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Part 3: Lessons Learned From a Lifetime of Coaching

Thank you for your interest in our series Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Coaching — In Basketball and in Business. If you would like to start from the beginning, links to the other sections are as follows:

Keys to Success, Part III: Become a Rock Star

This was the most difficult of the four chapters to write. The premise is easy — describing the most important things to focus on to position yourself to be successful. The tough part is limiting it to three topics. If you want to be a rock star, here’s what tops the list from my perspective.

  1. Never Stop Learning

“Couldn’t do that last night.”

Justice League is a 2017 movie based on an alliance formed by a group of superheroes who banded together to fight the forces of evil. One of the good guys is Victor Stone, a half human/half machine superhero known as Cyborg. Cyborg is literally a non-stop learning machine — his robotic half continually acquires new knowledge. At one point he blasts off the ground a few feet and hovers there. When he lands he looks at his shocked father and says, “Couldn’t do that last night.”

There are two high school basketball coaches in Georgia that I’ve been privileged to associate with. They are both legends, having won 19 state championships between them. They’ve both forgotten more about basketball than most coaches will ever know- but they’ve never stopped trying to get better. I watched one of them at a camp once. The camp leader was conducting a few unorthodox drills and she was taking notes. She approached the leader afterwards and asked a few questions, then remarked “Good day- just learned a couple new drills.” The other high-profile coach once read an article and immediately contacted the author, asking how to access the rest of the story. He commented that “I am always looking for material like this to share and learn from.” When people at the top of their profession put a premium on learning, they tend to stay at the top of their profession- that’s how 19 state championships happen. The same applies to players, of course. I taught a group of 4th grade girls how to do a wraparound pass one night at practice, and one of our guards executed it flawlessly three times in a game the next weekend. What coach doesn’t want to be around players like that?

It’s the same story in the business world. The top senior executives I’ve met over the years all share a thirst for learning. I remember working with a leader that had become a vice president at a relatively young age. He had a very demanding work schedule, yet was in the middle of pursuing an MBA at a prestigious university. I asked him why he would take on the extra work, given that his rise in the organization was certain either way. He raised an eyebrow and simply said “to learn.” He’s now the COO at one of the top-ranked hospitals in the world. Another time I was teaching a public seminar on strategic measurement. There was a CEO tucked in among the mostly middle-management audience. When I asked why he attended himself instead of sending “scouts”, he responded “I have to learn whether this is something that fits in my organization, and to do that I have to understand it; it’s something I can’t delegate.” He decided it was a good fit, and his organization used the information to regain leadership in their industry.

You want to be a rock star? Then keep in mind that these are the people you are competing against — and they continue to explode forward. If you don’t keep developing your own skills, then you are standing still… which in effect puts you (and your company/team) further and further behind.

  1. Remember There’s Always Strength in Numbers

“There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening.”

Moneyball is a 2011 movie based on the true story of the Oakland A’s, who were facing seemingly insurmountable challenges trying to stay competitive. They were a financially strapped team that kept losing star players to teams with bigger payrolls. At that time the A’s evaluated players the same way other teams did, relying on scouts’ experience and gut feel. Then their general manager met Peter Brand, who remarked that “There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening.” The A’s hired him and changed the way baseball players were evaluated, relying much more on data and statistics.

To a numbers geek like me, this was the coolest thing ever. When I first started coaching, I had someone keep player stats- points, rebounds, steals, turnovers. Parents on other teams used to roll their eyes at that, thinking I was an over-the-top coach (which of course I am, but that’s beside the point). I did it because I knew it would help me pick up things I didn’t notice in the heat of battle. For example, one of our smallest players led in rebounds three games in a row. Usually the taller players get rebounds, so I thought it must be a mistake. But the stats forced me to watch her, and she had a teachable knack for getting in the right spot. If it weren’t for the data, we wouldn’t have picked up on that… and been able to teach it to the rest of the team.

From a business / life perspective, here are three reasons you need to understand data:

  1. Data enables you to learn. This ties back to emulating Cyborg. With data you can learn. Without it, you can guess. You wouldn’t try to lose weight without using a scale to track progress. Why would you try to run a business (or team) without the info you need to make informed decisions?
  2. Opinions vs. data isn’t a fair fight. I’ve seen the systematic destruction of people who rely on gut feel arguing with someone with data backing them up. Don’t take my word for it- just watch Shark Tank. Entrepreneurs pitch investors on buying into their company. Pretty much every week someone says “I’ve been in business 3 years and only sold 12 of these, but I just know everybody wants one.” Watch the sharks’ responses. Don’t be that person.
  3. Ignoring data can lead to a gigantic waste of time and money. Worked with a leader once that I’ll dub the King of the Wild Goose Chase. He surrounded himself with bobblehead doll managers that agreed with everything he said, and every time he got an idea they’d rush to pursue it, no matter how illogical. Data can/should be your guard rail against that.

Bottom line, again quoting Peter Brand: “Using stats the way we read them, we’ll find value that no one else can see.” Data uncovers those opportunities for you — and that can help make you a rock star.

  1. Win the Right Way

“You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once.”

Rounders is a 1998 movie about high stakes poker. Worm and Mike were lifelong best friends, but they had one important philosophical difference. Worm would do anything to win- cheat, lie, humiliate other players… it was all acceptable if it helped Worm pocket their money. Mike was smarter and more ethical- he always “played it straight,” recognizing cheating could produce short term wins but serious long-term consequences. At one point Mike summed up their differences by quoting legendary gambler Amarillo Slim: “You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once.”

You’ll have many rivals in your life. How you treat them will be a defining factor in your success. Our basketball team played a tournament in an older age group to get tough competition, and a good team took a big early lead on us. They never took out their starters and ran up the score against our subs at the end. Postgame they all went to center court and did a team dance. (I stopped our team meeting to make sure the girls watched.) Their parents mouthed off about how “that little team” was no match for them. They basically did everything they could to fire us up to play our best the next time we faced them- because they “skinned us” instead of being respectful.

So what happened? We got a rematch in the finals. I recorded Save the Last Dance for Me and played it LOUD to remind the girls about the dancing. Also reminded them about the bragging and running up the score. Properly motivated, our girls swarmed them like a pack of raptors- we took a 15-0 lead and never looked back. We won that championship because the other team didn’t respect their opponent.

Can the same thing happen in business? Absolutely. There will be business situations in which you’ll have the upper hand — you got the promotion over your peers, you were selected to make the sales pitch, your project team was more successful than a parallel effort, etc. Who are you going to be in that moment? Are you going to center court to dance on rivals, or will you show class and try to promote ongoing positive relationships? If there’s one constant in business, its change. Recognize that at some point in the future your currently vanquished opponent will likely hold the advantage over you. Also recognize it’s likely that at some point you’ll be relying on these same people to ensure your success.

Do you want motivated enemies that are just waiting for revenge? Or do you want people that are likely to cooperate with you in the future because you minimized the sting of defeat in the present? Winning is a worthy objective, but winning the right way is equally important. You may need today’s rivals to become the allies of tomorrow. Since you never know how the winds of change will blow, there is no plus side in creating unnecessary enemies.

Those are the three keys to positioning yourself for success. Please note the interplay between them. Winning the right way is about behavioral adeptness, comfort with using data is about technical proficiency, and continuous learning is about constantly getting better at both. That combination is what is needed to achieve and maintain rock stardom.

Look for the action-oriented series finale next Thursday in Part 4: Go For It!

In the meantime, check out other blogs from Ralph.  Links to the other sections of our Lessons Learned series are:

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