March Madness as a Business Metaphor

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How come, in a tournament lauded for its unpredictability, are teams like Kentucky and Duke consistently walking away with top honors? It’s the culture, dang it! Successful Small businesses, Fortune 50 companies, and NCAA Basketball teams, are firmly built on well aligned cultures. These cultures share values about rewards, communication, and decisions as they pursue a common goal.

The peculiarities of NCAA basketball create unique situations coaches must overcome as they work to align their teams. To keep things simple, let’s look at just three challenges you might share with an NCAA basketball team, and the way John Calipari, coach of the UK Wildcats, approaches those obstacles on the journey to an aligned team and another National Championship.

Challenge 1: Dealing With Turnover

The NBA requires all players to wait one year after graduating high school to play professionally. This creates the so called “one and done” problem facing NCAA coaches. What steps would you take if a large portion of your top performers left after one year? John Calipari confronts the obstacle head on. His solution is to constantly recruit. To kick things off Calipari created a strong “employer brand” built on the obvious desire for top players to head to the NBA. Your business might not see close to 100% turnover, but the reality is simple; work is mobile, and the best bet to keep your team roster bolstered is a deep bench of great culture fits ready to step up.

Challenge 2: Retaining Top Performers

Constantly recruiting is hard work, and the realities of running a company means you must retain your top performers and knowledge base. Which leads us to the second obstacle: NCAA athletes cannot be paid or receive sponsorship money. So how do you retain a top performer being courted (puns) by organizations with deeper pockets? John Calipari sees a simple solution: transparency in his objectives and alignment of player’s career goals with his proclivity for getting them million dollar contracts. Calipari makes it clear when he says “Players trust us enough with their careers to come back.”

In the year 2015, employees are looking for more than just a paycheck. Employees, especially millennials, are looking for a place to learn and grow in their careers under strong mentorship. Money is a strong motivator, but it isn’t the only thing driving performance. In many businesses, adjusting comp plans is out of the question when it comes to retaining top performers. Employers must understand the goals and ambitions of their employees, acknowledge what motivates them, and structure management around that.

Challenge 3: Manage Rockstar Egos

So you’re finding success recruiting the best players you can and you even manage to retain a large number of rock stars… what could go wrong? Well, it’s a fact of nature that top performers come with egos to match. Calipari sees ego management as critical to success. His “team first” approach removes ego from the equation and drives players to perform at their highest capacity to earn playing time.

Dealing with the egos of high potential employees is tough, so how do you turn a group of individuals into a team? Calipari does this by reinforcing the reality that teams (not individuals) drive success. It starts with understanding the strengths and contributions of each unique player and how that fits with the collective. This way, players learn to rely on their teammates, play to each other’s strengths, recognize their own weaknesses, and begin to value the strength of the team. Whether you’re working towards another national championship or a continued increase in revenue, the team is always greater than the sum of it’s parts. 

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