Why True Character is Revealed When You Win Over & Over Again, with Don Yaeger.

Episode 282

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Don Yaeger has been as our incredible guest in Episodes 2 and 160. He is also one of Stephen Woessner’s (host of Onward Nation) most influential mentors — and someone who keeps him on the straight and narrow both professionally and in life. Don is the author of over two dozen books, a 9-time New York Times bestselling author (soon to be 10) a highly sought after, nationally acclaimed professional speaker, and one of the world’s leading authorities on what makes the great teams great — and — how to put their proven practices into application inside any organization — to propel a team to new levels of achievement.


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Why did you write “Great Teams”?

Don was challenged to study this topic — and he talks all about going on the road and talking to all the great team leaders in the episode.

What was the process like?

Don talks about defining what a great team is — and — choosing who to study.

What are the parallels from Great Sports Teams and Great Business Teams?

It’s your team that is going to make or break your business.

What are the four essential pillars teams use to create the right culture?

  1. Target purpose
  2. Effective management
  3. Activating efficiency
  4. Mutual direction

How are Great Teams able to stay relevant?

  1. Talent comes and goes — Great Teams focus on culture.
  2. The grit — and the glue

Why is leadership the core of the Great Team?

Leadership has to inspire others — trust allows you the opportunity to do something special.

How best to connect with Don:


This is Onward Nation. Episode 282.

Get ready to find your recipe for success from America’s top business owners, here at Onward Nation with your host, Stephen Woessner.

Stephen: Good morning Onward Nation. I’m Stephen Woessner. In today’s episode is going to be different from any other. In fact, today we’re doing something that has never been done before on this show. We have the unprecedented opportunity to spend time and learn from Don Yaeger for a third time. Many of you know Don as our incredible guest in episodes two and 160. He’s also one of my most influential mentors and someone who keeps me on the straight and narrow, both professionally and in life. Don is the author of over two dozen books. A nine time New York Times Best Selling author, soon to be ten by the way. I highly sought after, nationally acclaimed professional speaker in one of the worlds leading authorities on what makes the great teams a great and how to put their proven practices into application inside any organization to propel a team to new levels of achievement. So without further ado, welcome back for a third time to Onward Nation, Don.

Don: Hey thanks, Stephen. I appreciate it and gosh, you said that 282 with some amazing passion. I like it, passions important.

Stephen: Well, and you’ve taught me many great lessons along the way, brother. I’m so excited to have you hear and Onward Nation, I encourage you to go back and listen to episodes two and 160 to learn more about don and his success as a business owner. But for today, we’re going to focus our conversation around Don’s latest book entitled, Great Teams Sixteen Things High Performing Organizations Do Differently. But, before we do that, I want to share, just in the interest of full transparency, I do not have any financial relationship with Don. Don is my mentor. He is not sponsoring us to promote his book. There are no commissions on book sales. He’s not buying access to our emailing list. Instead, I invited Don back for this third interview so he could take us deep inside this incredible book to share some of his best insights regarding the impressive research he complied that took years to do. So we can all learn from this knowledge and wisdom and apply these great lessons into our business.

So Don, start us off by taking us behind the scenes. Help us understand your why, which I know is really powerful here. Help us understand your why for writing this great book.

Don: Thanks Stephen, yeah. I will tell you, the real key, for me was, as some of your listeners will know and as you know, because you’ve actually been there when I’ve done it several times, I retired from Sports Illustrated eight years ago and when I did so, a big piece of my life shifted to speaking to audiences around the world about the habits of individual high performance. What are some of the things that great winners do that their competitors don’t, their teammates don’t. And in that, that became this great speech that I love to give about lessons I learned from Walter Payton and John Wooden and Michael Jordan, and people I’ve had the chance to work with.

During one event, several years ago, I was speaking at Microsoft and there was a man named Erick Marorano there who hires me regularly to speak to his team and to his clients and one day he grabbed me and he pulled me aside. He said, we love this discussion about individual high performance. What drives people individually to special things. But we have a bigger questions, which is why can some teams do what others don’t? Why are some teams inherently more successful than other? And I loved it. I loved the discussion. I thought it was a great natural extension of what I already doing. So I took the next five years and every time I was on the road, I would squeeze in an extra day where I would go sit down with these great team builders, the best in our country today to sit down and ask them, “What were you able to do? What were the habits you put into play that made your team different than others”?

And so this why was really more of a challenge. It was a challenge from a colleague and a friend to study something that … Its funny, we all recognize great teams when we see them. When you watch them doing things, you know greatness when it’s before you. But what’s the backstory and that’s what this book became. What are the habits of these high performing teams? My why was really driven by this challenge and I’ve loved it. I’ve actually, I own a couple small businesses in Tallahassee, Florida, where I live. I have put into play everyone of these lessons as I’m learning them and it’s changed the dynamic of the organizations I lead. So I hope it will, for those who read the book as well.

Stephen: This is so fantastic. So let’s take the five years and go a little bit deeper there so that Onward Nation can really get the full context. The depth of this body of work that really made this book possible. Because five years, great coaches, champions of our generation all across the country. So take us deeper into your process here.

Don: So one of the first things that I did was I sat down to define what I thought of was a great team, so that if I was going to … I didn’t want there a lot of, as John Wooden used to say, a lot of people can win once, true character is revealed when you’re able to do it over and over again. What I looked for, but I also recognized that if I was using sports as my general, as my playground, my study pool, it’s difficult, it’s almost impossible actually, to win annually in sports on a consistent basis because the way the entire model is established. The better you are in one year, the lower your draft pick the next year. So you don’t really have completely access to the same talent. The worst teams get the opportunity for the best talent. So to stay actively engaged. To stay winning, it was really about who you brought in rather than the idea that you had the opportunity to bring the best in every year.

And so, I literally, my first piece of this was to decide what I thought of as great. And then a realized there are a lot of sports that people are riveted to and pay a lot of attention to, but I wanted to study greatness across the board, so I studied the women’s volleyball team at Penn State, where Russ Rose has one multiple national champions. I went and sat down with the women’s soccer time at North Carolina where Anson Dorrance has won 21 national titles. I say down with the women’s volley ball team of Misty May Trainer and Kerri Walsh Jennings. Those are two women, that over the course of a 12 years won everything and they did so while one of them, during that window time, one of them gave birth to two children and another actually tore her achilles while dancing with the stars.

So what I wanted was to understand how does even a small team, how do you stay locked at the hip? How do you not develop jealousies? How do you remain consistently competitive and that’s one of the great challenges for almost all of us. So I started there, looking at great champions and then I asked for permission to study. Let me get with you, let me ask you question, let me dig deeper into what allow you to be successful and I will tell you, no one I reached out to said no because the one thing I learned really early, is the great ones are always in study of other great ones.

I had an interview a couple years ago with Nick Saban, the head coach of Alabama football, and I get into his office and we start in this conversation. I ask him a couple questions and each time I asked him a question, he flipped it back on me. He said, did you ask that question of John Wooden. Yes sir, I did. What did he say? Did you ask that question of Mike Krzyzewski at Duke? Yes sir I did. What did he say? So I realized what he was doing, he was farming information from me, which is one of the great things. The great ones are in the study of other great ones at all times.

Stephen: That is so awesome. I could only imagine what it would have been like to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation between you can coach. One of the things about this great, great book that is just so impressive, is aside from the fact that this is compendium of really wonderful knowledge and expertise. I mean, the books not even out yet and has been endorsed by, well today it actually comes out, the day that we’re airing this interview, July 19th, but it has been endorsed by so many great champions and leaders and one of those is GJ Hart, CEO of California Pizza Kitchen, and I love what he said about your book. He said, “there are so many parallels between building a great sports team and building a corporate one, not the least of which is great culture”. So let’s take that lesson a little bit deeper. What are some of the parallels, Don, between great sports teams and then teams in business.

Don: Absolutely, I love it. So again, you’re business leader, you’re an entrepreneur, whatever it is, like a coach in an athletic sporting team, you’re judged by how you do. So there’s an external view of you that looks at how you perform. A little deeper, you recruit talent because you’re not actually playing the game in a lot of these cases, it’s your team that’s going to play the game. It’s your team that’s actually going to define whether or not you are able to be successful or not, and so you need to recruit the right talent.

As I said, you will not always be the one on the court and in mostly sporting arrangements, they’re not either. All it takes is one bad apple. You could have an amazing culture among a group of five to seven employees, you bring in the wrong person, you bring in one, the culture of your organization changes every time you add or subtract somebody from the team, and you bring in the wrong person. You bring in somebody that becomes cancerous within your team and you can loose the team really quickly. All of these are truism in sports and all of them are true in business as well.

Stephen: So fantastic. And as I got a chance to preview the book in order to prepare for conversation this morning, I saw that one of your discoveries in your research were, you described them as the four essential pillars that great teams used to create this right culture that you just described. So tell us about the four pillars and how they set up a great team and how they create team, this distinction from one that’s really great from one that just simply performs well.

Don: Sure. The first and most important pillar, and actually habit of these great teams, this came up over and over again, everywhere I interviewed. Is that the great teams target purpose. They understand that you have to have a connection to you, you have to know who you’re in service of and you have to know why what you do matters. But it can’t just end at you, the leader, it has to flow throughout your organization. So great teams know how to make that why evident to their team. In that situation, I tell a story often about Mike Krzyzewski, the coach at Duke, who became the head men’s basketball coach of our Olympic program.

Our Olympic team was the dream team in 92, right? It dominated the Olympics but a mere decade later, they finished sixth in the world. How often does that happen? You’re best in whatever your class is and it doesn’t take very long for you to get a little cocky. For you to maybe not put in the preparation that you did to get there. Mike Ditka once said, on your way to the top, it’s all about we, and once you get there, it’s all about me. If you’re going to try to keep a team locked into what’s going to make them special long term. They got to be connected to their purpose collectively. And so that’s pillar one.

The second pillar of any great team is effective management. They’re always developing great leaders who are then recruiting to their culture. They’re not necessarily recruiting the best talent, right. They’re recruiting to the culture of the organization. Those leaders create a framework that makes depth possible, then they have a roadmap for success. They know where they’re going and success for them is not defined by profit, loss. Success is defined by are we meeting our mission? Are we doing what we’re … are we staying true to what we said what we’re coming together for? They promote comradery. They believe that comradery is an important piece of any organization.

But the truth is, and this kind of gets into pillar three, which is they’re looking for efficiency. They’re trying to figure out how do we make our organization more efficient and the first habit within this pillar is actually one that plays off of the promotion of comradery and that’s they manage this function. Any time you have a group of very successful people on a team, this function is real, it happens. Strong personalities, friction, all those things come into play. The great teams shorten the cycle of dysfunction by addressing it, by knowing that it’s coming, and it not being shocked when it gets there. Mentoring culture, there’s so many of these habits that play into activating efficiency.

And the last piece of it is that the great teams have a mutual direction. So they start with a target of purpose, they build great management leadership, they’re efficient in the ways that they do it and they have a sense of mutual direction that they’re driving to that makes the team come together. And if you take the first four letters of each one of those pillars, it adds up to team.

Stephen: This is so great and I wish I could remember, because you shared the story, I just can’t remember the two participants, the two players in the story, it’s escaping me but on the comradery piece, you told me about two players who were so intensely competitive to the point where they came to almost [inaudible 00:16:00]. It may have been with a duke Championship team, where they-

Don: It’s probably Hurley and Christian Laettner.

Stephen: Yes.

Don: Two guys who both wanted to win but who just had different styles in the way drove themselves personally and they didn’t like the way the other one, Christian Laettner was that guy who was always first to practice, always early, he wanted to be taped and ready 30 minutes before anybody else was supposed to be there. And he thought that anyone else wanted to be great should do the same thing as him. Which, is really true. How many of us think that if you want to be successful, you should want to do things exactly as I do them.

And Bobby Hurley on the other hand said, look I spend so much energy on the court, I am so mentally … I need to slow down before I get there. I need to make sure I put myself in the right frame when my mindset needs to be competitively juiced, I need to make sure I’m ready for that. One time during a game, Bobby Hurley threw a basketball at Christian Latner’s face and they would scream at each other regularly. Again, how often does that happen in our offices where we have people who are competitively wired differently and the next thing you know, often we as leaders, many leaders, please lord, let me come to work today and not have them fighting. We cover our eyes, we close our ears, we do whatever it teaks and hope it goes away.

The truth is, the great leaders address that really quickly. As this was blowing up, as this team was becoming fractured around those two individuals, the head coach Mike Krzyzewski actually pulls the two of them in, in the same room. He says, I get it, you guys don’t like each other, and I’m not asking you to. I’m not asking you to hang out with each other, but I am asking you to respect each other and respect the fact that each one of you want the same thing. And if sitting here today, we discover that we don’t want the same thing, then that’s cool, lets just go lose. You’re talking to two guys who want to win and so they realized, man this is our chance, we better clean this up, and in that conversation, they went to work cleaning up their relationship and it allowed them to win back to back national championships.

Stephen: That is so impressive. That really dove tails nicely into this study that you have applied to great teams and how they remain competitively relevant consistently, for longer periods. So what is the secret there? What are the attributes? How are hey able to remain relevant for long periods of time while the others tend to cycle up and down and never achieve that?

Don: So first and foremost, the great teams are focused, not on individual talents, because talent comes and goes, right? They’re not focused on special defenses and amazing offenses because all that stuff comes and goes as well. What they’re focused on is culture, and let’s define culture. Culture’s that squishy word that a lot of people … culture to me is, it is the values and the language that you speak within your team and it’s the language that says, here’s what we value. You want to know what your culture is in your team? Sit down and answer these three questions. What do we value? What do we talk about in our conversations? Secondly, what will get you fired because that tells you where the line is drawn. And thirdly, what happens if there’s a great reward out there but I might have to step over the line a little bit in order to get there. Because that, by the way, shifts the line.

Now suddenly, I tell the story often during my speeches, I remember as young reporter, being assigned a story and going into the office so Enron many years ago in Houston, Texas. And I walked in and they were flying high at the time. They were one of America’s, they were one of the hottest companies in the country and you walked into their offices and plastered to the wall, right behind the receptionist as you’re walking in the office, we’re the corporate values of Enron, and number on was integrity. So they declared their value. They said, here’s what our culture is, integrity. Integrity, everyone says that, but the second cheating made a difference between winning and losing for them, they cheated. So integrity meant nothing to them. That was not a cultural value.

So you have to ask yourself, what do I reward? What do we celebrate in our organization? And by that, what do you get pay raise for, what do you get a pat on the back for? Is it being supportive of somebody else because if that’s what you say, we want people who are … then you have to, as a leader, have to step out and pat that person on the back, you have to make sure that you celebrate daily victories of your culture. You need to look for those. And secondly, you need to ask yourself, what will you get you fired in this culture? And that will tell you where the line is drawn. And then third, you need to ask what would happen if we cheat. And there are some companies, sadly, that seem to be really, really good, that everything sounds great, but the opportunity. Let’s use a sporting analogy as a collegiate athletics team. And that one player would put us over the top, what do we got to do to get the player. Let’s hold our nose and do it. Well, that becomes your culture at that stage.

Stephen: So these are, would it be fair to say this, that these are not only on the positive side, these are your culture building questions that you can ask yourselves, your leadership team and create your culture from them. But I think I’m also hearing you say that these are kind of Litmus test questions too to kind of sniff out, sort of sniff test to find out if there are problems in the organization already that need to be proactively corrected. Would that be fair?

Don: Absolutely. The culture is right there at the very top but what allows this team … the second two things that are really powerful is the grit and glue of your team. Grit is your ability to manage adversity, your ability to … do you maintain a strong face in tough times. Your grit is what your team, the second you’re behind in athletics or you’re not doing well in a business environment, do you hang your head or do you puff out your chest. The grit of a team is that and they play off of each other.

The second is the glue and that’s how do you treat each other. How are you treated within the team and how do you treat each other. One of the things I love to do for your listeners here today is we actually have an organization, Human Acts, that is a science based study organization that looks at the habits of performance, who built for us a grit and glue survey. Its 15 questions, it’ll take ten minutes for you and your team to answer this survey, and if you do it together, if you sign up together, you’ll actually get a report back, free of charge, just for being invested in this in the subject. If you go to teams.donyaeger.com, you’ll get a link to that survey. You take it and it will tell you based upon those who answered from your team, what the grit and glue score of your team is, versus other high performing teams in both sports and business. It’ll actually ask you a couple of questions about what you’re business is so that it can compare you properly.

But I love that right, if you can start thinking about this. We want to be great. Everybody I know wants to work ina great culture and a great team, but we got to start looking at what that means in order to get there.

Stephen: And so everybody may want it but not everybody is willing to put in the effort, the hard work, the grit, in order to create the glue and that persistence in tenacity, which are obviously fundamental here. So we’ve talked a little bit about leadership, which is awesome, in Coach K and a couple of those references. And I love John Maxwell’s endorsement for your book, when we said, when either a team or a businesses reaches greatness, it does so because leadership has inspired the players or employees to selflessly pursue something bigger than themselves. Don, why do you think that John has distilled this down into leadership? I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about leadership, but why has he distilled this down into leadership, it being kind of the core of the great team?

Don: Well, lets start with the idea that John Maxwell is maybe one of the greatest leadership speaker and guru in America today and his catch phrase is, everything rise and falls with leadership. So he is a big believer that we have to develop great leaders in order for you to have great teams. And he’s right. He’s absolutely right. I’m a huge fan of John and his work and so I was grateful when he agreed to read and endorse the book. Leadership has to inspire others. It has to say, and by the way, I get that you’re in it for your personal benefit, but if you can put that aside and you can be in it for collective benefit, I promise you, even greater things are out there for you. And can they trust us when we say that.

That’s one of the great challenges right, that is if you can’t develop that trust. Trust is glue. We talk about grit and glue. If you can have trust within your organization, that they believe that the best interest of all is being promoted, than you have the opportunity to do something special.

Stephen: Yeah, because you and I and others in Onward Nation listening, we’ve all heard what sounds good from the podium, or it sounds great from the press box or whatever and it sounds like it’s the right message but really it must be incongruent with what’s going on in the locker room or the board room because the performance is different than sort of lip service right?

Don: Absolutely. I mean, we’ve all heard teams that talk about importance of unity and yet you watch when things get tough, how are they talking to each other? How are they talking to each other in the huddle? One of the things that I love about sports is all of that, all of that plays out right in front of us. Now, there are a lot of things that happen in the locker room, there are a lot of things that happen in practices that we don’t see, but when it comes down to the pressure packed moments, they’re often played out right there for us to view and analyze and grow to understand. And so, are you building an environment where people are encouraging each other or are they blaming each other.

I know you’ve done several of your podcasts, Stephen, around the importance of self talk, right? How are you coaching yourself. All of these things play into what will allow you to be great as a leader and your team to be great as a result.

Stephen: Wow. I feel so blessed and grateful. The fact that, one, that we could have you on the show as our amazing guest for a third time. Unprecedented for a third time, and that we could talk about something so important as the research behind this book and all the lessons that you’ve learned along the way and these 16 things. This has really been incredible. We’ve covered a lot in this conversation and I know that we’re quickly running out of time. But before we go, before we close out and say good bye, is there any final advice that you want to share, Don? Anything else that you think we might have missed maybe? And then please do tells us the best way to connect with you my friend.

Don: Well, thank you. So first, I would tell you that the most important thing is that the great teams are in the study of each other. That’s the one thing I hope you’ll, and they’re not just studying other teams in their sport. One of the most fascinating days I had the chance to spend last summer was in Seattle with the Seattle Seahawks and they’re studying the Seahawks, was Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Golden State Warriors. They don’t play the same sport but Steve Kerr understands the teams that are successful consistently have habits that we should be studying.

So don’t be looking and just saying I want to study other people in my industry. Look and say I want to study people who are successful. What do they do because by the success, success leaves clues. And if you believe that as I do, then our job, our job is to go out and find the clues. That to me is what drove this project and I hope it’s what drives those who are listening today. I’d be honored of they would take this day to go buy the book. It’s available in all the great book stores and if it’s not available, it’s not a great book store, FYI.

But secondly, I hope that you’re listeners will want to stay in touch. That website I gave you teams.donyaeger.com is a great place to start taking advantage of some of the free gifts we got for folks. But secondly, there’s a connection button there where you can stay in touch with me and with my team. I’d love to continue this conversation with as many people as possible.

Stephen: Thanks Don and Onward Nation, one of the great sorwint of daily doses if you will, that’s what it’s called, the daily dose of greatness that I get from Don every single morning, just a simple email with hundreds and hundreds of quotes and he sends out one a day. And they’re spectacular, they’re awesome, they’re very motivational, inspirational, and really just kind of ground you for the day. So if you go to donyaeger.com, you can find the daily dose of greatness and subscribe just like I do and it’s really fantastic. So, Don, we all have the same 86,400 seconds in a day and I know how compressed your travel schedule is, how compressed you schedule is when you are back in Tallahassee with three business to run and a great family to be with. So I am grateful that you’ve taken the time to come onto the show for a third time to be our mentor. To be this great leader. To be our teacher and share these wonderful strategies and behind the scenes to your research of this great book. So thank you so much my friend.

Don: Thank you, Stephen. And I appreciate your willingness to share my work with your listeners.

Speaker 1: This episode is complete so head over to OnwardNation.com for show notes and more food to fuel your ambition. Continue to find your recipe for success here, at Onward Nation.

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