Successful people see themselves being successful. There is a completely different motivation framework where business owners hate losing more than they love winning. The speaker of champions Don Yaeger believes that to avoid losing, every company needs to have a huddle where everyone is present and invested on the vision and the mission. There are 16 things that great teams do differently, and one of them is figuring out the next step when mistakes happen instead of blaming teammates.
Our guest is Don Yaeger, the author of Great Teams: 16 Things High Performing Organizations Do Differently. Don is uniquely qualified to write that book because he worked at Sports Illustrated for a number of years and interviewed great athletes like Michael Jordan. In this episode, he shares a story of how he went one-on-one with Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan’s comment to him was, “Loss is not really a failure until you make an excuse.” Don creates a whole culture of not allowing a blaming environment to exist. He said, “Successful people expect success and therefore, they hate to lose more than they love to win.” Find out what that means. Enjoy the episode.
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16 Things That Great Teams Do Differently with Don Yaeger
I’ve got Don Yaeger, the speaker of champions. As an award-winning keynote speaker, business leadership coach and a nine-time New York Times Best-Selling author and a long time associate editor for Sports Illustrated, Don has fashioned a career as one of America’s most provocative thought leaders. As a speaker, he’s worked with audience as diverse as the Fortune 500 companies and cancer survivor groups where he shares his personal story. He’s actually interviewed icons like Michael Jordan. He’s primarily thought to discuss lessons on achieving greatness learned firsthand from his experience with some of those great sports legends. He’s been retained by companies and organizations to coach their leaders, management teams and employees on building a culture of greatness by looking at great teams in sports and discerning the business lessons we can learn from those. Don, welcome to the show.
John, thank you so much for having me.
I always like to ask my guest to start at the story of origin. Can you take us back to your own personal passion for sports before you became involved with Sports Illustrated? Was that always a dream job?
Yeah. Sports Illustrated certainly has been a dream job. As someone who just always participated in played and written about sports, the dream always was to try to find the best place you could execute on those talents and the greatest access point to high performers. For many years, Sports Illustrated has been that. When I got the opportunity, they have such a small staff. We started looking at the senior writers and associate editors. Those who actually are generating the content at a big level in the company, there are only 30 of them in the whole world. I could be one of those 30 or for the better part of twelve years maybe one the great gifts ever given to me.
It’s almost like making the Olympic team or something, isn’t it?
Yeah. I guess in my own small way, it allowed me to do that.
From there interviewing all these amazing athletes, you’ve really become the expert from all of your books, etc. on greatness. Let’s just dive in. Tell me the story of you going one-on-one with Michael Jordan. I think that’s a good place to start.
Jordan hosts an old men basketball camp every year. It has been for many years which 100 old guys, doctors, lawyers, pretty amazing business executives would come to Las Vegas. They would divide you into teams of ten and he brings in twenty great coaches, the best coaches in America. They coach us for four days as competitors against each other. During one of those days, Jordan brings twenty of us out and gives us a chance to go one-on-one with him. He makes a point right at beginning, say with 180 guys out there before that, the nine years he previously done it, only five guys have ever scored on him. He makes it clear that, “There will not be a sixth today.”
He’s not going to play easy. It’s not like you’re playing a game with your parents and they let you win, right?
Yeah, that is not who Michael Jordan is. The guys, two in front of me goes out to guard Jordan. It’s a game to one. It’s the first guy to score will win and Michael starts with the ball. Most games end with one shot. You can’t stop and you can’t guard him. Great players couldn’t stop or guard him. Then he hits his one shot, whatever it is and then it’s over. The guy in front of me was out to guard him. I just have to guard him closely. I tried to throw an elbow at him, Jordan uses the ball to clear space, knocks the guy to the ground, Jordan dunks the ball, tosses it on him and says, “Now you know what it’s like to be spanked like a bad child.” He’s just a great trash talker. Then a few guys later, comes me and I decide not to guard him close. I decided to give him space to take an outside shot but I’m not going to let him dunk on me. It’s actually a picture that I use in a speech when I tell the story. He’s palming the ball in his right hand and his left hand was calling me out. You can see his finger is there. He’s basically saying and pulling out at you, “What are you doing there?” He looks at me and he’s just like, “Are you really going to give me the shot?” I look back at Michael Jordan and I said, “I don’t think you have it in you.” 100 guys started laughing and Jordan shakes his head, he goes up, takes a shot and he missed it. I get the rebound. I stepped back outside the three-point line. He’s coming out to guard me. I look back and I said, “Aren’t you going to return the favor?” That’s the favor by being a bad defender and he said, “I know you don’t have that shot in you.” As he said it I stepped back and if you play six feet, threw the three-pointer that I became the sixth guy to score on Jordan.
First of all, how did that feel?
Incredible. I joked a lot with him and with other people that I probably made more money off scoring one basket on Michael Jordan.
What I see already is a through line, Don, of you being able to get on the Sports Illustrated team, a small team of 30 people. Five out of 180 old guys, you became the sixth person to get that shot off of Michal Jordan. What is it about you that allows you to achieve a level of excellence and greatness that other people are missing, that they could learn from?
I think key things that have been really hallmarks or important in my career, one hopefully is humility of spirit. There are just too many people that are high achievers or modern achievers who thinks so much of themselves. People don’t feel comfortable giving them additional chances. I think that when you can offer humility even in excellence, I think people want you to win. They want to help you. I think that’s the real key. I have been knocked down enough in my lifetime that humility has been forced upon me. That’s the truth and I think as it has developed, for me it has become more important.
What’s the second one?
The second one is that I am a sponge. I love to try to find that question that has never been asked before. Most of the people I talked to or have interviewed in my career have been interviewed thousands of times. Some maybe more than that even. Some private space or discussion points that they haven’t gotten into previously is really hard. I believe that through the power of preparation, you can even get to a place where you can ask people questions they hadn’t really thought about answering previously.
You’re singing my song, the power of preparation. That’s my number one technique to get people to be more confident when they pitch for anything. The Arthur Ashe quote is one of my all time favorites that, “The key to success is confidence and the key to confidence is preparation.” It sounds like you’re in full agreement with that. One of the things that you have here is that with Michael Jordan it’s personal, “They hate to lose more than they love to win.” Please explain that.
The genesis of that list that you’re referencing is when I was leaving college. I was heading for my first job as newspaper reporter. My father encouraged me to find somewhere in the course of many interviews I will do in my career to ask for something that will make me better. He said, “You’re going to get access to some of the greatest winners in the history, some of the most powerful people of all time just because you’ve chosen to be a reporter. Do yourself a favor and always try to learn something that will make you better.” The question I settled in on was essentially the version of what you asked. “If there’s a habit or a characteristic that allowed you to do what others couldn’t, what would that be?” I asked that question to about 2,500 winners over the course of time. The number one answer that comes up is that they learn at some stage in their life to expect success. Truly successful people expect to be successful. It doesn’t give them the thrill it gives other people. They win and they expected to win. It’s enjoyable but it’s not thrilling. That’s not their standard anymore because they expected it. What their standard moves to is they hate to lose.
That’s a completely different motivation framework, isn’t it?
Right. If you’re just satisfied, “I won. That’s awesome, I won,” you could be good but you’ll never be great. They believe that greatness comes from passing into that next zone, which is when losing at anything; you blame no one, you make excuses to no one and you internalize. We got a whole generation of people out there who are learning and they even tell you it’s someone else’s fault.
Let’s take that into the business world now. How can a business owner, a salesperson, anybody who’s pitching to get a new client reframe their mindset when they pitch within this “I hate to lose” mindset that could help them?
Part of it is, losing is inevitable. There will be losses. Jordan actually said a sentence to me one time while we were talking about this in which he said, “A loss is not a failure until you make an excuse.” For example, in my company we have a motto here where when we fail, when we lose, which happens, we don’t allow culturally a blaming environment to begin. We don’t blame others. We don’t blame circumstances. We internalize it and ask, “What could we have done?” which is better than saying, “I couldn’t have done anything because the referees were going to cheat us out all along. I couldn’t have done anything because the decision-maker was never going to like me anyway because I’m a woman or because I’m young or because I’m this.” We don’t play that and that’s what I learned about the mindset of true great ones. You’ll never hear them truly get into the blame game. They instead say, “It happened and it won’t happen again.”
I see that in the medical world. If the patient dies, they’ll have a meeting to see what could have been done if anything to prevent that loss without blame game happening. In the business world, when you don’t win a pitch to get a new client, I’m a big proponent of having enough emotional IQ that you will ask that potential client that didn’t choose you to have a no blame meeting of total transparency and say, “What could we have done better?” What are your thoughts on that?
I totally believe it. We have another phrase around my company that, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” You don’t get something that doesn’t come your way. Ask for feedback. I’m not trying to re-pitch you. I’m not trying to have you change your position. I just want to know, “Could you share what did they do better? What could I learn from the person you chose that will help me grow?” If you ask for feedback and you accept it and you make it a meal, which upon is that others will gladly give it to you.
Let’s talk about a post you made interviewing Matt Ryan. It’s one thing for you to build up own your internal confidence. I think everybody would love to learn your expertise on how do you build the confidence up with your team?
I think it’s important for me to try to build the confidence of your team. Before they’ll allow you to lead them, they have to know you are interested in leading you.
Before they’re interested in letting them lead you, they want you to show that you’ve led yourself. Is that the gist of it?
Give me a story or an example of that please.
I’ll use Matt Ryan. I think in the post that you’re referencing, I was engaged to do some work with Matt Ryan when he was coming out of college. He was heading to the NFL, and I was hired to come sit down with him about his skill set to be ready to be interviewed by NFL teams and to look at social media, “What five words you wanted to be known for before an interview was done? What are the words you hoped someone says about you after they listen to you or now? How do you weave those five words into the conversation you’re having?” It’s a skill set that the very best have. It’s basic branding but it’s just done on a personal level by the best professionals out there. The night before I was scheduled to meet with Matt at a facility in Phoenix, Arizona I got a phone call that my 8 AM with Matt Ryan, he wanted to move it to 7:00. Would I be okay with that? I don’t care. I had an hour with him from 8:00 to 9:00. I got there at 7:00 thinking that he just wanted to go 7:00 to 8:00 and maybe he wanted to do a little bit of a workout and do something else. What Matt Ryan wanted was 7:00 to 9:00. He didn’t want to move it back an hour, he wanted to add an hour.
It barely happens. What you saw in that was that Matt Ryan said, “This is important. I will lead me better. I will lead them better. If you’re leading me better, how can I make myself better? This is one way.” Just a small example. That’s how when people go out and they are invested in and they’re working to try to make them better, we all know who those people are, that truly believe in development and they don’t just talk about development but actually go invest in it. I think the team respects that and says, “Yes. You’re in this position where you won’t lead me anymore. You lead me because I want you to lead you.”
The other thing that jumps out of me is you said, “What are the five words you want people to say about you when you leave the room?” Don, what are the five words you want people to say about you after you’ve given a keynote?
Number one is humble. Number two is storyteller for me where people are hearing me tell stories. I believe that’s a skill set. Number three is accomplished. I think it’s important to be both humble and accomplished. It’s easy to be humble when you haven’t achieved anything. Number four would be respectful. I care enough about who I’m talking to that I want to know what it is they need to hear and learn. Number five would be thought provoking. I want them to walk out not just having heard a story, but having provoked themselves to try to make themselves better.
Your book Great Teams: 16 Things High Performing Organizations Do Differently, my first question is, did you have a lot more than sixteen and you had to edit it down?
Yeah. Just like for whatever reason and the reason that this one ended up at sixteen, this is my first book. In both cases I had many more reasons but what you’ll find is there’s a cutoff point where you can say, “This is consumable.” People can take this and do something with it. If I had 118 things teams do differently, you would have never consider it because you’re like, “I can’t do 118 things.” Sixteen seems reasonable enough. Stephen Covey had 7 Habits. John Maxwell has 21 Laws. There has to be a consumable number and sixteen is my number.
Let me ask you about how great teams run successful huddles. I think that’s really valuable. A lot of people feel like their meetings aren’t productive and they just waste time. If you have insights on how to make huddles more effective, that’s really valuable.
That was one of my favorite discussion points because we all struggle with ineffective meetings and ended up it don’t seem as valuable as it should be. I’ll give you two takeaways that your listeners can do something with. Huddles are the heartbeat of any organization. Whether they’re meetings in their business or they’re huddle in sports, a gathering where information is shared and something needs to happen as a result, that’s the heartbeat of any organization. Most of us have bad meetings. Most of us have bad huddles. I went into the organizations that are known to have the best to ask them, “What do they do and how do they do it?” Two takeaways that came up: Number one is that every huddle has to start on time and it has to end on time.
That just goes to your respect, respecting people’s time.
Let’s say you have a habit in your organization. Everybody knows your meeting is going to start five minutes late. What happened? They’ll start showing up seven minutes late. Everyone knows that a 3:00 meeting will start at 3:00. Then what starts to happen is nobody wants to be able to be the one who’s there at 3:07. If there’s flexibility, if 3:00 turns to 3:04 or 3:06 then there’s 3:07 and who knows? Also it’s leads into the next meeting that they’ll do. The best huddles are precisely run in a way that allows that to be done well.
What’s so interesting about that for me, Don, is think of all these sports that are so specific and exactly how long a quarter lasts. When the clocks running out on the basketball, that’s it, right?
Yeah. They don’t give you extra time because you need them done.
What’s the second takeaway on the good huddle meeting?
The second takeaway for me that I really love what I thought about was that everyone in the huddle has to be fully present or fully absent. We tell a pretty amazing story. We’ll talk about a national championship basketball game in which an important huddle occurred, a back-up player on the huddle. He knew he wasn’t going to be in the game at all. He’s outside the huddle. He’s actually waving at a girl in the crowd. An important information about the idea that the team had no timeouts left was shared with the players. This back-up player didn’t hear it because he wasn’t really listening because he wasn’t in the huddle. A key moment came in the game and he yells, “Call timeout.” When the player who’s on the court with the ball hears that, he does call timeout even though he was told there were no timeouts available. What happened was that the team lost the national championship. If you’re really getting to it and I got into it and every people studied it, the end result was the failure to be fully invested by everyone who was affected by the huddle and that includes your back-up players. What does that mean for us in business? That could mean that you’ve got a bunch of people sitting in the room, and an important information is being relayed and they’re on their Twitter or they’re on their Instagram or they’re checking their email on their phone as opposed to being engaged in the conversation. We have this rule in our building. If you’re not fully present in the meeting, be absent. If you think what you have on Twitter or Instagram is more important that what’s happening here, then leave the meeting.
That reminds me exactly what happened at the Academy Awards. The guy who was responsible from the accounting firm of giving the envelop to read Best Picture was breaking the rules and taking a selfie with Emma Stone who just won Best Actress. Then he ended up giving Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway the wrong envelop to read Best Picture because he wasn’t fully present. When you talk about great teams speaking a different language, I’m guessing part of that is no blame game. Is there something else in there that you could give us?
A big piece of it is, “How do you handle it when mistakes happen?” The bottom line is mistakes can happen. That’s part of events. How do you handle it when they do? One of the things that I’ve watched among the greatest and the best teams is that they know how to engage people in those moments. Rather than saying, “What are you doing? How did you make that mistake? What were you thinking?” Rather than being in the blame mode, they are in the mode of explaining, “Here’s how it’s done when we’re here. Do you remember that conversation we had yesterday in practice about this? We’re going to need you later to execute on this. Let’s remember the conversation.” How often have we seen moments of crisis and the leader goes into, “Who’s fault is this that we’re in this crisis? Why did you do that?” as opposed to, “We have prepared ourselves for this. How are we going to move forward from it and what are we going to learn from it?” This is a different language in how we collectively organizationally speak to each other.
Then the flip side of this, the final question is how do great teams avoid the pitfalls of success? It’s really fascinating because we’re like, “We avoid the pitfalls of failure,” and most people don’t think about success having pitfalls. You have experienced plenty of success in your career and in your life. We’ve seen you worked with other people who are great. What are the pitfalls of success and how do we avoid them?
John Maxwell, who is a leadership mentor and speaker, one of my favorite people in the Collaboration, someone that I get a chance to work with every month on a project, has a great line. He says, “One of the great predictors of failure is success.” The truth is when we get successful, we get complacent. We no longer do the things that got us to success because we think we don’t have to. We think that everybody is going to remember how successful we are. They’re going to quiver in their boots when we walk by. We forget that people aren’t as impressed with us as we were impressed with us sometimes. The truly great ones, they understand that success yesterday is exactly that. If we want to be successful tomorrow, it’s a new case. It’s a new day. That place out there is just failure yesterday as exactly that.
Don, your website DonYaeger.com. It’s for people to learn more about your wonderful content, hiring you as a keynote speaker, buying your book and all that great stuff. Anything else you want to leave us with?
When you’re pitching, it’s an art. You’re clearly the artist. I look forward to listening and learning. I think that the key to everything I have learned in life is the art of storytelling and I think that’s where great pitching happens. It’s not just about what my product does, but what the product’s done for somebody like you that makes me go, “I want to get to know more about that.” I think storytelling is a gift. It’s a skill set. As your listeners work on their development hopefully, in some way this all fits.
I want to give a special shout-out to our mutual friend, Stephen Woessner, the Founder of Predictive ROI, for connecting me to a great guest like you.
Thank you. I appreciate Stephen as well.
- Great Teams: 16 things High Performing Organizations Do Differently
- 7 Habits
- 21 Laws
- John Maxwell
- Don Yaeger
- Predictive ROI
- Sports Illustrated
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