Lessons from a Championship Team: What Is Your Company’s 64?

During my sophomore year of college at Colgate, my basketball team won the Patriot League Championship. For winning our league, we earned the 16th seed, and were picked to play Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Yes, that Tennessee team — coached by the legendary Pat Summitt.

Leadership Lessons in Teamwork and Aspiration

The year prior was not a championship year… by any means. We had a losing record. And like any team with a poor record, we were frustrated and worn down. I see this fatigue bubbling up with many companies at the expansion stage. And it’s hard to watch.
But something happened my sophomore year that was quite remarkable. Despite the previous year’s struggles we completely gelled as a team, and we found ourselves focused on the greater goal. Our losing record turned into an impressive winning record.
As a group, we were completely in tune with each other’s strengths and weaknesses, both on and off the court. We had captains who drove us in practices and pushed us during games to win. We played for each other. And most importantly, we had a goal of what we wanted to achieve together — we wanted to be one of the 64 teams in the NCAA tournament that year.
I wasn’t a starter that year. In fact, I think I averaged more fouls-per-minute played than points. But I had a role. My role was to play my heart out in practice — block the starters’ shots and get them to improve their fakes, push the other forwards to try to keep up with me in the sprints. My role was to give the starters a break when they were exhausted and needed to rest before getting back into the game. My role was to cheer on my teammates and be an emotional support system. My captains asked all of these things of me, and because they called out my strengths (even as a benchwarmer) and encouraged me, it was really clear to me what I could do to make our team better. And I put my heart into it. 
Okay, I know, “Great story, Devon, but what does this have to do with my expansion-stage technology company?”

The Two Things You Need if You’re Going to Succeed at the Expansion Stage

Reflecting on what made our team so remarkable that year, I think the lessons I picked up can be also applied to expansion-stage tech companies that aspire to be great. If you’re going to succeed you need two things: exceptional teamwork and crystal clear aspirations.
Just like my coaches and captains that year, executives cannot take ownership of every role. They can’t do everything to make a company successful on their own. Real leaders squeeze the strengths out of everyone on the team in order to achieve results. Team members at successful startup and expansion-stage companies need to demand the best from their coworkers at every level. They need to constantly remind each other why are they working so hard. That is the essence of teamwork. 
So on a final note, what is your company’s 64? What is the ultimate goal that everyone in your company is working toward? Identify it, make it known within your organization, and LIVE IT. You will be surprised that even your “benchwarmers” will be giving you 100% to be a part of the greatness. 
For your viewing pleasure, here is a video on the 2004 Colgate Women’s Basketball team:

You might also like ...
Predictable Pitfalls of Founders and How to Avoid Them
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in People + Strategy magazine here. We have romanticized founders having their “eureka” moments, writing their...
by Alisa Cohn
Startup Strategy
The Simple Secret to Getting Ahead in Tech
A couple of weeks ago, I read a fantastic article in the Wall Street Journal about Leyla Seka’s rise through...
by George Roberts
Startup Strategy
Using Empathy to Improve the Customer Journey
Empathy is key to improving the customer journey, but to develop it we need to get as close as we...
by OpenView