As Executive Vice President, Social Responsibility & Player Programs for the National Basketball Association (NBA), Kathy Behrens oversees a group that manages all of the NBA’s programs that coordinate league and player social responsibility efforts, support player growth and development, and enhance the marketing opportunities for current and former players. Since joining the NBA Behrens has assumed several roles within the organization.
Prior to joining the NBA, Behrens served as Executive Director of New York Cares, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes volunteers to help New York City’s neediest residents. Before joining New York Cares she served in the administration of former New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo, and was the Executive Director of the Friends of Cuomo Campaign Committee during the 1994 Governor’s Race.
Read Behrens’ full bio at the end of the LifeChat.
Leveraging the game to start conversations
- When we are trying to grow our game, we are always making sure that we’re connecting our players and our former players with communities in need, and trying to use our sport to encourage people to live an active and healthy lifestyle.
- We’re using our game to talk about importance of communication, dedication, teamwork, sportsmanship, and all the positive values of our game that transcend language barriers and ethnic battles.
Success in the sport industry through mentorship and self-discovery
- I’ve personally had people who have given me great advice, and I’ve had coaches, teachers, and friends who are both extremely challenging and extremely supportive. To me, that’s the best combination.
- You have to watch, listen, and learn. Try to use what they are doing to find your own voice and your own path that makes sense for you, with how you manage people, how you do your job, and how you balance your work and family lives. There’s no one right answer, so you have to find the thing that works best for you, given your circumstances and your situation.
LifeChat with Kathy Behrens:
Can you share with us a time where you’ve either failed or you were faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge? How did you persevere and get through the challenge?
I had a hard time transitioning from my role at New York Cares to my role here at the NBA. Having left a job where I was in charge, and then having to adjust to an entirely new culture was very difficult for me. In some ways it was harder to come into the NBA and adjust than it was going into New York Cares. It was difficult because I had to adjust to having a boss, and I had to adjust to a different type of culture and work environment.
It wasn’t so much that the work itself was difficult; there were just different expectations than what I was used to. At first, I expected it to be a little more seamless than it was. Then, when I realized the difficulty, I put the pressure on myself, thinking I wasn’t doing something fast enough or adjusting the way I expected.
In addition to feeling out of sorts, I beat myself up over feeling this way. But eventually, I realized that the only way to get through it was to be patient with myself. It took a while, but 12 years later and I’m still here, so it clearly worked out for the best.
Mentors can be so helpful in broadening one’s perspective and understanding what skill sets one needs. How have mentors helped guide you through your life and your career path?
I’ve been very fortunate to have some terrific bosses and great business experiences throughout my life. I’ve personally had people who have given me great advice, and I’ve had coaches, teachers, and friends who are both extremely challenging and extremely supportive. To me, that’s the best combination. I’ve benefited tremendously from watching terrific, talented, and very smart people work, whether it was Governor Cuomo, or here at the NBA with David Stern. I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who are considered to be the best at what they do.
Overall, I think you have to watch, listen, and learn. Then try to use what they’re doing to find your own voice and your own path that makes sense for you, with how you manage people, how you do your job, and how you balance your work and family lives. There’s no one right answer, so you have to find the thing that works best for you, given your circumstances and your situation.
You’re also a mother of twins (a son and a daughter). How do you juggle a very demanding and travel-intensive career with the responsibilities of being a mother and a wife?
I have a great husband, and that helps enormously. We’re also fortunate enough to have some great help from our family. My aunt lives with us to help take care of the kids, so there’s always someone at home. I don’t have a secret for it at all, but we just get through it each day. I have two terrific kids who just started kindergarten. They know this is what I do and they understand that I have to do work trips and work late sometimes, but I also have an incredibly supportive company who lets me manage my schedule in such a way that I’ve been able to balance both lives so far.
As a successful leader, what advice do you share with your daughter to help guide her future?
I tell her to set her own expectations and I talk about the things I’ve done to show an example. She’s surrounded by some great women and great men in both my family and my husband’s family. The most important thing to me is to raise a happy, confident kid. So far, that’s who she is; and I know the rest she’ll figure out. She’ll have some missteps, but hopefully they won’t be too big, and she’ll learn how to dust herself off and move on. At six, it’s hard to think that way, but I just want her to start to learn, enjoy her childhood, and feel good about herself.
How did you enter into the sport industry?
When I was in college at the University of Hartford, my study program was in education. As I gained more experiences at school – for example, I was president of student government – I learned about other opportunities and career paths. It was then that I realized that teaching was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
My first job was at the United Way of New York City, as a fundraiser. I spent three years there with some progressive opportunities, such as managing people and working campaigns. One of the last campaigns I managed was a state campaign in New York, and I realized from this that I had a great growing interest in politics. I was invited to join the Cuomo administration, and I worked for Governor Mario Cuomo for almost seven years in various positions, both locally and intergovernmentally. I then became the executive director of the Friends of Cuomo campaign committee to help prepare for his 1994re-election bid. Unfortunately, we lost, but it was still a great experience where I learned a tremendous amount and enjoyed every minute, except the results.
After that, I became the executive director of New York Care, a non-profit organization that engages caring New Yorkers in volunteer service opportunities. I was there for five and a half years, and one of the projects we worked on was with the NBA. We worked on a number of community outreach projects and initiatives with the All-Star game the year it was being played in New York. This led to an opportunity for me to join the league a few years later as vice president of community relations. I have been there for almost thirteen years now.
How has your role at the NBA grown and evolved?
My initial role was vice president of community relations, where I worked with our teams and employees to build our social responsibility initiative, both here in the U.S. and around the world. As that grew, we created a new department here at the NBA that brought together all of our off-the-court player activities. My role then expanded to include our player development efforts. These efforts include programs that help our players with various transitions in adjusting to life in the NBA, and that help with player marketing. Essentially, all the things that our players are involved with off the court fall under my area.
The NBA is usually considered U.S. focused. How does what you do connect globally?
Aside from soccer, outside of the U.S., basketball is the most popular international sport. We have over 75 international players currently in the NBA, and we are looking to build fans all over the world. We do that through our social responsibility efforts and a program we have called Basketball without Borders.
This program brings our players, coaches, and staff to different parts of the world, such as Russia and Africa, to help teach the game, to find the talent that exists, and to create opportunities for that talent to learn, be coached, and be mentored by some of the best players and coaches in the world. At the same time, we’re talking to them about developing life skills, character building, and decision-making. Obviously, we’re using both the positive lessons that our players have learned, as well as some of the things we’ve learned from players who have made mistakes.
Anywhere we go, we have international preseason games, and we have offices in China, Johannesburg, Brazil, Hong Kong, and London. Whenever we are trying to grow our game, we are always making sure that we’re connecting our players and our former players with communities in need, and trying to use our sport to encourage people to live an active and healthy lifestyle. We’re using our game to talk about the importance of communication, dedication, teamwork, sportsmanship, and all the positive values of our game that transcend language barriers and ethnic battles. The game is our passion, but we also have an obligation to be socially responsible leaders.
A lot of sports institutions have recently been under fire because of negative press. However, it seems that through its player development programs, the NBA tries to provide its player with the skills and information necessary to be successful. What programs have you developed and led?
Like any successful business, we care about our employees and are focused on helping them by putting programs in place to help our players succeed on and off the court. We have programs, resources, and a support network in place, which includes a wide variety of programs starting before the players are even drafted.
During this time, we talk to them about developing their life skills and professional habits, understanding how to manage their financial issues and their relationships once they go through the dramatic change of becoming NBA players, and understanding their potential careers after the NBA. Once they’re drafted, we see them again at summer league programs where we bring back former players and experts to help them start to manage their lives.
We then have a more intensive program right before the season starts, called The Rookie Transition Program. This is a 3 ½ day, very intense program where new players get an in-depth look at all the issues they’re going to be confronted with, and ideas on how to deal with, and make good decisions around, those issues. We teach them how to deal with media and fans, and how to engage in the community. Overall, we teach them how to be professionals.
What does it mean to be a professional in this sense?
Professionals in the NBA must be able to represent a multi-billion dollar global business. They not only represent their families, colleges, and hometowns, but now they also represent a global brand. They are, in fact, in some ways global brands themselves, so we try to give them the tools and resources to process that. We continue this education through team awareness meetings and through the team player development director of each team. We make sure that players have contact with mentors if they need, and opportunities to meet and interact with community business leaders and start to develop themselves beyond just basketball players. It’s our intention to help create a group of players who are passionate about their game, and who care about what they are doing as professionals, on and off the court.
Full Biography of Kathy Behrens:
As Executive Vice President, Social Responsibility & Player Programs for the National Basketball Association, Kathy Behrens oversees a group that manages all of the NBA’s programs that coordinate league and player social responsibility efforts, support player growth and development, and enhance the marketing opportunities for current and former players.
Behrens joined the NBA in September 2000 as Vice President, Community Relations, overseeing all of the NBA’s public service initiatives, community outreach, and employee volunteer programs. She later worked as Senior Vice President of Community & Player Programs.
Prior to joining the NBA, Behrens served as Executive Director of New York Cares, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes volunteers to help New York City’s neediest residents. Before joining New York Cares in 1995, Behrens served in the administration of former New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo, and was the Executive Director of the Friends of Cuomo Campaign Committee during the 1994 Governor’s Race.
Behrens serves on the Board of Directors for New York Cares and the Ad Council. She is also a trustee of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
A native of the Bronx, N.Y., Behrens graduated from the University of Hartford. She currently lives with her husband and twins Matthew and Maureen in Westchester County, N.Y.
The LifeChat Series in Sport was created in partnership with Beyond Sport. More information at www.beyondsport.org.