March Madness Moments: Lessons from Winning Coaches

An estimated 81 million Americans will lose productive time at work because they are involved in that uniquely American pastime known as March Madness, resulting in a loss to American businesses of around $2 billion.

Go ahead and take a break from filling out those brackets to review a few quotes from some of the most winning coachs in the NCAA. When your employees do check back in to work, you’ll be ready and motivated.

Roy Williams, head coach at UNC since 2003, spends a lot of time during the basketball season recruiting for his next crop of players. While he doesn’t love the travel that entails as he darts off between games, he does watching the young men play. But when he recruits, he’s not just looking for talent. He is looking for character.

“When I decide that a kid has the talent I am looking for, then I try to find out about his character. I once had an elementary school principal in Wichita, Kansas, tell me, ‘Coach, I wish you’d say academics is the second priority.’ ‘No ma’am,’ I said. ‘because if he’s a great player and a 4.0 student but he’s going to be a pain in the rear end, I want it to be somebody else’s rear end.’”

Coach Williams also has great advice for dealing with critics and negativity that is equally adaptable for business owners. “If the mailman stopped to kick every dog that barked at him, he’d never deliver the mail,” he said.

Down the road a bit, his rival coach Mike Krzyzewski has been head coach at Duke since 1980 and racked up more than 1,000 wins. He shares something in common with Roy in that they both believe in knowing about the people they work with and those they coach.

“A common mistake among those who work in sports is spending a disproportional amount of time on ‘x’s and o’s’ as compared to time spent learning about people,” he said.

That’s a philosophy I follow in my work as the turnaround authority. When I go to lead a company, of course I look at the books and survey the entire financial picture of the business. But I also take time to talk to employees at every level to determine what’s working right, what’s not and how to leverage their skills, knowledge and talents. The employees of a company are one of its biggest assets, and it’s my job to learn all I can about that asset.

Coach K., as he’s called, has experienced plenty of losses as well. After a humiliating 109-66 defeat to Virginia in the ACC tournament in 1983, he was at a restaurant with a few friends. One offered a toast of sorts: “Here’s to a night let’s soon forget.” Coach K. lifted his glass and said, “Here’s to a night we will never forget.”

That doesn’t mean you have to dwell on your losses. But remember them. And learn from them.

The late John Wooden was head coach at UCLA, where he won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row. He had several motivational quotes, many of which apply well to business leaders.

“A coach must never forget that he is a leader and not merely a person with authority,” is one that I keep in mind. And for their simple truth, I like, “Nothing will work unless you do,” and “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

One of my favorite quotes is from the late coaching legend Dean Smith, who coached at UNC for 36 years. “If you make every game a life and death proposition, you’re going to have problems. For one thing, you’ll be dead a lot.” I remember that in times of extreme stress to try to put things into perspective.

That’s another thing Coach Smith did quite well, as player Peter Budko once recalled. “On the occasions when we didn’t win, he would tell us there were two billion people in China who didn’t care one bit about the outcome of our game. Perspective!”

Remember that perspective in a few weeks if your bracket doesn’t turn out so well. The two billion people in China don’t care about that either.

Funny, But True: Low-Tech Security Works, High-Tech Fails

Sometimes those “smart” houses aren’t so smart. Apple fan Marcus, a homeowner in Illinois, decided to outfit his home with every gadget available that claimed to be compatible with Apple HomeKit. His home had Hud LED lightbulbs, Ecobee thermostats with sensors through the home and an August Smart Lock. He could control the lighting, temperature and locks in his house with an app on his iPad.

Marcus enjoyed being able to walk up to his front door and having it unlock for him when his phone got within a certain range. He could let his dog walker in when he was not at home. When he was home, he could enlist his trusty assistant Siri to help him by giving commands like, “Hey Siri, dim the lights.”

Excited by these new fun features, (and thousands of dollars poorer), he invited his neighbor Mike to come over and check it out.

The Apple HomeKit is great, if you take certain precautions.

Then one morning as Marcus was leaving, Mike showed up and asked if he could borrow some flour. Marcus started to get out of the car to open the front door for him, when Mike said, “I’ll let myself in.” He walked right up to the door, and called out, “Hey Siri, unlock the front door.” The door unlocked.

So, what happened? His neighbor had figured out that if he called to Siri loudly enough through the door, she would hear him through the iPad Pro sitting inside and unlock the door. It worked. Marcus has since removed the August Smart Lock.

The story reminded me of when I installed my own security system at a company I was running. We were losing a lot of merchandise to theft through the back door of the warehouse. I needed a solution fast, so I put a “camera” next to each of the 10 doors. Actually, I just drilled a hole in the wall and fed a wire through it with a battery-operated red light right next to it. The camera and the wire didn’t go anywhere—and neither did my merchandise after that.

The camera functioned as a psychological theft deterrent that scared those who considered stealing. After reducing shrinkage, I had the money to upgrade the security and improve the inventory tag system.

My method worked for me in that particular case, but I know it wouldn’t have taken long for the thieves to catch on to my fake camera system. So, I don’t recommend it. But I can’t recommend the more expensive smart home system, either.

Funny, But True: Friendly Fraud

As people began to think about end-of-the-year business expenses for the close of the 2016 tax year, I chuckle when I think about one of my most unusual expenses incurred on the job. I had to pay to get my license plate back.

It started as I was sitting at a red light in Juarez, Mexico, without a car in site for miles. All of a sudden, a motorcycle cop came roaring up and informed me I had been speeding in a school zone and had run a red light. Pretty miraculous, considering my car was at a standstill at the only red light for miles. When I didn’t say anything, he went to the back of my car, stole my license plate and rode off.

I was in Mexico to visit a factory that had a 17 percent a month turnover rate and a huge shrinkage rate. I had been appointed CEO of the factory, which in a case of irony, made switches for signals used in traffic lights.

When I told the plant manager what happened, he told me I’d have to bribe that officer $500 to get my license plate back, which I needed to cross back into the US and return the rental car. But lucky for me, the plant manager knew the cop and said he’d take care of it. What a guy, right?

I did get my plate back. I also learned that the plant manager only gave the cop $100 for it, stealing $400 from me. But that was nothing compared to what he was stealing from the company.

He had created and was paying dozens of fake employees and was getting kickbacks from his cousin, the customs agent, and his uncle, a local freight business owner. He was robbing the company into ruin.

He was helpful in one respect, however. He told me that company had 90 percent market share and the owners could raise the prices. That was one of my first orders of business. After getting rid of him, of course. And getting my plate back.

For more stories like this, read my book “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” now available as an ebook.