It’s estimated that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament will cost American businesses nearly $2 billion in lost productivity during its 3-week run. Because I’m a generous person, I’m going to give a little bit of that back right now. Whether you believe Division I college athletes truly are students themselves, we should be students of what can be learned through the observation of competing teams trying to be the last one standing … and you only get one strike and you’re out!
Reader Alert: You’re about to enter a zone where sports serve as an analogy for organizational success – an overused construct that has merit in this instance – according to me.
In case you don’t know, this year’s 68-team tournament has a prohibitive favorite: the #1 ranked Kentucky Wildcats, who enter the draw 34-0 on a quest to be the first men’s champion without a loss since Indiana accomplished this feat in 1976. Kentucky, under coach John Calipari, has mastered recruiting in this era of the so-called “one and done” player – supremely talented high schoolers who play one year in college (due to a pro basketball prohibition on players entering the NBA directly from high school) and then enter the pro game. Under this scenario, coaches recruit players they’ll only have for one season; meaning they need to rapidly develop in hopes of winning it all before starting over the next season.
After winning the title in 2012 and falling just short last year, the 2014-15 Kentucky squad is actually a mix of freshmen and some returning sophomores. Coach Calipari retained some of his talent from last year and created the unexpected need to persuade an entire roster of players, who believed they would and should start and play the majority of games, to share the spotlight with one another. To Calipari’s great credit, his team has not only shared time, but shared the ball. They appear to be unselfish. And, despite the fact they are obviously far superior in terms of talent and play than the vast majority of their opponents, the coach kept them interested enough over several months that they were not beaten and only seriously challenged a handful of times. Let me say that again: a 50-something year-old man kept a dozen 18-20 year-olds focused enough from October to March such that they did not lose a game.
Now, here’s when it gets really good (and I’m writing this on the eve of the tournament, so we don’t know how this turns out…), Coach “Cal” said in an interview the other day when asked about his team’s chances the following:
• We’re the best team
• We have the best players
• To win this [the tournament], you have to play your game the best you can play it
• If we play our game the best we can play it, we’ll win
• If – at this moment – you try to go away from what you do best, you’ll lose
• I’m so proud of our players…
Wow! That’s why some people hate the guy, but what’s not to love? And look at his record: he’s taken three different teams to the Final Four (college basketball’s Holy Grail), gotten to the final game three times, and won a championship. Overall, he’s won the lion’s share of his games. His players love him. He stays in touch with them, and he genuinely seems to care. His record is not without blemish – from some questionable recruiting ethics along the way (that frankly pale in comparison to recent scandals under coaching legends Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) and Roy Williams (North Carolina)), and a coaching meltdown in the 2008 finals that cost his team a championship.
Okay – thanks for staying with me here – what does this have to do with business? Everything … I mean, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g!!!! Here are my Final Four connections between what John Calipari knows about basketball, and what you need to leverage to win for, and with, your organization. This is NOT a bracket. We’re not going to eliminate anything; rather we need to build on and blend these components together to come out on top. The major difference is that we get to define what winning looks like.
1. Find opportunity where others see challenge – when “one and done” became prevalent others chose to swim against the current while Calipari embraced it, and turned Kentucky into the perennial talent winner. You might call it a (Kentucky) Blue Ocean Strategy.
2. Create a seductive brand – by embracing “one and done.” Capilari celebrates that he has five or more players from his roster drafted into the NBA in a single draft year after year. Coach Capilari showcases his ability to get his “students” exactly the jobs they want.
3. Win the war for talent – leaders can only be great when the people who follow them have the individual talent and the blend of talents needed to compete at the highest level. Decide what kind of players you need, what they value, offer it to them, AND deliver on that promise.
4. Paint a vivid picture – Cameron Herold challenges leaders in his book, Double Double, to own the responsibility for their people “getting it” when it comes to the mission of the organization, and what success looks like. They have to create a vivid picture of success in the minds of others to enable them to join in the pursuit of perfection (40-0 or however else we choose to define success).
With those pieces in place, you’re ready to facilitate, inspire, and protect. One manifestation of facilitation, inspiration, and protection is your creation of space to collaborate, and provide opportunities for teammates to benefit from working together. This might require taking on roles that contribute to the overall goal/higher-purpose of the team. Even if what you’re asking individuals to do isn’t what they fully desire at the moment. When they play their part well AND the team succeeds, reward them through recognition, with some fun. Something that helps ingrain that habit as something they want to do again. Should they fail – individually or collectively – help them find the value of that experience and actively plan to apply the lessons learned to what they do next. In Kentucky’s case, last year’s championship game loss may become the biggest reason they retained some top talent, added more, ran the table, and held up the trophy. If that’s not hitting on all cylinders and winning in every way, I don’t know what is. And, if they don’t win, somehow I think Coach Cal will find a way to make it work for him and his team (again).
Jeff Lesher, Principal at entreQuest, blends his deep knowledge of organization design, human capital, and leadership with a pragmatic approach drawn from his own business experience and eQ’s philosophy to help eQ’s clients focus on their core purpose and move people effectively to action.