Coach K

Mike Krzyzewski, or Coach K, has been Duke men’s basketball coach since 1980. He is the winningest college basketball coach ever and has the most national championships by a current coach and won four national championships.

Seemingly it is easy for successful basketball coaches to get into business management speaking and writing. They are effectively managers; they are not in control of the outcome of games, as their players perform all of the action. Instead they prepare them, gameplan against their opponent, identify and address weaknesses and during the game, make substitutions and call time-outs to provide feedback. As a fan, you can see drama play out on television in the span of a few hours. The fact that basketball coaches are visible and often wear suits also helps bridge the transition into business. 

It’s not convincing that successful basketball coaches would be successful in other fields. Would they be adept at business or blue-collar work or as a car salesman? Probably not. They have a specialized interest and have developed a skill-set that is appropriate for basketball, not plumbing or computer software. With those caveats aside, the ups-and-downs within basketball are interesting to witness. Lessons learned from those trials are beneficial. While a basketball coach seems to provide a cheap form of advice on business, excellence in any field should be studied, particularly one where a supporting cast will dictate success.

As a lifelong Duke fan, it is natural to look to Coach K for guidance. As expected, most of his books are similar in content. Below are excerpts from my reading of the following:

The Patriot Way

Another part of seeking and maintaining excellence is always surrounding yourself with others who have high personal standards. 

The above advice sounds like one should only hang out with teetotalers. Also, the excerpt seems to imply that one should avoid people that aren’t born/raised with high standards either. 

From experience, those that don’t have drive or aren’t raised with integrity are difficult team members. Contrary to that statement,  those that are funny and gregarious are people I am drawn to. The problem is that those same attractive people can be lazy, have lower standards, and know that others will get them out of a pinch at the end of the day. This affliction is particularly the case the higher that one goes in academia or the business world. The people you find there are a) smart, Type-A individuals, with (sometimes impossibly) high standards or b) also smart people but that have figured out how to manipulate people to get what they want, doing the minimum to get by while achieving “success.” This second group of people are talented and do have a lot to offer individually but can tend to be dead-weight on teams. 

Someone that is lazy and lets others do incrementally more work for them as a result, are effectively over-using the resources at their disposal. 

There are people that are predisposed to having low standards and if one chooses to associate with them, life will be difficult. However, there may be people that do not have high-standards…yet. These are people that were never taught that high-standards are beneficial for everyone around them and subsequently benefit them as well. It is your duty to teach these people practices to set high standards if they can be coached to do so. 

An example comes from the New England Patriots. The Patriots have high-standards, teach those standards to those who will be receptive, and quickly discard those who do not. Bill Bellichick (another coach) went to nine SuperBowls in 18 years. The standard of success that the Patriots created was second-to-none. Players, coaches and staff knew to be prepared for practices and that there would be little margin for error on breaking any of their rules. 

The Patriots have incorporated troubled yet talented people with “low-standards.” Some cases have been successful. In 2004, Corey Dillon was traded to the Patriots from the Bengals. He left the Bengals as their all-time leading rusher and had at one time broken Walter Payton’s single-game rushing record. He also had plenty of legal trouble leaving many red flags about his character. Adopting the Patriots standards, he went on to have three productive years with the Patriots having his best rushing season in 2004 and scoring 37 rushing touchdowns.

Another troubled yet talented star was Randy Moss. No one could deny his massive talent. Yet, at the time, Moss was known as cancer on a football team, going to the Raiders with little success after eight years with the Vikings. True generational talent does not become a journeyman unless they are troublesome. The Patriots traded for him for little and folded him into their system of high standards. In the next three seasons, he had over 1,000 receiving yards each and set an NFL record in 2007 with 23 TD catches. 

The Patriots also signed a few projects that did not pan out. Josh Gordon played six games. Albert Haynesworth played six games. Chad Johnson started three games. Antonio Brown played one game. It should be clear that adhering to low football team standards on the Patriots is not tolerated. Those trades do not mention players that were drafted by the Patriots but traded away because they did not live up to the Patriot-Way (Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, and Deion Branch).

Losing With Pocket Aces

The only problem would be if you allow a loss or a failure to change your standards.

The white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland says: ”Don’t just do something. Stand There.” 

Used in our culture, the saying means to not be active for the sake of being active. Do not fear missing out. 

It is hard to stand there. 

The above excerpt speaks to loss or failure. Before that act of commission, I first want to touch on omission; watching fat pitch after fat pitch cross the plate and not swinging. At the time, one didn’t know it was a fat pitch. In investing, one does not know what the future will bring. One wants to be sure; if the conditions are not right, one should lay off. Not doing anything seems wrong after a while.

For me, this past decade has been largely about laying off, while others around me have been actively swinging and doing well. The deals that were not done tend to be remembered longer than the deals that were done; that is just the way it is. Does not doing those deals mean that one is doing it all wrong and needs to reassess their criteria going forward? Yes and no. “Yes”, one wants to make sure that one is simply not missing something in their decision-making matrix. “No” because if one does not see a green light using their decision-making process, then they should not go. 

There are also times where one swings and failure does occur. Maybe that investment decision does not pan out. Maybe the new job seems less attractive than it did at first. Possibly the rationale for the action is not as sound as it seemed. Failure should be learned from, however, it does not mean that one should quit and it certainly does not mean that one should automatically change their approach. In life, sometimes a good bet just doesn’t play out. At times your pocket aces get beat by three 2’s. It still does not mean that one shouldn’t bet heavily when they think the odds are in their favor.

The excerpt is really about having discipline and keeping at a goal without bending standards, even if the world is changing or it seems like “winning” is next to impossible. 

Low On Self-Esteem

With accomplishment comes confidence and with confidence comes belief. It has to be in that order. 

Self esteem is considered good these days.

But is it really? Rabbi Daniel Lapin, in his book “Thou Shall Prosper,” does not think so. Self-esteem is not based on performance. The problem with self-esteem is that one falls into the fake-it-until-you-make-it mentality. A person with high self-esteem has a belief in themselves without ever doing anything. They are confident though they can’t point to any tangible reason why they are confident.

Have you ever been around people with high self-esteem that are failures in life? It is so aggravating! At first, the person seems to have it all figured out. Once beneath the surface though, their whole world view is off. It is as if the world owes it to them to deliver success. They have lots of “ideas” but never really do anything with them. Worst of all, I have noticed that people with unwarranted high self-esteem tend to surround themselves with other people that are smug yet don’t really do anything either. They spend all of their time hanging out with each other and talking about how great they are.

Humility is what a novice needs. If one has not done anything, that is okay, but they need to know that they don’t know the answers yet. Pursuing things and either failing or succeeding brings about experience. A person is truly confident when they accomplish something. If they can accomplish many things, then they are even more confident. If one becomes confident in multiple areas, they start to believe in themselves. 

If a person wants belief-building experience, they need an environment where accomplishment occurs. 

Hold or Fold?

be sure that you get on the right bus.

More than anything, picking the right industry and the right organization can set yourself up for success. Your effort. Your talent. Your education. They are all meaningless if you pick the wrong sector and the wrong team. 

Owning a restaurant selling pizza with two dozen local competitors with a low-margin product is bad. Being in a high-margin business with limited competition is good. 

Selling typewriters when computers were being adopted was bad. Selling computers at that time was good.

Working for a small established company content with keeping their work levels the same is bad. Being a part of a growing active organization is good. 

A decent project architect, I was near the height of my profession given my age and experience. My career switched to commercial real estate. My first job in that field was as an entry-level analyst as I was starting over again. My first salary in commercial real estate was 50% higher than what was left as a project architect. The only change was the industry. Architects work hard and their schooling is rigorous. However, architecture, while socially respected, is a low-margin industry. A career in commercial real estate is hard and mentally taxing as well but it is in a high-margin industry which is reflected in the pay scale. The world’s greatest architect will not make as much as a mediocre commercial real estate professional. 

The same goes for your team. Take stock of those around you in battle. Are they capable or not? Can they be capable? Are you surrounded by effective people or the three stooges? You could be in a business where golden eggs are laid. If the people around you keep breaking eggs, then is your team productive?

I am reminded of something that I have been telling myself for a decade. “Know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em.” Sometimes, I find myself looking around and figuring out whether I am playing with a winnable hand or a losing one. 

If one is dealt a losing hand, it is best to fold and quickly move onto the next hand.

If the hand dealt is not great but winnable, then it may be good to play it out at least for a little while and see how the situation evolves.

Sometimes, the hand is a total winner and, not only are those cases good, but the player should double down on their bets.

Most hands are losers or, at best, have an outside chance of being winnable. Making that distinction about the value of a hand dealt is difficult. No one wants to fold every hand. But sometimes trying your hardest to make a poor hand better is a lesson in futility. 

Coach K uses the bus metaphor in a slightly different way. In his example, the “bus” is already vetted and selected (if on the Duke basketball team, one is probably on a good bus).

The unit is trying to accomplish a goal. They have decided how they are going to accomplish this goal. They will carry out those actions as a cohesive team. If someone a) does not agree with the goal b) does not agree on how to achieve that goal or c) cannot be a cohesive member of the team to do so, then that person is not on the bus.

This tendency of remaining off the bus creeps in a lot when working with teams. Many team members have different thoughts on how to achieve a goal or address a problem. Within the board room, conflict is a good thing as all ideas and arguments should be fleshed out in order to make a decision about a path forward. However, once a decision is made, the entire team should be supportive of that direction and carry out the task as agreed on. It does not mean that every team member necessarily likes the path forward, but in order for the team to be effective, that direction must receive 100% of everyone’s effort. Sabotaging a direction that a team member does not like is not being helpful to the team. That person is not on the bus.

In your life, who has high standards and who has low standards? Who can be taught to have high standards? Who do you know that is loudly failing and who is quietly winning? Are you swinging at chances too much or not enough? Does your job or teammates lead you to effortless success or is it a struggle to stay above water?