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Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Coaching — in Basketball and in Business

Do You REALLY Want to Win?

by Ralph SmithMy picture is in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

That is something I’m very proud of, but even more important- it’s a great conversation starter at parties. I coached girls’ basketball for 20 years, and was fortunate to be associated with a group of fantastic and dedicated young women. They were tremendous players and high-character people, and together we won three national championships and around 50 regional/state/local titles.

Parallel to that, my “real” job has been as a consultant. I started off doing process improvement work and have spread my wings into strategic planning, data analytics, and change management over the last 25 years. The projects I’ve worked on have generated well over $100 million in financial benefit for my clients, which is another thing I’m very proud of. Of course, it hasn’t all been about money – gains in customer satisfaction, turnaround time, and employee satisfaction have been part of the mix as well.

Has it been all sunshine and rainbows? Definitely not. I’ve fallen flat on my face more times than I can count, but the important thing is always trying to learn as much from the failures as from the successes.

I’ve noticed as my career has progressed that the things I tried to teach my players to make them and their teams successful are by and large the same things I’ve counseled clients on to make them and their businesses successful.  That realization was the genesis for this four-part weekly series. Each part will contain three lessons learned based on my real-world business and basketball experiences.

As anyone that knows me can attest, one of my annoying/charming habits is that I remember quotes from movies and television and see applications to real world situations. Consequently, each of the points will be introduced with a quote from the entertainment world. I hope that will a) make this a more entertaining read, and b) be a reminder of the principles if you happen to see the movies/shows in the future.

The four themes/stepping stones to success will be:

Hope you enjoy the series. My definition of a “win” here is if reading it helps you think about how to achieve success while simultaneously avoiding that “falling on your face” stage that has plagued me throughout my career!

Keys to Success, Part I: Set a Clear Direction

  1. Define Your Ultimate, #1 Objective

“Do you know what the secret of life is?”

City Slickers is a 1991 film that I’ve referenced in seminars for many years. New Yorker Mitch is having a midlife crisis and goes west to ride the range for a few weeks in hopes of finding himself. He meets a grizzled, no nonsense cowboy named Curly, who can see Mitch is all tied up in knots. Curly gives him a life changing piece of advice:

Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing. Stick to that and the rest don’t mean (anything).”

“And what’s the one thing?”, Mitch asks. Curly responds: “That’s what you have to figure out.”

At the farewell meeting with last season’s players –who are currently in middle school– I challenged them to think about what their #1 objective for high school would be. Win a state championship? Get an athletic/academic scholarship? Earn enough to buy a Corvette? Be the most popular kid in school? Any of those may be a worthy #1 objective, but one needs to take precedence over the others to dictate the proper prioritization of activities along the way.

Companies are the same way. Whenever I do a strategic planning session, we begin by articulating the #1 objective of the organization. If there are different opinions on that then we settle them immediately. And it’s not enough for a for-profit company to say “our #1 thing is to make more money.” How much more are you shooting for? If some of the leaders think a $10 million improvement to the bottom line is the goal and others think it should be $50 million, that’s a problem. The type of activities you would undertake to get to $10M will be very different than what you’d do to get to $50M.

The same mindset applies to team projects, staff meetings, job searches, relationships… you name it. You’ll never be successful if you have an unclear definition of or differing opinions on what your ultimate objective is.

In business and in life, don’t drift aimlessly from day to day. Be clear to yourself what your #1 thing is, and don’t let anything –temporary setbacks, opportunities for short term gratification, pressure from friends/teammates/co-workers, etc. – get in your way.

  1. Understand the Path to Your #1 Destination

“Follow the yellow brick road.”

The Wizard of Oz is a 1939 film set in the fictional land of Oz. Main character Dorothy is displaced from her home state of Kansas and encounters Glinda the Good Witch, who tells her she needs to go to the Emerald City to see the Wizard – the only person with the wisdom to get her home. When Dorothy asks her how to get there, Glinda replies “Follow the yellow brick road.”

Having a goal/destination is a necessary first step, but then you have to think through the plan to achieve it. How will you navigate through lions and tigers and bears?

When our basketball team entered a tournament, our #1 objective was usually winning the tournament. Obvious? You’d be surprised how many coaches don’t behave that way. Tournament format consisted of three qualifying games followed by playoffs. It was a fairly regular occurrence to qualify with wins in the first two games, making the third qualifying game irrelevant to making the playoffs. That gave us the opportunity to develop the girls that didn’t play much or put starters in different positions to broaden their skills. In short, it was a learning opportunity. But many coaches treated the meaningless game like the Super Bowl. They were behaving as if the #1 objective was to go undefeated instead of winning the tournament. Several times over the years our opponent would pull out all the stops and beat us badly in the qualifying game, and in doing so gave us a wealth of information about who their stars were, the type of offense and defense they ran, etc. We showed them nothing, and then used the free info to turn around and beat them in the playoffs… when they invariably came in overconfident based on the earlier shellacking they gave us.

The “yellow brick road” is found by starting with the #1 objective and then working backwards to identify what needs to be done along the way to achieve it. You always begin with the end in mind. I love the basketball example because it highlights a few things critical to business success with regard to developing and executing a plan. To wit:

Determine what needs to be done to achieve your objective, recognize it isn’t always going to be easy, and develop your ability to look several steps ahead. It’s the only way to win.

  1. Recognize That No One Impacts Your Success More Than YOU

“You’re going to lose… you lack conviction.”

The Avengers is a 2012 film that featured (mostly) earthly superheroes versus supervillains from space. The leader of the alien army was the all-powerful Loki, intent on taking over and ruling the earth. One of the people standing in his way was Agent Colson, an unassuming man without any special powers. Loki struck Colson with a fatal blow, and as he lay dying Colson looked up and said “You’re going to lose.” Loki scoffed and asked how he could possibly believe that, and Colson said, “You lack conviction.” And he fired one last shot at Loki, doing everything he could for the cause before passing away.

It’s easy to establish a goal. It’s easy to make a plan to achieve it. Neither of those things means anything if you are not committed to execution. Ever made a New Year’s resolution and not kept it, even if you know it’s good for you? And even if you have a plan to achieve it? If you don’t follow through then it’s just talk.

Our first national championship basketball team was a group of 3rd grade girls that were Colson-level committed to success. Before we went to nationals we had a week long contest to see who could make the most free throws. We told them if they made at least 100 each we’d be proud of them. Left to their own devices, that group made over 14,000. They were sunburned and dehydrated from shooting for hours in the hot summer sun. And guess what- we went 7-0 in the championships… and made one heck of a lot of free throws.

It’s been said that major transformation efforts in companies fail about 70% of the time. We could make a long list of reasons why, but I’ll give you the only fatal one: if the #1 boss isn’t committed to success. If you’ve got commitment from the top, the rest of the barriers can be navigated through. The senior leader can’t be doing it because a consultant talked them into it or because she / he is humoring a subordinate… they have to believe. It isn’t like Loki didn’t want to win the war, and it isn’t like you don’t want to keep your resolutions. But there’s a difference between wanting to and having the burning desire to fight through difficulties when things go sideways, as they often do. Success starts at the top.

Continue to Part 2: Surround Yourself with the Right People.

Or check out other blogs from Ralph.

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