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8 Characteristics of Great Teams, in Sports and Business

Long-time Sports Illustrated associate editor turned business consultant Don Yaeger studies high performers in sports for lessons in business leadership. Recently he conducted more than 100 interviews with some of the greatest team-builders in sports and business. From those interviews he wrote “Great Teams: 16 Things High Performing Organizations Do Differently.”  He spoke with Chief Executive about how great coaches develop championship organizations.

Here are 8 characteristics of great teams, in sports and in business.

1. Create sense of purpose. “Great teams have sense of purpose. They know who they are of service to and they know why what they do matters. Focus on the people for whom your product makes a difference. At Medtronics, every year management showcases people whose lives have been turned around thanks to their products. They arrange for these people to address the employees. The closer you get to your end user, the more what you do really matters.”

2. Recruit to your culture. “Often teams recruit or sign players who are standouts on their teams without considering how they might perform on their new team. It isn’t geography as much as it culture. It’s about recruiting to the fit. Jerry Tarkanian, when he recruited great basketball players to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, recruited his most successful players from one-parent families. The kids had an edge to them. Jerry recruited to the culture. So do all great college coaches.”

3. Run great huddles. “Joe Montana ran such effective huddles that everyone knew who was in charge. The team even practiced huddles in training camp. They’d leave the huddle a second or two before their opponents and got to see what the other team was preparing to do. In business, this means running better meetings, having a plan for every meeting, and starting and stopping on time. Great meetings, like great huddles, are strategic advantages.”

“Focus on meeting today’s challenges, not yesterday’s.”

4. Develop a mentoring culture. “At the San Diego Spurs, there is a tradition of mentoring teammates. David Robinson mentored Tim Duncan, and Duncan has become a mentor to LaMarcus Aldridge. At great teams, teammates are quicker to take that leadership role.”

5. Don’t coast on past success. “I call it ‘sleeping in the trophy room,’ and it’s never a good idea. Russ Rose, long-time women’s volleyball coach at Penn State, won 10 national championships and there was not one trophy on display at his office. The lesson: Focus on meeting today’s challenges, not yesterday’s.”

6. Motivate the whole team, not just the stars. “John Wooden (long-time men’s basketball coach at UCLA) used to start his press conferences mentioning his bench players. Sometimes these players never left the bench, but Coach Wooden always mentioned their preparation and hard work. Word got back to them. Being complimented by Coach meant a lot.”

7. Teach by asking questions. “So many successful coaches are great at asking questions. Pete Carroll, head coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, is one example. A top athlete doesn’t need to be yelled at for missing a play. Asking great questions ahead of time helps the athlete prepare. The preparation consistently improves performance.”

Nearly every CEO can learn from great coaches how to build a championship organization, says Yaeger. “Most great coaches create what I call Feel-It moments,” Yaeger says. “These are the stories that cut to the heart of why you’re doing what you’re doing, why it matters and why you need to perform at top level.”

Yaeger’s book comes out in July 2016 from Thomas Nelson publishers.


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