At the recent Working Women Annual Conference in Tampa, I had the opportunity to facilitate a fireside chat with Shelly Wilkes, President of the Lakeland Magic, the G league affiliate of the Orlando Magic. Shelly is the first female NBA G league president and is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day business operations of the team that will host its third home game opener in Lakeland on November 16.
Shelly has great insights on what it takes to navigate leadership and family life while growing professionally and helping her team flourish.
Take us back to October of 2016. You had been with the Orlando Magic for 12 years and they asked you to lead the G league team that was coming to Lakeland. What was that like for you and what was going on in your world at the time?
Shelly: At that time, I was in our marketing department overseeing game operations – managing every part of the game that does not include the actual basketball game. The dance team, mascot, entertainment, video boards – everything going on around the game that makes the experience fun. During a preseason game, I was walking across the court to address an issue and one of our organization’s leaders stopped me. With the game countdown at 2 minutes, he says, “Hey Shelly, we’ve got an opportunity you may be interested in. We’re bringing the G league team to Lakeland and we think you’re the one to launch it.” I was caught off guard, not only because the game was starting in mere seconds, but also because I was eight months pregnant. Starting a family and a new team at the same time was a daunting proposition but I have been fortunate to work for an organization that has supported women leaders for years. We agreed to talk more and after careful consideration, I knew this leadership role was perfect for me.
As you considered this new leadership opportunity, did you have any self-doubts?
Shelly: I definitely had reservations and asked myself, Am I the right person? Can I do this? What do they see in me that I don’t see in myself? My professional and personal network encouraged me to take the leap and travel down a different path.
What were the leadership qualities that you feel opened this door for you?
Shelly: I’ve always been someone who could be trusted to get stuff done. People knew that when I was responsible for something, it was going to happen. I’ve assembled strong teams, and that’s been key. There’s no way I could have accomplished what I’ve done with the Magic without people around me who build me up. I am not the type of leader that will ask somebody to do something that I have never done myself. Because of this, my teams tend to work harder and support the vision that we’re trying to accomplish. I am always the leader that wants to jump in with someone and get it done together. And I believe that garners a lot of respect.
How has being a woman leader in the world of men’s professional sports served you and how has it been a challenge?
Shelly: Often I’m the only women in the room and most of the time I don’t think about it until after the meeting. What I’ve realized is that when you’re the only woman, you are memorable. This serves me well because when you do a good job and when you have new ideas, people remember that, and those interactions help grow your network of advocates. Balancing family life with work life can be a challenge when there aren’t a lot of other women leaders in the organization with families. Things like flexible schedules, which are a necessity when you have a family and two working parents, are not always a clear priority. Family should be the number one concern, so I make sure I’m setting a good example for other women in our organization.
As you reflect on the last two years in this leadership role, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned and how have you grown from those lessons?
Shelly: The most important thing I’ve learned is that you can’t do it all yourself. I think that a lot of type-A, successful women tend to be perfectionists who want everything done their way. I’ve had to relinquish a lot of that because there are simply not enough hours in the day. Becoming a parent forced me to prioritize what tasks required my attention and what could be delegated. If I wanted time with my family, I had to relinquish some responsibilities and trust my team. I hired people to do their jobs, I needed to let them do it, and that helps them grow and believe in themselves. Not having to control everything has been a great learning experience for me and I’ve watched my teams grow and flourish.
Any final words of wisdom that you’d like to share?
Shelly: You’re not alone in your career and you don’t have to do it alone. Ask for the help you need from your personal and professional network. This has been a lifesaver for me and I offer the same to people who ask. By doing this, I’m reaching back and giving other people a seat at the table – specifically other women. We have to help each other. We have to lift each other up and give each other space to grow.
I’m grateful to Shelly for the time she spent with me at the Working Women Annual Conference. The audience benefitted from her wisdom and insight. A video of our full interview is available at https://emilyrogers.com/resources/interviews/