Thursday, October 06, 2016

Great Teams: An Interview with Don Yaeger

I had the opportunity recently to interview Don Yaeger, the former Associate Editor of Sports Illustrated and author of twenty-five books, nine of which have become New York Times best-sellers. His newest book is titled, Great Teams: 16 Things High Performing Organizations Do Differently.  Here are his responses to my questions.  As a Patriots fan, I especially loved his answer to my final question! 

1.  You focus in the book on the notion that great sports teams build a strong high-performance culture. You say that matters more than having the right offensive or defensive schemes and strategies. Can you describe the most important elements of a high-performance culture?

Don Yaeger: Culture is a buzzword that is all over the business publications these days, so I think it’s important to define it. In considering how the word specifically applies to a team setting, I came up with two possible definitions: 1) the conditions within the organization that promote either growth or failure and 2) the shared understanding of what to do in adverse situations. The effort to achieve that culture can be broken down to four essential pillars that I believe set a truly Great Team apart from one that simply performs well.

• Targeting Purpose— The team is connected to a greater purpose. Members understand whom they are serving and why that matters.

• Effective Management— The team is able to think creatively and act dynamically in order to stay fresh, effective, and relevant. 

• Activating Efficiency— Each member of the team brings a unique set of talents, experiences, perspectives, work ethic, personality traits, and know- how that melds with and complements those of the other team members. 

• Mutual Direction— There is a strong sense of understanding, appreciation, shared responsibility, and trust that unites and motivates the team to work together.

After studying the subject carefully and discussing it with truly great leaders, I found sixteen defining characteristics that special teams— the ones that are in a class by themselves, that accomplish more than just a winning season or a successful fiscal year, that pack extra punch and bring a degree of excitement to what they do— all share. These traits can be worked on independently by individual team members, but the truly outstanding teams use them to build on one another. Organizations that exhibit real greatness combine talent, relationships, and innovation in a variety of ways for the sake of achieving a shared goal. 

2. What makes it so difficult to build such an effective culture? What are some of the obstacles that prevent certain teams from achieving that type of culture?

Don Yaeger: Individual friction and dysfunction sink many teams and often lead to unhealthy cultures. While 100 percent camaraderie is the dream scenario for team culture, some degree of dysfunction is likely in even the best situations. When a team has strong personalities and talented people, there will inevitably be friction. Great Team leaders know how to manage friction and personality conflicts to keep challenges from derailing the team’s success. In this chapter we will consider examples of how some Great Teams handled dysfunction by promoting cultures in which the members were motivated to appreciate their respective values to the teams’ overall goals even though they didn’t always like each other.

3. What role does culture play in the recruiting process, and why is that so important? 

Don Yaeger: Purpose and leadership are essential to building a team culture. Once an organization determines its “why” and aligns its leadership style with the needs of its members, it is on the right path to becoming a Great Team. But culture building doesn’t stop there. A team must also recruit the right talent. If done well, recruiting will result in a highly competitive team that is consistently motivated to seek and claim success. Great Teams recruit players who fit— who will thrive within the established team culture and add value to it. The talent of the employee or teammate is important, but fit trumps all. These organizations understand that Great Team culture establishes an environment conducive to success, but that success ultimately depends on the right kind of personnel.

4. You argue that purpose is essential to great teams, yet many businesses define their “why” incorrectly. Can you explain?

Don Yaeger: In the business world, a “why” is often misunderstood as a company mission statement or code of ethics— which couldn’t be further from the truth. Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek has described a company’s corporate “why” as “always disconnected from the product, service, or the act you’re performing.” If an organization desires to become a Great Team in the business world, then it must understand how to utilize the “why” properly in order to galvanize support from its professional ranks. “When an organization lays out its cause, how it does so matters,” explained Sinek. “It’s not an argument to be made, but a context to be provided. An organization’s ‘why’ literally has to come first— before anything else.” 

Companies that understand the purpose and philosophy behind the “why” are usually astute, high- performing organizations that tap directly into the pulse of those they benefit the most. When utilized correctly, this understanding can create a powerful sense of duty and purpose for business teams because the employees know exactly whom they are working for and to what end.

5. You say great teams “speak a different language.” What do you mean by that, and why is that so crucial?

Don Yaeger: Through success or failure, great leaders always know what to say to bring out the best in their organizations. Many teams undervalue the art of properly framing communication, especially in times of struggle. Successful leaders do not berate or chide team members but seek ways to positively articulate objectives and expectations. They have better coaching conversations, ask better questions, and drive results. Positive communication is not only a habit for high- performance teams but also a tool used to reinforce and enhance the values of organizations.

Communication that inspires, motivates, and encourages is one of the most important steps in achieving greatness. Through the good and bad, articulating praise and criticism in positive ways is essential to the success of the team. When you speak the language of a Great Team, you communicate constructive feedback that penetrates even the most unwilling ears— and keeps people motivated long after the feedback has been received. That language includes leading by example, asking the right questions, using effective praise, and affirming character. 

6. Why is it so difficult for some successful teams to avoid complacency? Do you have any tips to guard against it? 

Don Yaeger: Complacency is perhaps the most common pitfall for Great Teams. A hard- fought victory or successful season can make even the most dedicated organizations drop their guards or spend just a little too much time patting themselves on their collective backs. Overcelebration can easily consume the mood of an entire organization, stifle improvement efforts, rot work ethic, and create laziness. The glow of victory makes the pain and sacrifice of a championship easy to forget; however, Great Teams reject the sense of entitlement that comes after an epic win or championship. To win continuously, a team has to challenge the false belief that what’s been accomplished will naturally happen again. 

The Great Teams avoid the common pitfalls of success by defying human nature. Consistently dominant teams realize that the most common reaction to any success is satisfaction. Overcelebration breeds complacency, and many championship teams fail to repeat due to a lack of focus after an epic win. For a team desiring to avoid a championship hangover, leaders should limit the time focused on celebrating victories— even as the championship banners are being raised. It’s never too early for a team to discuss the temptations of victory and new goals worth fighting for. The teams that sustain success make daily commitments to improve themselves and the company rather than rest on their laurels. Their leaders are culturally intelligent, and they restlessly search to find inspiration in the opportunities of tomorrow. They understand that what brought success won’t keep it. In the pursuit of greatness, these teams aren’t afraid to put their streak on the line when chasing after a new challenge. They always play to win instead of “not to lose.” Successful teams should ask themselves, “How do we respond after a record year? In what ways can we defy the natural human tendency to coast?” 

Leaders should set aside time after an epic win to discuss new ventures, strategies, and improvements while the previous season or quarter is still fresh in everyone’s minds. This is the time to look deep within and also to examine the marketplace— to spot needs waiting to be filled and come up with unique ways to meet those needs. Repeat champions and industry leaders know how to handle the bull’s- eye effect. These winners stay aware of the targets on their backs and revel in the idea that competitors want nothing more than to take them down. Hungry competitors dethrone corporate giants all the time. But the Great Teams thrive in the midst of competition, leverage their platforms into new spheres of influence, and use the reality of the bull’s- eye effect as motivation to remain innovative. How do you handle the thought of failure? If you are currently sitting on a winning streak, do you merely play “not to lose” instead of to win? Does your team share this same mind- set? The greatest champions of our time expect to win. Why shouldn’t your team? For a Great Team, repeat success is often a byproduct of a high- performing culture. Maintaining championship or industry- leading momentum requires experienced leadership, cultural drivers, and clear communication of the end goal and how to get there. Team members must be connected to the new direction of an organization; people want to feel excited about the future and the potential of progress. Progressive leaders understand these truths and connect their teams to a culture that motivates, challenges, and empowers them to start and to keep winning. The captains of industry don’t stew in failure and defeat but instead are forward thinking, doggedly chasing after the next great opportunity. Always strive to remember complacency, the ultimate pitfall of success— and don’t let it derail your Great Team!

7. Do you have a favorite team or two that you studied and why?

Don Yaeger: I enjoyed studying two of the most successful teams of the 21st Century: the San Antonio Spurs and the New England Patriots. Often outside of the spotlight, the Spurs have built a dynamic team culture and a strong, evolving road map to success and have been exceedingly successful in developing camaraderie through open communication. The Patriots have won consistently despite a constantly changing roster with quarterback Tom Brady being the only surefire Hall of Famer on the squad. Despite very different styles, the two teams have established dynasties in this era of parity. 

Don Yaeger Bio: 

Don Yaeger is a nationally acclaimed inspirational speaker, longtime Associate Editor of Sports Illustrated and author of 25 books, nine of which have become New York Times Best-sellers. He began his career at the San Antonio (TX) Light and also worked at the Dallas Morning News and the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville before going to work for Sports Illustrated. 

As an author, Don has written books with, among others, Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden, baseball legends John Smoltz and Tug McGraw and football stars Warrick Dunn and Michael Oher (featured in the movie The Blind Side). He teamed with Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade to pen the 2013 best-seller “George Washington’s Secret Six,” a look at the citizen spy ring that helped win the Revolutionary War and then again in 2015 writing Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History.

Don left Sports Illustrated in 2008 to pursue a public speaking career that has allowed him to share stories learned from the greatest winners of our generation with audiences as diverse as Fortune 10 companies to cancer survivor groups, where he shares his personal story. More than a quarter-million people have heard his discussions on “What Makes the Great Ones Great.” He has also built corporate webinar programs on lessons from Great sporting franchises on building Cultures of Success which has naturally led to his newest keynote speech on “What Makes the Great Teams Great.” 

Learn more at or contact Don at

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