John Matthew Borders IV, senior manager of community engagement for the Boston Celtics. Image by Scott Eisen.
I used to help my father with yard work as a kid, and when I was about seven years old, I told him, “I can take care of the leaves all by myself.” I went outside and gathered the piles together. When I was finished, he helped me place the bundles into bags and paid me $50. I was stunned; I hadn’t expected any payment, and I immediately saw an opportunity. I asked my father if he thought our neighbors would pay me to do the same thing. He agreed to go door-to-door with me to find out. In that moment, my cleaning crew was born. I invited a couple of neighbors my age to join me, and we shoveled snow, cut grass, and raked leaves year round.
Honestly, it was an answered prayer. Back in 2014, I was working in the executive office of education for then Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. As the administration was coming to an end, I was almost 30 years old, and I prayed that God would illuminate my path before my birthday (July 12th). On July 11th, the secretary of education invited me to accompany him to an event where I met Dave Hoffman, the senior director of community engagement at the Boston Celtics. I spoke with Dave about my background in community engagement and education, and he encouraged me to apply for my current role at the Celtics. Four years later, and it still blows my mind that I get to walk out of the tunnel and onto the court in the name of work and feel as though I belong.
Planning. You may know the Celtics for their work on the court (with 17 World Championships!), but we also do a lot of work off the court. We have more than 40 community programs including relief efforts, renovation projects, health and wellness initiatives, and art and mentoring programs... to name just a few. As senior manager of community engagement, I have the privilege of overseeing the team’s educational initiatives. Our educational programs aim to promote school attendance, achievement, learning, and literacy. In my role, I work with our current players, Celtics legends, corporate partners, school districts, and students to organize and facilitate impactful events. This involves a lot of project management – anything from hosting meetings with school districts to hopping on calls with our public relations team about media coverage, reviewing budgets and purchase orders, coordinating transportation, preparing decks for clients, negotiating with vendors, and scheduling site visits for upcoming events.
I’ve worked in this department for four seasons, and while I love all of our initiatives, my favorite is a program called Step Your Game Up (SYGU). Working closely with a school district, we target middle school students who have been identified as chronically absent and are struggling in math and English. These students each receive personalized letters from a Boston Celtics player challenging them to “step their game up.” The students have to decide whether or not to opt in by signing a personalized “contract” with the Boston Celtics specifying the details of their agreement based upon the specific areas they are committing to improve.
As the students meet their goals, they earn program-branded swag and exclusive experiences, like attending a Celtics practice or game, getting to shoot hoops post-game on the court at TD Garden, and even getting to attend an invite-only carnival at the end of the school year with Celtics players. Once the students receive final grades for the year, we turn to the data, working closely with the school districts and our basketball analysts to measure the impact of our work. I know we’re uniquely positioned to incentivize students to strive to succeed, and so far, the year-over-year data has been really promising. We were even invited to speak at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last year.
Music is my first love, and when I was a senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, I received a job offer to work with my friend, a singer named Jane. Though the team was small, I believed in her talent and thought she’d be a star. But I ultimately ended up turning down the opportunity because I had already accepted a position working in admissions at an independent school just outside of Boston. I still kick myself in the butt sometimes because Jane has now earned six Grammy nominations, acted in two Oscar-winning films, received countless endorsement deals, and even performed at the White House. Oh, and now she goes by Janelle Monae.
Be present. Ambition is awesome, but next shouldn’t cloud the judgment of now. Instead of ruminating on the future, I try to embrace the gift of the moment. This sort of attention and focus helps me address the situation in front of me, instead of allowing the promise of tomorrow to blind me to today’s responsibilities. I also try not to get stuck in the past. Leaving the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” mentality behind has helped me abandon regret and live a healthier, more productive life.
I start off each week by making a handwritten checklist, noting all of the tasks I need to accomplish. I put small boxes and practical deadlines next to each of them. Once an item is complete, I check it off.
I also take late lunches. Instead of jumping out of my flow around noon (right when I’m in the groove), I eat around 2pm. I make lunch a reward and work to accomplish the majority of my tasks for the day before I take a long break. That way, I can optimize my productivity at the top of the day and truly relax and unplug during my lunch break, instead of worrying about rushing back to my desk.
Personal narrative means a lot to me. Candidates stand out most by answering questions or sharing experiences that don’t fit on their résumés. I love it when people share their story – their “why” – and show me how their personal goals and ambitions align with the role that needs to be filled.
I love reading books about leadership. Leaders Eat Last and Start With Why by Simon Sinek are two favorites. I also highly recommend Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, and I try to carry Martin Luther King Jr.’s Strength To Love on me at all times.
I think of the poem “If” by Joseph Rudyard Kipling whenever I find myself facing adversity. And Jeremiah 29:13 is one of my favorite scriptures. The quote “He who cannot see the ultimate becomes a slave to the immediate” is my personal motto.
The Boston Celtics are a Jopwell partner company.
Images by Scott Eisen (Photo 1), Brian Babineau (Photos 2, 3, 4, & 6), and Jay Coney (Photo 5)