Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wisconsin Basketball Coach’s Success Offers Lessons for Other Leaders

As a University of Wisconsin alum, and basketball fan, I have enjoyed watching the Badgers’ basketball success during the past several years. The Badgers have been to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament every year for the past 12 years, which is a nice achievement for a school not widely known for its basketball prowess. For the past 9 of those 12 years, the Badgers have been led by head coach Bo Ryan.

Under coach Ryan’s leadership, the Badgers have won or shared the Big Ten Conference title in 3 different seasons, and have not finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten standings in any year that he has coached the team (despite its name, the Big Ten is a conference consisting of 11 teams…and soon to be 12, when the University of Nebraska joins the Big Ten later this year). Prior to coach Ryan’s arrival, the Badgers had not won or shared the Big Ten title since 1947. Since coming to the Badgers in 2001, Ryan’s teams have compiled a record of 107-43 in conference games, making him the most successful coach by winning percentage in Big Ten history.

While the Badgers’ success and consistency under coach Ryan have been fun to watch (at least for this Badger fan), what’s been more impressive is that he has been able to win without recruiting NBA-level talent. Most of the elite college basketball programs (Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, etc.) are loaded with players who are refining their skills for future employment in the NBA. Not so for the Badgers. Only six of coach Ryan’s players have played in the NBA. That’s not to say that he hasn’t had or developed good college basketball players, but it’s also not the typical recipe for success in college basketball today, where the elite programs bring in stars who play for a year or two, then move on to the NBA. After all, basketball is a game played by the players on the court, not the coaches. So, how has coach Ryan been able to maintain consistent success without the usual cadre of NBA-level talent, and why does anyone reading a blog about entrepreneurism care?

I think coach Ryan’s success provides a good lesson for any leader of any organization, including entrepreneurs, particularly as it relates to creating a vision for an organization and recognizing limitations. Coach Ryan has instilled a vision for his program that is consistent and sustainable:

  • His teams are known for playing hard and intelligently.

  • They work hard on defense (not an area that all players enjoy), and are efficient offensively.

  • They take fewer shots than most teams, but make a high percentage of those shots, and they tend to play at a slower, more deliberate pace than their competitors.

Consequently, some of the most athletic players in the country tend not to be great fits for Wisconsin, in part because Wisconsin’s slow pace of play does not accentuate their skills and is not as effective at showcasing their talents to NBA scouts. Similarly, players who are only interested in displaying their athletic talent, at the expense of the team, would not work well in coach Ryan’s program. For coach Ryan’s teams, the team is usually greater than the sum of its parts.

One important lesson for entrepreneurs is to understand your limitations. Typically, coach Ryan does not recruit players who do not fit well into his system, even if they are more athletic or more talented than other players who are better suited for his system, because he recognizes that would detract from the overall success of the team. For other leaders, including entrepreneurs, recognizing limitations can also be critical to success. By understanding your own limitations, you can take actions to strengthen your organization by supplementing areas that are not strong suits. You may be a great visionary leader for your organization, identifying new opportunities for growth, but are not well suited to executing the day-to-day tasks that are necessary for success. If that is the case, then focus your efforts where you can be most effective (identifying new opportunities), and bring in external or internal sources to assist in executing your plans.

At the early stages of development, this can often be accomplished through use of an advisory board. Good advisory boards will provide meaningful strategic advice to entrepreneurs, and use their networks to provide valuable connections that allow entrepreneurs to grow their businesses. As well stated in a Business Week article, advisory board members should have experiences that will add value to your organization in areas that are not currently being served. Advisory board members may require nominal cash compensation, or equity compensation, for the use of their time and advice. This is often a small price, and a great investment, for an entrepreneur’s business.

The most successful entrepreneurs that I work with are developing great teams, with complementary skill sets, including financial, legal, sales, and operational expertise, to name a few, to strengthen areas of weakness. That makes their organizations more effective and more focused. This only happens, though, when the visionary leader understands his or her strengths and limitations, and focuses accordingly. Having that focus, and understanding of limitations, has helped coach Ryan’s Badgers achieve great success.

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