Growing up with my dad as a high school basketball coach, I didn’t have much of a choice when it came to what extracurricular activities I would participate in – sports dominated my family’s life as soon as my brother and I could walk.
Thankfully, I grew to love basketball and played throughout high school and college. After graduating college I continued to coach select teams and play in leagues – I even joined our Sendero’s corporate challenge tournaments.
Although I may be just a bit washed up, I find myself applying an athlete’s mindset in my day-to-day work.
As an athlete, one of my favorite times of year is March Madness. In addition to the craziness of 16 games a day, one of the things I love about the NCAA tournament is the upsets – when you get to see “no-name” schools make runs deep into the tournament, destroying brackets everywhere. If you were to compare those teams side-by-side with the Gonzagas or the Villanovas of the world, you would never think they would be able to win a game based on talent. However, each year, schools like Loyola Chicago (remember Sister Jean, anyone?) win against higher-ranked opponents.
Although it may seem like these teams may have just gotten lucky, these groups put in work well before the post-season to get to the tournament. They used teamwork, discipline, and leadership throughout their entire season to achieve their goals.
Every sports team sets goals for their season. Whether the goal is to improve to above .500 record, win a conference championship, or develop in certain areas for the future, sports teams of all levels start their year with an agreed-upon goal, or goals to work towards.
Business teams shouldn’t be any different. When a team starts on a new project, they should discuss and then agree upon shared goals to work towards. On one of my projects, we had a brainstorming session where our team created SMART goals (Strategic, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound). After agreeing on these goals, we would revisit them on a bi-weekly basis. We all knew our main goal was a successful implementation, but it was helpful to have smaller, measurable goals that we could work towards.
When the team reached one of the goals we had set, we celebrated this Shared Success together by getting cookies, grabbing drinks after work, or leaving work an hour early, which made the “win” even more special.
Setting goals also helps you stay disciplined during long stretches of time with no tangible “wins” or takeaways. I always remember my high school coach telling our team that “players are made in the off season.” Putting in hard work in the summer months when you aren’t playing games is much more difficult to do than when you have games to look forward to. It was through these summer workouts and our early morning weight sessions that we learned that consistent discipline leads to future success.
During the planning phase of projects, it may be easy to slack off and “worry about things later” because you feel like you have all the time in the world. However, it’s during the non-busy times or long periods without many milestones that teams need to stay disciplined and put in good, quality work to achieve your previously discussed goals. “Put in the work early,” as my coach also used to say. I promise that you’ll be glad you did when things ramp up.
Sports teams tend to look towards their captains and coaches as natural leaders, but I truly feel that anyone on a team can display leadership. In college, one of my best friends on the team tore her ACL and was out for the season. While she never saw a minute of playing time, she showed up 30 minutes early to each practice to wipe down the gym floor, give us fresh towels and water during every timeout, and give us high-fives anytime we subbed out. My friend was born with natural talent, but it was through her perseverance and grit during a tough time that made her stick out as a leader in our team’s eyes.
When a project wears on or enters a stressful period, teammates can use recognition and positivity to lead a team to stay on track. On one of my projects, I had a manager that made an effort during each of our 1:1s to tell me I was doing a good job and ask if I needed her support for anything. I knew that she was much busier and more stressed than me, but she made an effort to recognize me each time we spoke. She was one of the first people in the office in the morning and very often one of the last to leave, but she always had a positive attitude and you could tell she cared about the people she managed. Through her leadership, she encouraged me to work even harder and push through the downsides of a tough project.
Teams (both in sports and in business) are willing to work harder for those that lead by example.
I love watching college basketball because it’s at this level you can really tell when teams “click” and work together well. While you may see a point guard that doesn’t score many points, his ability to assist others through great passes or get the offense moving by making play calls is critical to the success of a team. Everyone has seen the player who tries to be the all-star and do too much. While he might get “hot” every once in a while, it’s teams that understand their roles and cater to their teammates’ strengths that tend to be more successful.
The same is true for business teams. Project teams where each person knows their purpose and works to accomplish what they do best tend to be more successful. I’ve seen Technology PMs that think they are being helpful by trying to take on tasks, but it ends up causing more work for the team in the long run because oftentimes the team must redo work that they could have done themselves from the get-go. Instead, a PM (or scrum master if using Agile) should be assigning work to team members based on their role in the project. Consistently working together as a team leads to more dependable, long-term success.
This spring, as you sit back to watch your favorite teams play, think about what it took to make them successful. Take a page out of an athlete’s playbook and see if you can apply a mindset of hard work, goal-setting, and perseverance to achieve your business goals.