What Business Can Learn from Sports (Hint: It Has Nothing to Do With Sports)

Jim Haudan
Jim Haudan,
CEO,
Root Inc.

College Basketball. UCLA. Ten NCAA National Championship titles in 12 years, seven of those consecutively. Coach: John Robert Wooden. Known For: A focus on team play.

Pro Football. 1972 Miami Dolphins. The only NFL team to win the Super Bowl with a perfect, undefeated season. Coach: Don Shula. Known For: No-nonsense leadership.

Pro Basketball. 1990s Chicago Bulls. Six NBA Championships in seven years, including two three-peats. Coach: Phil Jackson. Known For: Holistic coaching.

Three very different sports. Three very different eras. Three incredible stories of perseverance and wild success. The common thread? High-performing teams working in concert toward a common goal with stellar, big-picture leaders at their helms.

Sounds a lot like what you’d want inside your organization, doesn’t it? Sure. And the single most critical element Wooden, Shula, and Jackson had going for them was this: their teams were aligned. Each individual knew their role in the game, and each was committed to thinking and acting in the ways that would bring about victory time and again.

Alignment like this is the cornerstone of any organization’s – sports or otherwise – success or failure. It’s the invisible force field that powers teams through resistance, adversity, and roadblocks. When these teams met for practice, or strategized in the locker room, how do you think it went?

Coach: So, here’s the plan. Let’s win.

Team: Yeah! We’re in.

Probably not. And you shouldn’t accept a passive “I agree” or “you have my vote” in your boardroom or conference room, either. Because most of the time, those “ayes” are lies. Not big, fat intentionally malicious lies, but they’re not fully thought-out affirmations that people are really up for the challenge of changing and advocating for others to do the same. An enthusiastic “yes” isn’t proof that your people are really behind the strategy (one they’ve even perhaps co-authored) and in alignment with you to do what’s needed to emerge victorious.

The only way to forge true alignment is to willingly embrace the conflict and diversity that naturally exist between people and in change. Avoid the conflict and you will sidestep alignment and keep talented ordinary people from an extraordinary destiny.

The sad reality is that even though everyone says they want to be part of a successful organization, most people just aren’t willing to challenge and change their behavior in order to make that happen.

On and Off the Field: Alignment Isn’t an Option, It’s a Requirement

Here’s the deal. Every single organization needs to make changes, to develop new strategies or revise current ones to stay relevant in customers’ minds. But a strategy isn’t just a plan. It isn’t just a nice, pretty presentation and some new website copy. It’s a commitment to think and act differently. It’s getting everyone aligned in order to bring about necessary change.

Forging true alignment can be a messy process. And it takes time. You have to go over all the micro details. You have to be vulnerable. You have to admit you may not have all the answers right away. Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone, to stop doing certain things just because you’ve always done them. Be prepared to maybe even lose people along the way. It does happen. Anyone unwilling to evolve, unable to see the vision and the future, may have to fall away in the process. None of this is the fun part. But it leads there – trust me. It’s so very worthwhile. The potential of an organization aligned on its strategy is limitless. And the results are often immeasurable.

Just ask the athletes. It’s not just about the quarterback or the wide receiver, the point guard or the forward. Each player is critical to the game – and to each other – passing, catching, and blocking so a single player’s score can benefit the entire team. These men have figured out something magical:  success for the individual only happens when the whole team wins.

Want to test your alignment IQ? You’re aligned if…

  • You’re willing to sacrifice your best for the good of the whole.
  • You’re willing to call out a colleague if they’ve stepped away from what you’ve agreed to do.
  • You’re willing to change – even if that means you’re leaving the comfort zone where you excelled as an individual.
  • You’re willing to advocate for what you’ve committed to when no one is watching.

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you’re one of the few people who understand alignment and are able to support real change.

Answer “no” to most of these questions? Time to start exercising your alignment muscles. It won’t be easy, but the results far outweigh the discomfort.