice.

His dad said, “Do this job halfway, and you’ll be a halfway ball player and do things halfway in life.” Magic immediately realized that he had to follow through on his work everyday and over-deliver on his promises.

One thing that Magic does to follow through is to keep in touch with his customers every day, learning what they need and want. But then, he doesn’t just deliver on what they want, but goes above and beyond each and every time. Magic has found this is the best way to build lasting and profitable relationships with all of his customers.

While this is a great starting point for any business leader, he adds that inspiring others to follow suit requires thinking outside the box. That leads to Magic’s final point:

3. “Storytelling is the best way to inspire action.”

According to Magic, the best business leaders are almost always artful storytellers. They frequently inspire their organizations with powerful messages, share their visions of success, and teach critical lessons. Storytelling facilitates leadership on a personal level, and better explains who you are and why you hold such high expectations. Success takes rigorous practice, but it also takes a bit of improvisation — you notice the creative players when you see them on the court.

But perhaps his best advice is to those on the rise in the business world: “Never let anybody define who you are and who you can become.” Yet another slam dunk from Magic. And I’m sure it’s far from the last we’ll see from one of the truly great athletes-turned-entrepreneurs.

Ken Sterling is the Chief Marketing Officer at BigSpeak Speakers’ bureau – the leading keynote and business speakers bureau in the world. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California and an MBA from Babson College. Ken teaches Entrepreneurship, Marketing and Strategy at UC Santa Barbara. He is a serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker, business consultant and sales & marketing expert. For press interviews, contact

(Image credit: Mihaylo CSUF/flickr)