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Making teams work like legendary Basketball Coach Pat Summitt

Posted by: sabine-robinson


Sadly, Pat Summitt passed away in June 2016 after a courageous battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s. After 38 years as a successful basketball coach, she leaves behind a legacy of creating winning teams.

Under her leadership, the Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball team never had a losing season. Pat Summitt accrued over 1098 career wins, the most in the history of National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball. Sporting News placed her at number 11 on a list of the 50 Greatest Coaches of All Time in all sports. Pat was the only woman on the list.

Pat Summitt elicited a consistently high performance from her team under pressure, the kind that all leaders – in sports or business – crave. She created success in a sport where teamwork is paramount, and her team had the greatest respect for her.

So, what lessons in leadership and team building can managers take from this winning coach?

The vast majority of businesses are built on a group-based structure. Their future success and competitiveness very much depends on managers being able to transform these groups into well-functioning and high-performing teams.

But how to build winning teams?

Pat Summitt once said: “You can’t expect to have a successful organisation if you have the wrong people in the wrong jobs, no matter how many hours they may work. What you need to do is put people in positions that suit their natural abilities and inclinations. It’s your chief responsibility as a leader, or a manager, or CEO to know who you can delegate to and when.”

The underlying message is that in order to determine whether someone is right for a position or not, you as a manager – or coach – have to ‘know your people’. Sounds obvious?

To really understand your people, you have to dig below the surface and discover what the likely behavioural patterns and motivational needs of your team members are. Pat Summitt found that using personality profiling took the guesswork out of decoding each individual member of the team. It helped her to understand the team dynamics.

When each individual is aware of their own likely behaviours and that of their team member, this creates an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect. This will help your team to get along better and work together effectively.

Really knowing your people is key

Knowing your people will also enable you to put team members into situations where they can play to their natural strengths. It will enable you to seek out the personality types required for certain positions. You can then put the right people into the right jobs or positions. This positively affects performance and retention.

You can then tailor your motivational style to the needs of the individual to ensure that your team members remain engaged and are able to reach their full potential. Pat Summitt followed the philosophy of John Wooden, a coach at the University of California:

“I don’t treat them all the same, but I treat them all fairly.”

Developmentally, the members of a team can be at different stages. Pat Summitt set the bar high, but was prepared to invest the time and effort to nurture each person according to their needs to give them the best opportunity to reach these goals. She understood who would have the patience and mental stamina in certain situations and who would perform well under pressure.

Accepting some differences in ability and temperament within your team as a positive challenge rather than labelling them as the shortcoming of the individual or an insurmountable obstacle, creates a sense of security amongst the team. Team members feel valued and supported, and are motivated to give their best. It also builds trust in the team leader and their decisions.

Practising tough love

Of course, feedback on performance is paramount if a team is to function properly, improve and succeed. Pat Summitt was known for directly confronting any failure or shortcomings. She strove to do this honestly and sympathetically. She didn’t always get the balance right between feedback and criticism, but she tried to follow her teaching philosophy: “Great teams explain their failure; they don’t excuse it. When you explain a loss aloud, it’s no longer a tormenting mystery.”

Not receiving regular feedback can make team members question their own performance, particular when things go wrong. It opens the doors to unease, rumours and mistrust. In contrast, confronting problems openly can reduce misunderstandings and enhance teamwork.

Communicating achievable goals and setting out the pathway to get there clearly and appropriately, ensures that every member of your team knows what is expected of them and what the overall direction is. Open communication creates trust.

Pat Summitt’s leadership style is described as tough love. She invested in really getting to know every member of her team and then moulded her coaching style to suit the makeup of her team. The bar was set high but this was founded on a realistic analysis of the situation. She knew how far she could push her team without breaking them and managed to take her team with her. Her ambition was infectious.

She empowered her team to make their own independent decisions in a game situation by providing them with honest situational analysis and instilling self-belief through nurture. In return, her team respected her as a person, a decision-maker and a leader.

Every manager’s dream? Something to strive for? Certainly a valuable lesson in effective leadership and teambuilding!