Best Practices

Product Management Lessons From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

One of the highlights of last week’s Pendomonium Virtual conference was the one-on-one conversation between Pendo CEO Todd Olson and NBA legend and prominent social activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. During their discussion, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shared personal experiences and wisdom on topics important to just about every PM: persistence, teamwork, and making pivots when necessary. As it turns out, professional basketball has more in common with product management than it might seem at first glance. Read on to learn more about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s basketball career, his social justice work, and his thoughts on 2020’s legacy.

On rewriting his personal playbook

The theme of this year’s Pendomonium Virtual conference was “Rewriting the Playbook,” a fitting topic given all of the changes this year has driven. Product managers in just about every industry have had to significantly adjust their roadmaps and overall strategies to fit the “new normal.” 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is no stranger to rewriting the playbook, either on or off the court. During his career in the NBA, he and his teammates had to make quick strategic changes to defeat their opponents. And after his retirement as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, he found himself with a lot of time on his hands. That’s when he decided to make a pivot.

When he was 20 years old, he’d gotten involved in social activism after attending the Cleveland Summit. After retiring, he returned to activism work and to his passion for writing. As a child, the nuns at his school encouraged him to enter essay contests. He found that writing still came naturally to him, so he continued to pursue it. While he’s still seen as an NBA legend, he’s now also well-known for his work and writings on social justice. His article on topics from the Black Lives Matter movement to police reform have been published in TIME, The Huffington Post, Newsweek, and The Guardian, among others. In addition, he’s the five-time recipient of the Southern California Journalism Award’s “Columnist of the Year” title.

On determination and persistence

One word that Pendo CEO Todd Olson pulled away from Kareem Abdul’s Jabbar illustrious career is “stamina.” After all, he had a 20-year playing career and continues to be active in social justice work. So, how does he keep going in spite of all obstacles? How does he keep himself from getting discouraged? 

His advice is not to let your motivation fade. When it comes to difficult things, from developing world-class basketball skills to addressing systemic problems like racism and police violence, people tend to get tired of the struggle. Issues like institutionalized racism are long-standing, and fixing them will require prolonged dedication and determination. He hopes that Americans will not let go of their enthusiasm to affect change. In fact, he’s encouraged by the recent increase in activism in response to the killing of George Floyd. Americans of all persuasions are starting to work toward a more just and equal future, and police reform is now a high priority across the country. 

On teamwork

According to Kareem, all people want to be a part of something, and that’s what makes team sports so popular. However, he highlights the importance of teams being supportive of all of their members. He recalls his grade school basketball coach, who cared about all of his team members regardless of color, and was always there if someone needed advice. In his social activism work, he recognizes that he couldn’t keep going without a reservoir of hope and belief in the goodness of people. When he was in high school, news of the Birmingham murders enraged and depressed him. He started to feel hopeless, but the people around him supported him and pointed out the stupidity of racism. As a result, he decided not to let racism poison his outlook on life and his faith in others.

Today, he considers activism to be a team sport. In order to address critical social issues, he believes we’ll all need to work together toward the common goals of equality and fairness. We’re all in this together and will need to do the work to affect lasting change. 

On change

Todd Olson finished up his conversation with Kareem by asking about the legacy of 2020. How does Kareem think we’ll look back on it and characterize it with the benefit of hindsight?

He hopes 2020 will be looked upon as a year of change, and one that uncovered a lot of problems we didn’t know we had. As Americans, we began to truly understand the widespread and lingering presence of systemic racism. We also saw what the pandemic could do to our society, and the costs of ignoring the health and safety of our fellow citizens. For Kareem, it’s been a year of warning, making us all aware that if we don’t pull together, we will fall apart. Kareem says it’s time to do the work and make America what it’s supposed to be.