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Enterprise Marketing & Promotions Management

Business Lessons Learned from the Hard Court

By / April 2016


This week, both of the NCAA Championship basketball games were ones for the records books. The UConn women capped an undefeated season with a fourth straight and 11th overall NCAA championship title. The Villanova men earned the trophy hoist with a come from behind, late second half surge and a winning buzzer-beater shot. I was glued to the television and truly celebrated these wins for the athletes, coaches, trainers, administrators, alumni and students as if they were all my best friends. Funny how sports can bring that out in you.

Once the confetti settles, and the parades, interviews, autograph sessions and photo shoots end, these coaches and student-athletes will return to carry-on their normal everyday lives on campus. Statistically, very few student-athletes will continue as a professional athlete and the vast majority will finish their playing careers, graduate, maybe transfer or drop out, or perhaps continue to graduate school. As graduation and entering the workforce nears for the approximately 460,000 NCAA student-athletes, they will someday realize the lifelong values that competing at an elite level brings for them into the business world.
Occasionally, I give lectures and inspirational talks to student athletes on the values I learned from being a student-athlete and how to parlay those learnings into your role as a business leader. More importantly, I encourage business leaders to mentor, train and/or hire student-athletes. I also encourage business leaders to shadow a team for a day to glean additional key insights from the coaches, athletes and trainers. Guaranteed, it will be time well spent.

Below are a few core values learned from being a student-athlete which may help businesses and business leaders achieve success.

Set Goals and Be Accountable
In sports and in business, setting goals is arguably the most important thing one can do in a leadership role. Rarely does anyone step out on a basketball court with their team to just play freely. I’d like to meet the athlete that hits the weight room at 6am on a Sunday morning to just pass time before the rest of the world wakes up. Nonsense. You play to win and you lift weights to train with purpose. Setting SMART goals – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound – will provide structure and accountability for you and your team. If you are leading your business or a team, being accountable for your individual or collective efforts and results sets the tone for consistency and respect for penalties or rewards. Life is merely living out a series of daily conscious choices. As an athlete, it is your choice to run through the finish line, to lift weights for a personal best, to go out to a party or stay in and study or rest, or stay after practice on your own to work on free throws. In business, it is your choice to show up early for a meeting, spend a lunch hour mentoring junior staff members, sleep in or go to the gym for an early morning workout, or stay late to review a presentation one last time before an important meeting the next day. Set goals and be accountable. Your business depends on it.

Recognize That Everyone Has Strengths
Sports, particularly team sports, helps identify everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, including your own. Each player has a role on the court, on the bench, or the sidelines. Hence, the reason the 6th man is celebrated on a basketball team. And a player’s role invariably will change over time. The UConn women’s head basketball Coach Geno Auriemma firmly states about his players that “you can’t hide from what you are.” So, as with a head coach and the coaching staff, the role of a great business leader is to identify strengths and weaknesses of each team member and create the best team to achieve success at that moment in time. It is widely known that Coach Auriemma is sometimes incredibly hard on his players. Then again, he sometimes jokes around. It’s a delicate balance but all coaches and business leaders must be able to achieve balance to be successful long term. Take time to identify and understand all of the strengths and motivating factors of your team members. And then plan and execute against those strengths and motivations. Your business depends on it.

Always Follow the Rules
Sports and businesses have rules. Sure, the rules may inherently differ in nature, but the intent of rules is that they are designed to be in place for structure, to ensure order and provide an even playing field. Rules are to be followed and penalties result when the rules are not followed. For athletes, the consequences could jeopardize eligibility, scholarships or earning your degree. For business leaders, the consequences could impact employment status, job promotion, or end up in a lawsuit. Coaches, athletes, and business leaders alike are responsible for leading by example and following the rules. And doing the right thing even if no one is watching. Always follow the rules. Your business depends on it.

Always Keep Score
If you are not keeping score, then today is a good day to start. Always assume that your competition is keeping score. On everything. Do not think that for one minute neither Villanova nor University of North Carolina did not know where they ranked in the NCAA standings – wins, losses, seed, free throw percentage, three point percentage, steals, passes, fouls, etc. Yes, they cared deeply to know where they stood at all times as a team and as individuals. There is a reason box scores, stat sheets and on-screen graphics exist. Keeping score also offers specific parameters on how you will be measured by your coach or perhaps a boss or Board. Keeping score and understanding the metrics and statistical data also allows you to identify what’s working or what areas need improvement. Team success is predominantly measured by a scorecard of wins and losses, and business success measured by a scorecard of sales and profits. Individual success as an athlete or business leader is measured by a scorecard of achievements. Always keep score. On everything. Your business depends on it.

Communication Matters
We’ve all seen or heard of those coaches who are not in touch with their players, might be unapproachable, aloof, quiet, moody, jovial, or mean and just constantly yells. Villanova Coach and Naismith Coach of the Year, Jay Wright, has a coaching philosophy that tells players “the greatest gift I can give you is the truth.” Your role as a business leader is similar to being a head coach of a sports team. Open, honest, and situationally appropriate communication with your team in every form – verbal, body language, written, unspoken – really matters, and matters greatly. It builds trust and respect. Sometimes it’s not what you say it’s how you say it, when you say it or in what context or format. Your communication in a group, one on one, in public or private reflects who you are as a leader. It embodies what others can expect from you and identifies what you expect from others. It sets the tone for how your entire business network and team of employees, Board members, investors, vendors, customers, etc. will communicate with one another. It reflects whether or not players want to stay and play for you for all four years, or whether team members want to work for you and be led by you. Communication in all forms matters greatly. Your business depends on it.

You Will Play Like You Practice
The old adage “poor preparation leads to poor performance” holds true in both sports and in business. It is paramount to prepare and practice – both mentally and physically – with 110% effort. For Coach Auriemma, he prides himself on being a coach that demands more from his players than they have or believe that they have. He inspires teams to strive for perfection every moment of every day. Athletes and team members sometimes do not ever know what their potential is until coaches or business leaders try to get it out of them. Unlike like being on a collegiate team where there is always an end to a season or career, as a business owner, there is not such finish line. Practice and execution are ever overlapping and infinitely ongoing, which is the key to perpetual improvement for your business. Train hard. Get rest. Eat right. Study the competition. Execute dry runs. Arrive early and stay late. Plan for contingencies. Get the right team in place. Lead, plan and execute your business as if you were the coach of the Villanova Wildcats. Always practice like you intend to play. Your business depends on it.

Overcoming Loss and Failure
Losing is never easy or pleasant. Experiencing failure is an inherent part of sports and business alike. Dealing with failure is sometimes a whole other ball game in and of itself. Even in losing situations, there are incredibly important measurements of success to recognize, value and appreciate. Many great coaches have been heard saying to teams after a tough loss that “We did not fail today. We just didn’t win.” Sure, the loss like the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team just experienced with Villanova or the failure to achieve a business goal stings. Athletes and business leaders experience loss and failure more than most. The real value is how these losses and failures are handled, e.g. a coach’s or player’s reaction to the situation and how each rebounds from the situation to earnestly moves on to the “next play” with a positive outlook. Overcome loss and failure in the right way. Your business depends on it.

Work Ethic has No Excuses
People that engage in competitive sports, albeit as an elite high school athlete, a college athlete, professional athlete or even perhaps as a competitive amateur later in life, know that hard work, team work, dedication and commitment, and mental toughness are necessary to achieve success. “It’s about doing it in a way that it can’t be done any better. That is the goal every day,” quips Coach Auriemma, whose philosophy spurs his players to work hard every day. And then work harder the next day. And so on and so on. There are no shortcuts. When you want something bad enough, there are no excuses in the world that will arise to justify any holes in your work ethic. Your business depends on it.

Contributed by Barbara Emener Karasek, Independent Strategic Growth Advisor
Barbara spent 20+ years in a variety of marketing and business development with sports, entertainment, retail, and consumer product companies, and is currently an independent strategic growth advisor for numerous businesses and non-profits. A lifelong athlete who parlayed hard court teachings to her business roles, she went from being a four-sport high school athlete to earning a BA in Sociology (1992) from Furman University, where she attended on a four-year volleyball scholarship, served as Team Captain, won the 1990 Southern Conference Championship title, earned All-Conference honors, and still holds many school records. She went on to earn an MA in Mass Communication (1995) from the University of South Florida, which honored her in 2008 with its Outstanding Alumnus Award. Committed to lifelong learning, Barbara completed the Strategic Marketing Management course at Harvard Business School and is certified in Lean Six Sigma. She is involved with a variety of charities, the CMO Council, Women’s Sports Foundation, and American Marketing Association. Barbara and her husband Tony, a former professional basketball player, stay busy with charity work, highly competitive sports-related hobbies, and a never-ending search for the perfect fishing spot.


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