By: Eric WoolworthPresident, Business Operations, The HEAT Group

We just lived through the most divisive presidential election most of us can remember, one that exposed deep fissures in our national consciousness among various identity groups. It came right on the heels of the NBA having hired Oris Stuart as its first ever Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. And I just recently returned from the League's annual Sales and Marketing Meeting, where one of our own, 10-year Miami HEAT Staffer Merdie Lane, was awarded the prestigious "Values of the Game" award for her extraordinary efforts to help one of our part-time employees who was wounded in the unconscionable shooting rampage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The confluence of these seemingly unrelated events has caused me to spend more time than I ever have reflecting on the culture we have built here at the Miami HEAT. I have spent the last 22 years of my life at the HEAT, the past 17 as its President of Business Operations, and thus feel largely responsible for having created and nurtured that culture. Yet even I, at times, have taken it for granted.

No more.

I remember like it was yesterday the first time I spoke to the staff I inherited back in 2000-01. I covered a wide range of topics that day and tried to lay out a vision for what I thought we needed to do to become one of the elite organizations in the Sports and Entertainment industry. One of the primary thrusts of that inaugural talk was that, in my view, sports teams hold a lofty perch in their local communities (and they are first and foremost local businesses). But with that standing comes a major responsibility. We are fortunate to have one of the very best and most committed owners in all of professional sports in Micky Arison, who has always understood that part of that ownership includes an element of the public trust. For us in Business Operations, that trust encompasses virtually everything we do starting from the basic tenet that everyone who lives in our community simply has to feel welcome and wanted at HEAT games and at all AmericanAirlines Arena events. Our fans and our crowd, in our perfect world, should reflect the make-up of our community. And I believed then as I do now, that in order for that to happen, our employee base must also be reflective of our community.

The HEAT Group has one of the most diverse staffs in our industry; the full-time workforce I am responsible for is 70% minority and 33% women.

So, we did not set out to create a diverse work force for the sake of diversity. Inclusion was on our radar screen only insofar as wanting to make sure we had appropriate outreach into all of the different neighborhoods that make up Miami's melting pot of cultures. We set no quotas. We talked only of the business purpose of wanting to BE Miami so Miami would want to BE with us. Beyond that, we put a premium on treating our staff with respect and emphasized a culture that values openness, honesty, and transparency. We try to do the right things by our community and by each other. We talk about the HEAT "Family" and we mean it.

But other than feeling generally satisfied that we had succeeded over time in establishing a staff that anyone in Miami would feel comfortable interacting with, we really hadn't focused on statistics. And then this past fall Oris reached out from NBA Headquarters, introduced himself, and asked. And it turns out that The HEAT Group has one of the most diverse staffs in our industry; the full-time workforce I am responsible for is 70% minority and 33% women (when you extend the group out to include our part-time workforce, those numbers rise to 86% and 40% respectively).

I have visited enough team offices over the years (in the NBA and other leagues) and been to more league and industry meetings than most, so I can't say I was totally surprised. But then the NBA, in an effort to try and figure out why one team would be more diverse than others, started asking a bunch of questions. And those questions really made me take a step back and pause. How? How had we become so diverse? And, equally important, how had we sustained a culture that so clearly embraced that diversity so that the diversity had taken on a sense of permanence?

It clearly did not come just from talking about it. I know from reading various management and leadership books that there is a canon of literature out there about hiring bias and the basic sense that people tend to hire people that make them feel comfortable (i.e. that look and feel most like them). With that in mind, figuring out how we became as diverse as we have here in Miami becomes a little easier. I have six Executive Vice Presidents who report to me and make up our Executive Staff, and we have 12 more Vice Presidents who combine to make up our Senior Staff. Those are the people who make our hiring decisions (not coincidentally, they are the same people charged with perpetuating our culture). The Executive Staff includes women, African-American, LGBTQ, Jewish, and Canadian individuals. That representation just gets multiplied at the VP level and adds a locally significant addition of Hispanic representation. Through that lens, the answer to the NBA's primary question becomes self-evident: a diverse leadership team begets a diverse staff, and results in an organization in which inclusion is virtually a given.

Oris had clearly read my bio and his next question was a little more personal. He asked it in a much more eloquent and politically correct way, but it amounted to, "so how is it that a Taft and Georgetown-educated preppy white guy from Connecticut came to run the Rainbow Coalition of our league?" After we had a good laugh, we discussed the whole notion of "unconscious bias" and the fact that what you see isn't necessarily what you get. And that unconscious bias can and does work both ways. At my mother's urging, I spent three summers in high school working at the Horizon's Summer Program at New Canaan Country School, working with, and teaching, inner-city kids. That formative experience helped shape my entire world view (and still helps inform HEAT community programs like the groundbreaking after school program HEAT Academy, as well as my commitment to serve on the Board at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami for the last 14 years). I was raised Catholic but fell in love with and married a Jewish woman, and have raised two awesome Jewish kids. My baby brother married an African-American woman, and I have a mixed race niece and nephew whom I adore. One of my favorite people in the world, my brother-in-law, is a gay man who lives with his longtime partner in NYC. In short, my staff is only slightly more diverse than my family! I live the value of that diversity every day.

The impact that a diverse and supportive work culture at an organization like ours can have on lives and communities was celebrated when Merdie accepted her award at the Sales and Marketing meeting. The Pulse nightclub massacre, orchestrated by a gunman who took the lives of 49 people, was a mere 250 miles north of Miami. Among the survivors was Miami HEAT family member Laura Vargas. Laura worked in our Guest Services Department, where she was managed by Merdie. Merdie sprang into action the moment she learned Laura was among the injured, gathering and disseminating information, as well as contacting and offering assistance to Laura and her partner. The shooting unwittingly exposed Laura's relationship with her partner and, as a result, her family rejected her. Laura had nowhere to turn even as she tried to recover from such a horrific and catastrophic incident. As Laura struggled with the enormity of the tragedy, Merdie was a constant source of encouragement, support and love. A mother of five children, Merdie's quiet, soothing demeanor manifested itself in daily text messages, phone calls and endless words of wisdom. In the aftermath of the shooting, she also mobilized to address Laura's immediate needs. Her persistence resulted in a $15,000 donation from the HEAT Charitable Fund to assist Laura with her mounting medical bills. Additionally, Merdie secured lodging at a local hotel, ensuring Laura and her partner had a place to stay while they figured out a long-term solution for their living situation (Merdie — now an empty-nester — offered Laura and her partner a room in her home).

When Merdie went up to the podium to receive her award from Kathy Behrens, the NBA's President of Social Responsibility, to a standing ovation from all of the NBA teams, I was incredibly proud of her. But it was when she stepped up to the mic and, with more poise than I would have had at that emotional moment, spoke poignantly about how it really wasn't about her; that it was about the HEAT organization and working in a culture where she knew her efforts would be embraced, where she felt totally comfortable advocating on Laura's behalf, and where she felt secure that the HEAT Family would rise to the occasion, that I shed a tear. It was my proudest moment in 22 years at the HEAT, which includes three NBA championships. And it was a testament to diversity and inclusion.

I have had a couple of discussions with my staff about these issues since the election. And it really isn't about politics. Presidents come and go and, as a general rule, organizations like ours are best served staying out of politics and sticking to what we know. But there is a call to action here. A call to celebrate the values that you stand for no matter the political environment; and central to our value system at the Miami HEAT is the notion that everyone is welcome here no matter where you come from, what you look like, what language you speak, what your preferences are, what religion you practice, who you voted for, or who you associate with. It is those values that make us who we are and sustain us through good times and bad.