Don Yaeger on “Great Teams”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 8th, 2016 by bobmorris

yaeger-donDon Yaeger is a nationally acclaimed inspirational speaker, longtime Associate Editor of Sports Illustrated and author of 25 books, nine of which have become New York Times best sellers. He began his career at the San Antonio (TX) Light and also worked at the Dallas Morning News and the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville before going to work for Sports Illustrated.

As an author, Don has written books with, among others, Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden, baseball legends John Smoltz and Tug McGraw and football stars Warrick Dunn and Michael Oher (featured in the movie The Blind Side). He teamed with Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade to pen the 2013 best-seller George Washington’s Secret Six, a look at the citizen spy ring that helped win the Revolutionary War and then again in 2015 writing Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History.

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Morris: For those who have not as yet read Great Teams, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decided to write it?

Yaeger: In my previous book, Greatness: The 16 Characteristics of True Champions, I examined the various ways an individual can pursue greatness in his or her own life. A few years later, while speaking on this topic to a team at Microsoft, I was presented with a new way of thinking about greatness that took these ideas to the next level. “I appreciate the stories you share about how individuals work to become great,” Microsoft executive Eric Martorano said to me after one of several presentations he hired me to do with his team. “But what makes a Great Team great?”

This question inspired me. The pursuit of individual greatness is a great first step, but what happens next? What does greatness look like when it moves from the personal space to a team context? Why are some teams inherently more dynamic, effective, and healthy than others— even if their collective resumes look identical in terms of ability, drive, and experience? More important, why can some teams remain competitively relevant for long periods of time while others fluctuate in effectiveness and results?

Before I could begin to study Great (and not-so-great) Teams in the sports and business worlds to look for patterns and consistencies, I first had to establish the standard for greatness that I would be using to evaluate each group. Is greatness more than winning championships or reaching sales quotas? Can a team reach its goals and not be “great”? What makes a group of people come together in a way that doesn’t just work, but really produces chemistry? What sets a truly Great Team apart from one that gets the job done, but in a cloud of conflict or even just a fog of mediocrity? I set out to find the answers, traveling the world to talk to the greatest team builders for instruction.

During scores of interviews with the list of Great Team builders you’ll find in the appendix, it became apparent that these teams are driven to create a culture of greatness. Trendy offenses, tricky defenses, or “hot products” often get the credit for success, but the truly amazing organizations don’t stay at the top of their marketplaces without building a team-first culture.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Yaeger: As I started this book, my initial definition of a Great Team was one that won championships. But I discovered it was more important for a Great Team to be consistently relevant. Think about the best teams in sports. The St. Louis Cardinals, the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the San Antonio Spurs are in the playoff hunt and contending for the championship almost every single season. Studying the teams that are always in the conversation of success offers far better examples of greatness than just looking at teams that win trophies.

Morris: However different great business teams and great sports teams may be in most other respects, all of them have much in common. You assert that each has a culture within which success is most likely to thrive and suggest four “essential pillars” that serve as the foundation of that culture. Please cite a great business team and a great sports team that illustrate each. First, members feel connected to a higher purpose than competition.

Yaeger: Companies that understand the purpose and philosophy behind the “why” are usually astute, high- performing organizations that tap directly into the pulse of those they benefit the most. When utilized correctly, this understanding can create a powerful sense of duty and purpose for business teams because the employees know exactly whom they are working for and to what end.

Great companies connect to the heartstrings of their employees to make their purposes known. Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, the world’s largest medical technology company, considers the emotional connection between Medtronic employees and the organizational mission to be one of the greatest achievements of the company. Though Medtronic consistently leads the medical industry with its innovative therapies and products (a fact stock analysts love), George considers the company’s annual holiday party to be the true highlight of the company’s year. During this special event, all the employees at the company’s operational headquarters in Fridley, Minnesota, assemble in the company’s auditorium— along with thousands of other colleagues watching via webcast— to hear from families of patients who have received Medtronic products. These families recount the ways that Medtronic devices have bettered their lives. After they are finished, there is never a dry eye in the room.

As for a sports team with a higher purpose, look at Team USA basketball under Jerry Colangelo and Coach Mike Krzyzewski. We all remember the amazing “Dream Team” who won the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics. This had been the first year professional athletes were allowed to play in the Olympics, and the US “Dream Team” had been determined to show the world that when its best players were on the court, they simply could not be beaten.

But in the following years that sense of purpose waned, sputtered, and eventually lost steam. Team USA spent very little time educating its players on the significance and honor of playing in the Olympics. It also spent little time or energy scouting opponents, Tooley said. As a result, by 2002, international competition had caught up. Team USA flopped in the FIBA world championships and finished sixth— a mere decade after the Dream Team. In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, the team was a failure both on and off the court and ultimately took home the bronze medal. The poor result wasn’t because the team lacked talent. In fact, the team was built around five players who are or will be first- ballot Hall of Famers.

Taking over after the 2004 disappointment, Coach Krzyzewski — a West Point graduate and US Army veteran— suggested that the team needed “feel- it moments” to drive home that players were now involved in something greater than themselves and to fortify the foundation of the team. Krzyzewski’s feel-it moments were meant to galvanize the team around more than just winning. To bolster this new sense of purpose, USA Basketball formed a partnership with the US military so the players could feel what it meant to represent their country in a different way.

Using the military connection, “Coach K” repeatedly sought out ways for Team USA to understand its greater purpose. On the way to the 2006 world championships in Japan, for example, Team USA detoured to Korea. In between team practices, the players wore fatigues and dined and lived with soldiers protecting the Demilitarized Zone. This immersive experience strengthened the perspectives of the players by helping them understand the responsibilities, disciplines, and daily sacrifices of defending American freedoms.

As the Beijing Olympics neared, it had been eight full years since the United States men’s basketball team had taken home a gold medal in the Olympic Games. But recruitment for the 2008 games proved not to be a problem. The very best American players— Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul— were actually lining up to play for new leaders Colangelo and Krzyzewski, all because they wanted to be a part of the team’s revitalized and purposeful culture. The players took representing their country seriously, and their commitment showed in Beijing. Team USA went 8–0 on the way to a gold medal, winning by an average of twenty- eight points a game. In the championship game, Team USA defeated international powerhouse Spain by eleven points. The win created waves of basketball fever across the United States. Around the world, international fans and sports media alike began to love Team USA again.

Winning that gold medal was more than a victory for Team USA. It was also an important example to our nation and to the world that the organization represented more than just basketball; it was also a symbol of national culture, honor, and tradition. After the victory, even more NBA players took notice, and Team USA was flooded with potential recruits who desired to play for the team and take their patriotic responsibility seriously.

Morris: Members of the team “think creatively and act dynamically in order to stay fresh, effective, and relevant.”

Yaeger: One way Great Teams can share their visions is by creatively laying out their plans and visions, creating a road map for its members to follow. A Great Team outlines expectations for all members of an organization and for the organization as a whole. This clear- cut set of objectives— a road map— enables the organization to set benchmarks and goals and ultimately to lay the foundation for its own success.

Take, for example, Nestlé Global and its 4x4x4 Roadmap (also called the Nestlé Strategic Roadmap). In this one- page document, Nestlé describes its vision for the brand across all departments and subsidiary products. This road map outlines Nestlé’s four “competitive advantages,” four “growth drivers,” and four “operational pillars.” Combined, these twelve principles form a clear outline of the company’s plan for the future.

The Nestlé Strategic Roadmap differs from a typical business mission statement in the same way the plan of a successful sports organization differs from that of a mediocre one. Nestlé clearly states its goal to be “the leader in Nutrition, Health and Wellness, and the industry reference for financial performance, trusted by stakeholders.” Its road map spells out how it will achieve this goal as a company. Nestlé isn’t looking at just the desired result but at the steps required to get there.

In the sports world, long before he won ten NCAA men’s basketball titles with his UCLA Bruins, Coach John Wooden developed his famous Pyramid of Success as a visual to instruct his players on how to win on the court and in life. The “blocks” of Wooden’s pyramid were important attributes that a winning player and a winning person must exemplify. The foundational bottom row included industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm— key characteristics that everyone must embody. Stacked on top of these basics were upper- tier qualities such as self- control, initiative, skill, confidence, and poise. Wooden told his players to adopt each quality into their characters as they worked toward competitive greatness, which is the block at the top of the pyramid.

Competitive greatness, in Coach Wooden’s mind, was reached when you were able to “be at your best when your best is needed.” To get there, he believed, you had to work through the blocks of the pyramid— and do so consistently.

Morris: Each member of the team “brings a unique set of talents, experiences, perspectives, work ethic, personality traits, and know-how that melds with and complements those of the other team members.”

Yaeger: One way Great Teams can connect their team members together is through the glue of mentoring.

General Electric has a strong foundation of growing leaders through mentorship. College graduates hired into General Electric immediately join the Experienced Commercial Leadership Program (ECLP), described by the company as “the premier development opportunity for GE’s future sales and marketing leaders.” Training within the ECLP consists of three extensive assignments over two years as part of the marketing and sales areas of GE’s businesses, where employees learn best practices from corporate veterans and ultimately enhance their own leadership skills. Employees who excel in the ECLP usually find themselves on a managerial track in one of General Electric’s branches — GE Energy Connections, GE Power, GE Healthcare, GE Capital, GE Aviation, GE Lighting, GE Oil and Gas, GE Transportation, and GE Global Growth & Operations — where they are well positioned for growth within the corporation.

The success of corporate mentorship programs developed by some of the Great Teams in business demonstrates how powerful this concept can be and what a difference it can make. As General Electric has shown, when a corporate culture includes mentorship, the end result is a dynamic learning environment with leaders constantly shaping leaders.

In the sports world, the San Antonio Spurs provide an amazing study on the concept of player-to-player mentoring. Spurs team leader Tim Duncan often volunteers to help with other players so that Coach Gregg Popovich’s leadership and voice do not grow stale. Mentorship within the ranks of the Spurs did not start with Duncan, however. The success of this five-time NBA champion team — one of the most consistent franchises in the league — is partly due to a tradition of mentorship. It can be clearly seen in the 1996–97 season, Popovich’s second year as head coach, when the organization drafted Duncan with the number-one overall pick.

Though Duncan would eventually be the catalyst of Popovich’s teams, he entered the NBA as a talented yet unproven rookie. Popovich paired Duncan with center David Robinson — also a former number-one overall pick and the elder statesman of the team — in order to set him up for success. Robinson and Duncan quickly became friends, even though it was clear that Duncan was about to become the face of the franchise, displacing Robinson. Instead of allowing ego to detract from Duncan’s potential, Robinson gladly accepted his role as the younger player’s mentor.

But Robinson, too, had benefited from team mentorship — from Popovich himself. Robinson had attended the United States Naval Academy and had skipped the first two years of his NBA eligibility to fulfill his service obligation after graduating. During that time, Popovich was the scout in charge of watching Robinson, who was playing on the Armed Forces basketball team to keep in shape. Coach Popovich would go see Robinson play, and the two would often go to dinner afterward to get to know each other. Popovich also had a military background, having served five years of active duty in the Air Force, so the two understood each other. The respect between them was always strong, and Popovich’s mentorship made Robinson feel he had an important role on the team. So when Duncan showed up, Robinson paid his new teammate the same type of respect that Popovich had once shown him.

Duncan mentored many players before retiring earlier this year. His calm leadership impacted the Spurs. During the team’s 2014 NBA championship — its fifth title since 1999 — quiet stars like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were praised by the future Hall of Fame player in such a way that they elevated their performances to championship heights. Their success, in large part, is due to his leadership through example and intentional motivation.

The established mentorship culture within the Spurs extends off the court as well. Many of today’s front- office executives and head coaches around the league attribute at least part of their career success to their early days with the Spurs organization, which equipped them with the tools to rise through the ranks. Because of this type of leadership, the Spurs have earned the reputation as a model franchise.

Morris: Finally, “there is a strong sense of understanding, appreciation, shared responsibility, and trust that unites and motivates the team to work together.”

Yaeger: Great Teams have an open perspective when assessing the marketplace. In his widely cited book, General Management, J. Kroon writes about “environmental scanning,” which he defines as “the study of social, political and technological trends which influence a business, an industry and even a total market.” When leaders of a professional team perform a scan, they examine the trends dominating their customer demographics, education, government policy, and especially their competition.

Knowing your opponent is a crucial part of emulating and defeating that opponent. But scouting is only the first step. Too many leaders spend countless hours studying an opponent’s every move in the search for an edge. The Great Teams understand not only how to scout but also how to exploit the weaknesses of a competitor. These teams analyze every perspective and option and position themselves to take full advantage of any knowledge gained about an opponent.

Supermarket industry leaders depend on this kind of scouting to remain dominant in a crowded marketplace. In the Southeast region of the United States, Publix Super Markets are well aware of how a competitor can offset their own success. That’s why the organization sends its managers to study Walmart Supercenter stores whenever a new location opens up in the vicinity of a Publix. The managers scout prices to remain competitive and to build an advantage over similar products. And the results of these efforts have been stunning: in 2015 Publix maintained a stronghold on the marketplace in the South and, according to the Tampa Bay Times, in Florida, where the grocery chain controls 43 percent of the retail grocery business.

External scouting is of limited value if it’s not teamed with rigorous self- examination. Successful coaches or managers have learned the value of utilizing an outside opinion to give them a fresh look at their personnel. This unbiased view provides an even greater insight, which in turn helps the coach develop flexibility within the team. Many businesses use a similar approach to self- scouting. Publix utilizes “mystery shopping,” employing “professional shoppers” to visit its stores periodically and give a thorough inspection of each department. The shoppers privately audit for general issues such as timeliness of service and friendliness of staff. They even check to see if the bathrooms are clean. For a store with the motto, “Where shopping is a pleasure,” Publix must make sure it upholds and exceeds industry standards— which is why the supermarket chain consistently rates as one of the best- run companies in the country.

In the NFL, scouting centers on knowing the play- calling habits of the other team while the next play is developing— a lot of preparation for a brief, intense burst of action. And no one was better at reading these patterns than quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning, who retired in 2016 after a stellar career with the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos, commanded one of the best-run offenses each season by meticulously scouting his opponents’ as well as his own performances.

Manning’s game-week preparation tradition began in his first college season, as a third- string quarterback at the University of Tennessee. He would ask the video coordinator each week for all the game tape from their opponent’s previous season. And he studied those tapes diligently, even bringing them with him to the team hotel the night before the game. Pretty soon Manning was bringing more game film on road trips than the Tennessee coaching staff, and his arduous studying (along with his accurate right arm!) led to his becoming the first-string quarterback.

Manning’s trend of preparation continued through his professional career, first with the Indianapolis Colts and then at Denver. His younger teammates would tense up whenever they walked by his locker because they had heard stories about him holding pop quizzes on the playbook and strategy. For Manning, scouting wasn’t just about the opponent but about his own team as well. He desired to know the weaknesses on his side of the ball, and then he wanted to know how to fix them.

When one of his fellow offensive players made a mistake on a play, Manning corrected the mistake before the coaches had a chance to react. And when a receiver joined the Broncos organization through the draft, free agency, or a trade, Manning would call him immediately and schedule time to work on routes and plays they would need to run. To him, scouting was a process with no off-season — an invaluable tool that can help find and correct mistakes long before the competition does.

Morris: In your opinion, to what extent can —- and should — members of a great team bear responsibility for leadership?

Yaeger: Leadership belongs to all of us. I’m a big believer in John Maxwell, a leadership speaker and author, who talks about the 360-degree leader. Before leading others, you have to learn to lead yourself. Wherever you work in an organization you have to learn to lead up, lead down, and lead side to side. Leadership belongs to all of us. You have to see yourself, and believe in yourself in the way that we are talking about here to give to those that you lead.

Morris: In your opinion, which women throughout history have been the greatest leaders of great teams, be they in business, government, and/or sports?

Yaeger: I’ve always marveled at Margaret Thatcher. She was an extraordinary leader of a great team during a really rough time. I’m just as impressed with what Pat Summitt did in sports and what Ginni Rometty is doing in business.

Morris: Opinions are divided — sometimes sharply divided — about the importance of charisma to great leadership. What do you think?

Yaeger: I’m a believer that charisma makes a huge difference in people’s decisions to follow you. However, it’s not just that you say it well, but it’s that you know it well. It helps if you can say it well enough that people want to follow you. Charisma isn’t required, but it makes a big difference.

Morris: The 1992 United States men’s Olympic basketball team, nicknamed the “Dream Team,” was the first American Olympic team to feature active NBA players. Now the greatest sports team ever assembled, it was coached by Chuck Daly, assisted by Lenny Wilkens, P. J. Carlesimo, and Mike Krzyzewski. In your opinion, what are the most valuable lessons to be learned from that team’s success?

Yaeger: A group of amazingly high achievers can be brought together and play together, and all believe that they are competing for something bigger than themselves. Those players are so used to being patted on the back and told how good they are. Frankly, those are usually the hardest people to remind that they are aspiring to achieve something bigger than themselves.

Morris: You include an Appendix (Page 201-234) that consists of “Great Takeaways from Business and Sports Leaders.” For those who have not as yet read the book, please what you think is the key point to bed made about each of these. First, Dale Brown, former head coach of LSU’s men’s basketball

Yaeger: Coach Brown stressed that leaders need to value everyone on their team and defend them. “There’s an old saying that ‘they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ That was a driving force in the relationship I wanted to have with my players. There is no way they could leave our program without knowing how much I cared for them— not just as players but as people,” Brown told me. “God doesn’t make any junk. My job as a leader is to remind others of that— and to remember it myself. Being a coach is tough work with lots of people who feel free to share their opinions about you.”

Morris: Jenn Lim, CEO and CHO of Delivering Happiness

Yaeger: Jenn Lim notes that employers and employees should hold the same values and have a shared purpose. “It is so important to align the individual’s purpose with the company because even the person doing the most remedial job won’t think of things as a task, but they will think of it as part of their career,” she told me. “Anyone who walks through the door should think that they are the reason why the company exists.”

Morris: Dan Marino, former QB for the Miami Dolphins

Yaeger: During his Hall of Fame career with the Miami Dolphins, Dan Marino found that leadership comes naturally and can’t be forced. “Leadership comes by the example you set through your work,” Marino said. “It begins from the way you are perceived as a worker and the respect that comes with it.”

Morris: Misty May-Treanor, three-time USA Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist

Yaeger: Misty May-Treanor talked about working every possible advantage. When physical talent alone was not enough to dominate at the international level, May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings improved the mental side of their game and focused on improving their nutrition. “I recognized the skill and talent that got us to the top would not keep us there, so we planned accordingly,” May-Treanor told me. “We had to be willing to do and try different things to keep winning. I learned so much during that period about what it means and what it takes to be successful for the long haul . . . you have to be open to new approaches.”

Morris: Anson Dorrance, head coach of University of North Carolina’s women’s soccer, winner of 21 NCAA championships

Yaeger: Coach Dorrance focuses on creating and reinforcing a principle-centered culture. He requires his team to memorize the core values of the program. Each value (toughness, discipline, focus, relentlessness, resilience, positivity, class, caring, nobility, selflessness, galvanizing, gratitude) has a definition, and the players are required to learn three per year. “I believe in a principle- centered culture,” he told me. Coach Dorrance also believes those core values should drive evaluations. Every year, Coach Dorrance has his players evaluate their teammates according to the core values. He then meets with each player and goes over how she is perceived by the team. They measure everything. “My practices are called the ‘competitive cauldron’ because of my focus on competition and punishing pace,” Coach Dorrance said. He charts every measurable statistic in practice and ranks the players accordingly. These rankings are posted clearly for the entire team to see as motivation for his players to improve.

Morris: Bill McDermott, CEO of a multinational enterprise software company, SAS

Yaeger: Bill McDermott stresses thinking outside the box. By doing things that others would not have considered, such as starting an SAP job program for people with autism, McDermott and his company have strengthened their workforce with the unique set of skills their employees offer. SAP has a whole program that’s built around training, recruiting, and of course, caring for individuals with different skill sets. “We value cultivating uniqueness,” McDermott says about SAP and he has certainly shown that.

Morris: Of all the great business teams, which do you think deserves the highest overall grade after all 16 characteristics are taken into full account?

Yaeger: Southwest Airlines

Morris: Which of the great sports teams?

Yaeger: San Antonio Spurs

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

Don invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His Amazon page link

Great Teams link

LinkedIn link

Facebook link

Don’s YouTube videos link

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