Business and Leadership Lessons We Can Learn from March Madness

Growing up, almost every kid dreams of playing for their favorite childhood team and winning a National Championship. However, most kids don’t get to live out those dream… unless your are Ryan Achidiacono, who grew up eating, breathing and sleeping Villanova Wildcat basketball and then led his team last night (Monday, April 4, 2016) to the NCAA Division I National Championship and assisted the buzzer beating three-pointer that secure the championship for his team.

You wouldn’t believe it, but several business and leadership lessons can be learned from this year’s March Madness tournament.

Here are my 10 business and leadership lessons for small business owners (in no particular order):

#1. Know Your Competition

In order to get to the final four you have to know everything you can about the competition, maybe more than they know about themselves. Every team is different, so, with each game you play, a new game plan has to be implemented. There will be different defensive strategies, different offensive tactics, and even different players depending on how the opponent matches up. It’s really the same thing in business. For instance, when your sales team is competing against another company, you have to figure out their weakness and use it to your advantage. If the competition has similar pricing maybe you can beat them on service. It’s just as important to scout your competition in business as it is in basketball. No matter what the game, it’s much harder to win if you don’t know who you are playing against. Key takeaway: Know what your competition is doing.

#2. Build a Winning Culture

Building a lasting culture that drive the right behaviors, attitudes and values are possibly even more important than the scoreboard at the end of the game. When you look at a great basketball team, chances are that they’ve been great for a while. But, why is that? Well, for starters, at the center of their success is a culture ingrained so deep it permeates to the coaches, players, and fans of the schools.

Butler University is an excellent example. Like most small businesses competing against the large corporate businesses, Butler is a David among Goliath’s in the NCAA. However, year after year they continue to have success. But how?

Their culture of success has been shaped around core values that are instilled in each and every player. A business can be ran the same way.

  1.      Humility – Those who humble themselves will be exalted
  2.      Passion – Do not be lukewarm, commit to excellence
  3.      Unity – Do not divide our house, team first
  4.      Servanthood – Make teammates better, lead by giving
  5.      Thankfulness – Learn from every circumstance

In your small business, what do you value?

Do you live your values or are they just a few words in the “About Us” section of your website? If you want to lead a winning business, invest in building a culture dedicated to success. Infuse your core values into every aspect of your business from the messaging on your site to your customer experience. Often times, what your company stands for will win the popular vote over cheaper prices. Don’t believe me? Just look at Apple and what that company represents and their profit margin. It’s insane! …or even Nike. Same situation. Great company values and huge profit margin year after year.

#3. Recruit the RIGHT Teammates

You would think that talent wins championships. However, that’s not entirely true. Teammates do.

“I haven’t always recruited for the best talent. I’ve taken a few guys who would fit for different reasons. Leadership. Toughness.” – Tom Izzo

If you look at the best teams throughout history, they will all have one thing in common… team chemistry. In basketball, just like in your small business, everyone needs to know what role they play and how their role leads to success. Success only happens when you’re zeroed in on what you do well as a team, as well as the strengths of each and every player on the roster is understood and valued. There’s nothing worse than a goalie trying to tell the quarterback how to throw the ball.

#4. Train to WIN

Imagine you’re the head coach of a college team and entered the NCAA tournament having never practiced a single day. How do you think your team fair in the tourney? Would you make it to the final four? Of course not. You probably wouldn’t even make it out of the first round as you would be facing teams that have been practicing and preparing all year long.

The greatest coaches in NCAA history put an emphasis on “training” for success vs. “trying” for success. It’s not enough to just to show up and play. The same lesson applies to small business ownership.

Many games are won or lost long before tip-off. “Champion” small business owners commit to learning and educating themselves everyday (kind of like practices in basketball). They are committed to doing whatever it takes to develop into better leaders and grow their company to become even more successful. These prepared “champion” business owners will be the ones who have put in the hard work in practice, scouted the opposition, seized the opportunity before them, and are better equipped to work together as a team to execute the right plays and ensure they lead their team to a victory.

A great way to ensure you are prepared for your next game is to attend your local SBDC’s business education classes. They offer a variety of classes at several locations throughout the state. Professional development is an important weapon for small business owners as it keeps them sharp and on top of current business trends (especially in the marketing area).

#5. Master the Basics (over and over again)

There’s no other explanation for Villanova’s Kris Jenkins and his buzzer beating three-point shot other than him being so comfortable shooting the ball and having the confidence in his shot. It’s clear that he has mastered the basics of shooting and has kept his skills sharp. When Kris was a child, his mother wouldn’t let him shoot outside the paint until he was in almost middle school. This allowed him to master shooting and become extremely accurate and confident in his shots, which was evident in Monday night’s Championship game. Last year, both Duke and Wisconsin perfected the pick and roll, pick and pop and all the refinements of the classic two man game. They used it so many different ways in the game?  So basic and yet so hard to master with such precision and execution excellence.  Great companies never lose sight of refining the basics either – great product simplicity, keeping the customer as the center of all work, sticking to core competencies versus reaching too far… I could go on and on. Fairly recently, KFC announced that they too were returning to the basics back to the Colonel Sanders days. Customers were complaining that their food didn’t taste the same as it did 10 years ago and their brand was starting to fade. So, with a recently launched Colonel Sanders marketing campaign (as I’m sure you have probably seen) and a refinement of their chicken recipe to mimic a much older recipe, KFC will be mastering the basics all over again. Almost a year ago, the shoemaker Crocs went through a similar campaign to “return to the basics.” They concluded that their company has strayed too far from their core values. There are so many other examples like this across most industries. Key takeaway: It’s never a bad idea to sharpen some of the simplest techniques and skills.

#6. Half Time Adjustments

It happens to everybody… you prepare and prepare and things don’t quite go as planned. In basketball, the ability to make half time adjustments is crucial and leads to success. You have to be able to react quickly and adapt on the fly. The same scenario is true in business. If the plays you’re calling for your team are not working, you have to make a change… and fairly quick. And if that doesn’t work, change again, and keep changing until you get it right. A lot of businesses struggle with change and get stuck in the way they’ve always done things. Sometimes a fresh approach is all you need to secure that victory.

#7. Underdogs Win

From the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders to the Syracuse Orange, every year, a Cinderella team upsets one of the legacy teams. When your company is up against a big competitor, this reminder can be inspirational and encourage your employees to bring their A-game, no matter what the odds. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

#8 Fun Matters

I’ve worked for many bosses who claim that fun doesn’t work. However, just like in basketball, if you don’t love what you do, you won’t prepare and do you best when it counts.

When you let people enjoy the things they love (as it falls within their job description, of course) and trust them to do the right thing, more times than not, it pays off for the company. When people love what they do and love the team they work with, loyalty it built. When employees start feeling committed to the business and enjoy coming to work, there’s no measure for the amount of success that can follow.

March Madness is a great way to bring employees together believe it or not. Watching basketball can be fun. It’s fun to [attempt to] predict the winner and it’s fun to talk a little trash and root for your favorite team with your co-workers. Last year, in 2015, the Georgia Bulldogs made it to “the Big Dance” and played Michigan State the first round. Instead of banning the game from being on and forcing employees to stick to their assigned tasks, our State Director turned the game on in the auditorium for anyone to stop in and watch parts of the game. Not only were we supporting the university in which we worked for, but it also created a little workplace morale and enjoyment of our jobs. Key takeaway: A little fun can increase productivity and commitment to the job.

#9. Never Quit

For the teams who made it, the NCAA tournament is a chance to forget their season records and to keep their eyes on the prize. It’s a blank slate where anyone can win title of “National Champions.” Use #10 seed Syracuse as an example of “keeping your eye on the prize.” Only a handful of people predicted them to come out on top against Gonzaga University (a pretty strong basketball school) in the third round of the tournament. But they did. They made it all the way to the Final Four. To get to the Final Four, though, they had to beat the University of Virginia, who was seeded #1. After falling behind 54-39 to Virginia with 9:32 left in the game, Syracuse “kept their eye on the prize” and went on a 25-4 point run, which eventually led them to a win and a spot in the Final Four. The same lessons and motivations can be applied to small businesses. Shake off previous losses or setbacks and use every game (or day) to start again, making progress towards your goal. Using all of the these lessons combined and working toward your next goal is all that counts. Even if one campaign or one account proposal fell short, it’s time to reset and focus on your next big “game.”

#10. Be True to Your Game

As you watch the endless replays of the last 10 seconds of the Villanova and North Carolina Championship game, take time to appreciate the different styles of every team throughout the tournament. Some will be run and gun fast paced offensively (Villanova), some will slow it down and get the ball to their post players (North Carolina). One team, Gonzaga, has made their living and success in past tournaments from behind the three-point line. Regardless of which team you consider, they all have something in common… they are true to their own styles.

Your small business not only has a style and identity, but believe it or not, it’s your secret weapon. You know who you are and which type of customers you are after. When you are true to your game it gives you the best shot to attract the right fans and teammates, supercharging your business and creating a much higher conversion rate because your target is more defined.

When it comes to running a small business, ensuring you have the right vision and a winning culture are catalysts to your success. Then, when you’re able to build onto that success with the right people, running the right plays, and staying true to your company’s vision and values, that’s when the magic happens.

What are some of your best lessons from the basketball court or the small business arena? Let us know!


  • http://www.hatchbuck.com/blog/small-business-leadership-5-lessons-basketball-court/
  • http://blogs.cisco.com/cloud/5-key-business-lessons-from-national-championship-game
  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mat-ishbia-/6-business-lessons-from-march-madness_b_6969502.html
  • https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/226143

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