Enterprise Marketing & Promotions Management

Leadership Through Relationships: How Coach K Creates Deep Connections That Help Build Lasting Greatness

By / April 2017

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South Carolina basketball head coach Frank Martin was a young high-school coach on the rise in South Florida when his program was accused of recruiting violations and he was dismissed from his coaching role. The allegations did not name Martin directly, however as the leader of the team, he was caught up in the event. Martin took the opportunity to make the move to the college ranks, not an easy jump for any coach, much less one connected to a controversy. He decided to take his case directly to the leaders of programs he sought to join and hand wrote over 120 letters to head coaches stating his case. Just one coach responded with a handwritten note back. That coach was Mike Krzyzewski, Duke basketball head coach. An encouraged Martin went on to become an assistant coach at Northeastern University and then a head coach at Kansas State and South Carolina. He never forgot the gesture that Coach K made and when he achieved perhaps his biggest victory a few weeks ago against Duke, he was overwhelmed by the full circle and once again, Coach K was an encouraging voice urging Frank to build something special at South Carolina, a powerful inspiration from a man who has built one of the most enduring basketball programs ever.

In a time where we all are overwhelmed, with far too much communication from email and text to multiple social channels, how many of us take the time to write a note or make a personal call or even have a coffee or beer to maintain and grow our personal relationships? Coach K is known for his personal notes for birthdays and life milestones but this is just a physical manifestation of his approach to achieving success. He invests in relationships at all levels without an expectation of anything in return. This is the epitome of quality relationship building; everyone we meet has value and not just one that can benefit ourselves. Krzyzewski knows that and creates long lasting connections by fostering relationships with everyone he touches, even if only for a brief moment like Coach Martin.

I experienced this a couple years ago personally. My daughter Mary Catherine and I were visiting an open practice at the Coach K fantasy camp where Jim Tobin of Ignite Social Media was playing in some scrimmage games as part of the experience. Mary Catherine was born on Coach K’s birthday (February 13) and had always wanted to meet him personally. Our family has Duke Basketball season tickets but the games aren’t a venue where she could share her story with Coach. I suggested that she write coach a letter telling him about how special it was to share his birthday. During a break in the action, Mary Catherine sheepishly took her letter to Coach K and he graciously asked her to sit beside him and tell her about herself. He took a few moments to speak with her and even pose for some pictures. Needless to say, she will forever remember that moment and be forever impacted by his kindness. I have no doubt that it made a lasting impression as I listen to Mary Catherine tell me stories about how Coach K banned his players from their locker room this year as they weren’t playing up to his expectations. She’s simply paying attention to his efforts, he’s relevant to her. This is what a great relationship is about really, our relevancy to others.

“Relationships are like muscle tissue… the more they are engaged, the stronger and more valuable they become.”

-Ted Rubin

In a world of push button relationships, how do we become relevant to others? LinkedIn has made it super easy to automate relationship building. Just login in and push a button to tell someone happy birthing, or congratulate them on a new job. Presto, we’re building relationships. But are we really? Does the string of automated responses break through once we’ve received 100 or more of like birthday wishes? Imagine how simple it is to break through that clutter with just a sentence or two vs. the standard ‘hit button, say happy birthday response.’ The same goes for Facebook, Twitter and other social networks that have literally outsourced friendships, as Return on Relationship author Ted Rubin points out. #WWCKD

Here are some of the things Coach K had to say about building relationships from CoachK.com

1. Real Relationships Take Work

“Leaders have to give time for relationships. But more demands will be placed on their time as they become more successful. So if a person’s success is based on developing relationships, then they have to continually find new ways of getting it done.”

You can’t phone it in. Relationships take work, especially today where digital media is literally redefining the word friend. Make time to create and foster relationships just like you would any other part of your life. Put time on your daily calendar to reach out to people in real and meaningful ways. What would 30 dedicated minutes a day do for your ability to build great relationships?

2. Your team is your family

“People have to be given the freedom to show the heart they possess. I think it’s a leader’s responsibility to provide that type of freedom. And I believe it can be done through relationships and family. Because if a team is a real family, its members want to show you their hearts.”

Great leaders help to create a sense of belonging and inclusion among their teams. Coach K does a masterful job of building deep relationships among his team and all of Duke Nation. I’ve been to many games where he stops after a challenging win to praise the crowd for helping to pull the team through. These relationships have a lasting impact on existing relationships and many recruits have mentioned choosing Duke because it felt like a family. What would building great relationships do for your company’s ability to recruit and retain the best talent?

3. Leaders Become Relationship Hubs

Visualize a wagon wheel as a complete team. A leader might be the hub of the wheel at the center. Now suppose the spokes are the connecting relationships the leader is building with people on the outer rim of the wheel. If the hub is removed, then the entire wheel collapses. In a situation like that, if a team loses the leader, the entire team collapses.”

Building team relationships are a core responsibility of an effective leader. The entire organization works more efficiently when ideas flow seamlessly due to effective relationships. MIT professor Alex Pentland found in his book Social Physics, that the key to dynamic team performance was highly effective relationships leading to great rates of ideas generation and discussion. This work was confirmed when Google found that its highest performing work groups were ones where everyone shared equally in conversation, a hallmark of good relationships. This is also evident in Coach K’s teams which invariably have great communication as a result of strong relationships and trust.

4. Connect Relationships to a Higher purpose

“People want to be on a team. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be in a situation where they feel that they are doing something for the greater good.”

People who build great relationships frequently weave those into amazing teams and partnerships. Coach K’s ability to create strong bonds among groups of people in order to build an organization of players, coaches, boosters and fans helps Duke perform at a very high level. These relationships endure to provide long-term consistency to the entire university in athletics and beyond.

Relationships take effort, great relationships take passion, purpose and a sense of caring. Which relationships do you care about, why not let them know today?


Contributed by John Andrews, Career Shopper Marketer, Entrepreneur and Intraprenuer.

John is the Co- founder and President of Prevailing Path, a content to commerce media company for brands and retailers. John has 20+ years of work in consumer packaged goods companies including Hanes Brands, Newell Rubbermaid, PictureVision (Kodak Digital) and Implus. John moved to the retail side in 2007 joining Walmart and built one of the first people as media platforms called Walmart Elevenmoms. He is the founder of Collective Bias (Acquired by Inmar in 2016) and serves as a fractional CMO for GoodX. John serves as a board member for Dunn Brother’s Coffee and Photofy. Connect with John on: Twitter @Katadhin and linkedin or contact John at johnandrews@prevailingpath.com or 919.810.5159.

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  • Ted Rubin

    Great post John… what I love best about you, is not simply your insight and thought leadership, but the way you get relationships and connection.

    Focus on the relationship first, getting to know your employee, customer and prospect and giving them reasons to stay engaged… not just getting them to react. Standout by “Liking” them before they “Like” you.

    #NoLetUp!

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