“Never assume,” says Duke University coaching legend Mike Krzyzewski. Never assume the person you’ve spoken to understands you 100 percent until you see proof that your message has been received and, preferably, acted on.
Too often, leaders allow themselves to feel so busy that they communicate quickly, without taking the time to see whether their team fully heard them—and that represents a job only half done, says Kryzewski, affectionately known as Coach K. “The person sending the message is responsible for making sure it was heard and understood in the way it was meant,” said Coach K in a recent episode of Corporate Competitor Podcast.
When it comes to communicating effectively with a diverse set of individuals comprising a team, Coach K believes that one size definitely doesn’t fit all. “You have to put yourself in position to have conversations and build relationships with people. You need impromptu conversations,” he added, based on the leader’s ability to correctly read situations and be able to change their plan and not feel beholden to it.
One of Coach K’s former stars and assistant coaches, Jay Bilas, remembers just such an instance that took place 32 years ago on a Sunday practice that took place the day after Duke defeated the University of Nevada Las Vegas in the NCAA semi-finals. Although Duke was a strong team, UNLV was considered to be perhaps the greatest men’s college basketball team of all time. With the NCAA National Championship at stake the following day, Coach K didn’t like the air of overconfidence and satisfaction he saw in his players as they shuffled out to practice.
“And so he called us back into the locker room and said, ‘I don’t like the way we’re walking. I don’t like the way we’re talking. They aren’t right,’” recounted Bilas, who went to become an ESPN analyst. “Coach said that if this was our mental state going into the championship, we were not going to win it. We had to refocus.”
The message was heard. The Blue Devils refocused and went on to beat Kansas for one of Coach K’s five National Championships in 13 Final Four appearances.
In the podcast, the Naismith Hall of Fame coach tells listeners how being a great competitor begins with being a great communicator:
• The two questions he always asks his team in order to understand them better.
• The importance of showing respect to everyone in your organization, not just your stars.
• Creating “feel it” moments that bond teammates to a bigger cause and to one another.
If some 42 seasons of coaching experience at Duke have taught Coach K anything, it is that a team has to feel their belief in themselves and their teammates before they pledge themselves fully to the team’s larger mission and purpose. “You don’t own something, until you feel it,” he said of great teams. “You know, until it penetrates your heart and your mind.”