Like many people, I’m a big fan of March Madness. And every year, the experience reminds me of some important lessons that sales managers can learn from great basketball coaches.
The 2016 NCAA tourney, for example, featured the exploits of the Villanova Wildcats. Along with the rest of America, I was thrilled by the last-second three-point shot that won them the championship. Their achievement impressed me so much that I decided to study up on the team coach, Jay Wright.
I learned that when Wright does recruiting, he looks for players who are both hungry and humble, and he uses variations on the motto 'stay humble, stay hungry' as part of this coaching strategy.
I think all of us sales managers get the hungry part. We all want players on our team who are driven to win and motivated to achieve great things.
But what about humble? That struck me as odd. I would have thought Wright would look for players who were perhaps bold and brash, whose self-confidence could carry them through tough times. But Wright has great insight. He says that if a player does not have humility, they won’t be coachable. And what good is a player who isn’t coachable?
Sales managers are increasingly telling me that they are starting to pay more attention to coachability when they look for new hires—mostly because they’re tired of dealing with sales reps who refuse to listen to advice. I think that is a wise move. Maybe we all need more humble players on our teams.
I also picked up some great ideas from Wooden, the autobiography of John Wooden (legendary UCLA basketball coach). One story he tells involves himself and Bill Walton, the team’s All-American star player. At the time, Coach Wooden had a rule banning facial hair for players on UCLA’s team. After a 10-day break, Walton came to practice with a beard. Coach Wooden asked him if he was forgetting something.
Walton: “Coach, if you mean the beard, I think I should be allowed to wear it. It’s my right.”
Wooden: “Do you believe in that strongly, Bill?”
Walton: “Yes, coach, I do. Very much.”
Wooden: “Bill, I have great respect for individuals who stand up for those things in which they believe. I really do. And the team is going to miss you.”
Bill went into the locker room and shaved off his beard. Wooden writes, “There were no hard feelings... I wasn’t angry and Walton wasn’t mad at me. He understood that the choice was between his own desires and the good of the team. I think if I had given in to him I would have lost control not only of Bill but of his teammates.”
To me, the most important lesson from this story is that the team had standards that were equally enforced no matter the status of the player. This same equality of treatment doesn’t seem as common in sales teams. Admit it — isn’t there someone, a star producer, that you allow to skip some rules, not follow the same standards you impose on the rest of your team? You have to be careful. As Wooden knew, it’s really easy to turn a rock star into a prima donna, someone whose attitude and sense of entitlement can sour a team.
If you’re looking for some new ideas to spark growth on your sales team, you can do worse than to follow the example of these two great basketball coaches. Focus more on coachability, as Wright emphasises, and have the courage to enforce standards equally across your team just like Wooden. These two steps alone can go a long way towards improving performance on your team.
By Kevin F. Davis, author of "The Sales Manager's Guide to Greatness: 10 Essential Strategies for Leading Your Team to the Top". Kevin is the founder and president of TopLine Leadership, Inc. which provides customized sales management development programs and services.