Shirin Malkani on meeting your internal barometer of excellence

Shirin Malkani is SVP of Global Media Distribution and Business Affairs at the National Basketball Association (NBA). Her role entails managing the NBA’s global digital content initiatives and domestic pay television offerings. Prior to joining the NBA, she served as General Counsel of Ziff Davis Media Inc., the New York City-based publisher of PC Magazine, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and other consumer technology and gaming print publications. I spent a morning with Shirin at the NBA offices last October and was inspired by her tenacity. Her accomplishments are made more impressive by the fact she's done it all as a single mom.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
An Astronaut, The President of the United States, an Architect and a Diplomat. Admittedly I didn't think I'd do all those things at once, I moved from one to the other. But I harbored the notion that I could have done at least two.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Cindy Sherman, Niels Bohr, Roald Dahl, Madeleine Albright, George Washington Carver and Homer. 

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I've read it more than any other book.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I go to bed at 10:30pm and I wake up at about 5:30am. I like the quiet of the morning.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
Monday mornings. I don’t usually have meetings so I can come in, settle myself and gear up for the day. It allows me to do some mental and physical planning. I like the quiet before it starts.

Can you briefly explain your career path to today?
I planned to be a diplomat so my undergraduate degree was in foreign service. I took the Foreign Service exam and worked for three years at the Asia Society doing public policy work, including a study mission to South Asia. It was amazing work and took me to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal but at a point it dawned on me that I probably didn't want to work for the government. 

I decided to go to law school and see where that would take me, so I signed up at NYU. I graduated at the time of the first internet bubble and I count myself extremely lucky because I was one of the first people who started practicing digital transactional law. When people talk about doing digital deals, I can count myself among the very first people who were doing those kinds of deals in the late 90s. 

I worked at a law firm in New York, with its head office in San Francisco, for six years doing a lot of work with start-ups. In addition to negotiating deals, my work involved writing terms of service and privacy policies, which sounds really boring but one I had to work on was for an iVillage sex column.  I was tasked with defining the best practices. This was in the late 90s and I was doing research on the internet at work on sex sites to see if they had terms of use; it was pretty entertaining.

I worked with another company called Vindigo who created apps before they were Apps. They worked on Palm Pilots and we licensed mapping data and restaurant reviews from Zagat. I did that for six years and then I had my son and decided I really didn't want to work for a law firm anymore. 

I took an in-house job at American Express, which was great for a couple of years when my son was little but wasn't the right fit for me. Then I went to Ziff Davis Media where I became General Counsel.  I always thought I wanted to be a General Counsel but low and behold be careful what you wish for, because it entailed doing lots of things that I didn't enjoy doing like real estate and HR. We went through bankruptcy while I was there and it was not as much fun to me as doing deal work.

When I got the call about the job at the NBA where they needed a digital lawyer, my first reaction was that I didn't know anyone who would be interested. But then I thought, why not, I'll go talk to them. It was a job doing exactly what I liked doing, which was the deal work. I was hired as a lawyer and about a year and a half in I started moving over to the business side and in the course of the last 3-4 years I’ve moved completely over to the business side so now I manage our digital content business domestically and I also work on our US television deals which is new to me. I'd never done a television deal before I got here.

I thoroughly enjoy my job here at the NBA. It's the most interesting work you'll get as far as I'm concerned. It's super complicated, I think really hard all day long but it keeps me energized.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
I've spent my whole adult career in the digital space and I'm not necessarily super technically savvy. I don't know how to code. I didn't grow up with a computer-science background. But one of the things I like the most, and have always liked the most about my job, is how much I learn everyday. Not just about the business of sports or of television, that was new to me too, but in the technology space you really have to dig in and understand the product, the platform, the content and the usage.

I wouldn't call it an obstacle because I think in some ways maybe I bring a different perspective because I'm not steeped in it, but it's definitely a challenge. I'm always learning something new about it and trying to stay up to speed.

What motivates you?
When I started law school my very first class was with a gentleman called John Sexton. He was then the Dean and is now the President of NYU. He taught Civil Procedure.

I remember him saying, "You're here. You're fine. Don't worry. You're all going to get jobs. Things are going to be fine. But what really matters is you meeting your Internal Barometer of Excellence." 

Nobody had ever given a name to that thing that I think lots of people have, particularly those who have some success in their careers. Which is, you do it for yourself. You do it because you want to do the best job that you can possibly do.

I thought it was a great way of talking about it. And that's what motivates me everyday.

What advice would you give to your daughter/son at the start of their career?
Be open to things. If you had told me, even a year before I worked at the NBA, that I'd work at the NBA, I would have said that you were insane. But being open to the possibility of it was huge. I've learned a ton and it's been an incredibly amazing job for me. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Doing all this as a single mom. 

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
I do feel that my “Internal Barometer of Excellence” clearly has to matter. From a practical point of view, being organized has also been key. Taking that time on a Monday morning and plotting things out allows me to accomplish far more in a day than seems possible. It gives me focus. It helps me prioritize and realize what's timely and necessary.  It’s not “organization” in the sense of putting a label on folder but focusing on the things that matter, prioritizing and tackling them efficiently.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Resilience. Things don't always work out the way you think they're going to work out and its corollary is openness. If you're going to be open to things, they might not work out. You have to be resilient when they don't and be able to modify your game plan, pick yourself up and keep going.

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
Great leaders have to have the ability to communicate effectively. It doesn't matter how great your idea is if you can't communicate it and you can't get people excited about it. The other half of communication is the listening part of it. You have to be able to do both. It's one thing to shout to the heavens but if people don't hear you and you don't see them hear you and understand how they hear you, I think you're bound to fail. 

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
There's something to be said for your peers in an organization because they're going to understand the difficulties you face in a very real sense. My dad is also a great sounding board. I always joke that my Dad's a feminist and doesn't know it. He came to this country from India and I think in a lot of ways his experience as an immigrant is not dissimilar from women's experiences in the professional world so he's often the first person that I call about work related stuff. He's always been a big supporter of my professional career and growth, and does often have really great advice.

People in positions of power never tell the truth about how they got there. What do you believe to be the secret to rising up to the top?
I don't think there is a secret. I've always thought that frankly, you have to be better. It's not a secret. You just have to be better. Being better can have many different meanings cause there are various ways that you can be good at your job. If you're better at one or two or all of them, that makes all the difference.

“Better” can mean being more organized, more focused, more thoughtful, better at communicating. There are people we've all seen rise to the top, who rely most heavily on their inter-personal skills to get them the furthest. When you look around at people at the top, you'll find that they are charismatic or great communicators. I think there's something to be said for that. I don't think we always respect that. But it's valuable and if you were going to pick one thing to be better at, I'd pick communication.

What's next?
I've learned a ton here. One of the things that’s nice about working at the NBA is that we have a strong platform to build from. If this were a standalone digital business, I probably couldn't be as creative as I can be. I manage a balance sheet that combines our domestic digital business and our cable television business. This allows me to be more creative on the digital side because I have this cushion of the TV revenue.

The future is exciting for us as an organization and I’m looking forward to seeing where the digital landscape can take us.

As told to Caroline Hugall at the NBA Offices, New York City on Thursday 30th October 2014