Editor's Choice

Great Teams: 16 Things High Performing Organizations Do Differently

July 28, 2016


Don Yaeger mixes sports and business to provide some insightful lessons on teams and culture.

Great Teams: 16 Things High Performing Organizations Do Differently by Don Yaeger, Thomas Nelson, 272 pages, $24.99, Hardcover, July 2016, ISBN 9780718077624

The Introduction to Don Yaeger’s new book, Great Teams, opens with a question that has an immediate sting to it. What makes the St. Louis Cardinals so much more successful than the Chicago Cubs?

Yaeger could ostensibly be called a sports journalist, as he was a longtime associate editor at Sports Illustrated, and has co-authored books with John Wooden, Walter Payton, Rex Ryan, Michael Oher (of The Blind Side fame), John Smoltz, and Tug Mcgraw, among many others. But he’s also covered politics, co-authored books on George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with historian Brian Kilmeade, and today he is a keynote speaker and business leadership coach. It was in that last capacity that a Microsoft executive questioned him about what makes a great team great, and what allows them to sustain success, often for generations.

And that is where we come back to the Cards and Cubs. The Cubs futility is famous, with a drought of championships that has lasted for over a century now. In that time, St. Louis has won eleven World Series and nineteen National League pennants. So…


What enables the Cardinals to do what the Cubs cannot?


The answer: a hyperfocus on team culture.



So, this is not just a book about great teams, but a book about the kind of culture that builds them. Drawing on his great wealth of sports and business knowledge, Yaeger outlines “sixteen defining characteristics” of great teams and devotes a chapter to each.

The chapters are quick and concise, even as he jumps back and forth between the business world and team sports (which, of course, are businesses after all). Using a fascinating array of examples, he covers a lot of ground, zeroing in on leadership styles, recruiting, long-term goal setting and planning, getting buy-in, managing conflict, mentoring, leadership transitions, change management, meetings (or huddles), scouting the competition, analytics, performing under pressure, leadership communication, and avoiding the pitfalls of success.

The section on buy-in is unique because it frames the issue around camaraderie. We all know buy-in can be extremely difficult to get. But we also know people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to feel connected to those around them. Yaeger quotes our old friend Michael Lee Stallard here, who reminds us that “an employee’s feelings of connection, community, and unity are the most powerful and least understood aspects of successful organizations."

But, in any organization, it all begins with how you show up, and “high-performing teams show up with a sense of purpose; they understand the ‘why’ of what they do and can clearly see how it matters.” So that is where Yaeger begins, and here he turns to one of the greatest basketball teams of all time—the Dream Team assembled for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. That team dominated the Olympics, winning by an average of over 43 points. Opposing teams were in such awe that they were happy just to get pictures with Team USA after the game. But that is not where the lesson comes from. It comes from when the American team began to falter. In 2002, Team USA finished sixth in the FIBA world championships, and in 2004 were only able to bring home a bronze medal from Greece. There was clearly a problem:


The poor result wasn’t because the team lacked talent. In fact, the team was built around five players who are or will be first-ballot Hall of Famers.


USA Basketball had clearly lost its “dream,” and the losses prompted some much-needed soul searching within the organization.


The following year, Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball and brought in Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski to lead the team—and told him he’d have the reins not just in the next international competition, but that he’s be the permanent coach. Leadership would be consistent, even as the talent changed. “Coach K” is a West Point Graduate and a veteran, so he knows what it means to serve one’s country, and he wanted to instill that sense of purpose in the program and his players:


To bolster this new sense of purpose, USA Basketball formed a partnership with the US military so the players could feel what it means to represent their country in a different way.


Coach Krzyzewski knew that he couldn’t simply pay lip service to it, or have his players understand it intellectually. He had to make them feel it. He had to engage their hearts in the task, to connect them to a larger purpose and sense of service. He often did by visiting the troops, even visiting those at the Demilitarized Zone in Korea on the team’s way to the 2006 world championships in Japan.


In the years that followed, USA Basketball maintained the connection to its “why” by continuing to partner with the military, creating more “feel-it” moments for the players. For instance, just before the team left the country for the 2012 Olympics in London, Krzyzewski took his players to visit Arlington National Cemetary. They made their way to Section 60, where many of the most recent casualties are buried, and saw a soldier paying his respects to his fallen comrades. Krzyzewski asked the man to speak with the team, and everyone gathered around to listen to his spontaneous, moving words. When he finished and departed, Krzyzewski turned to his players and said, “That’s why we came here—to feel our country.”


The players were struck. They saw that sacrificing their summers to play for the team, sacrificing playing time or shots attempts, was a small price to pay to represent and serve their country. It became about something bigger than just winning again. It instilled a sense of pride in country, and reinvigorated the reality that they represented America and its values to the world. It gave them a larger purpose to play for, and gave all of us watching a new level of excellence to root for.

One of the more interesting lessons in the book, one that I haven’t seen a lot (if ever) in business books before, is the idea of maintaining depth. In sports, we know the importance of having a “deep bench” consisting of veteran players and role players that can step in and step up when needed, and younger players being groomed for larger roles. Yaeger tells us depth is just as important in business:


The concept that one person’s presence or absence can make or break an organization in antithetical to how a team should operate. An organization that lacks depth places immense responsibility on the shoulders of a few.


Do you have a plan in place for the inevitability of a star member of your team being lost due to health, to retirement, or to another organization? Are you building a strong bench? I’m guessing most do not. Yaeger provides some suggestions for building more depth by building a culture that fosters healthy internal competition and employee retention.

Writing about the need to embrace change, his examples range from how college basketball programs adapted their cultures to the massive rise of “one-and-done” players—players that play just one year before leaving for the pros—to how Frances Hesselbein transformed “the largest organization for girls and women around the world”—the Girl Scouts—by modernizing their resource handbooks to promote math, science, and technology, and updating their promotional material to appeal to more diverse communities:


“The Girl Scouts quickly tripled racially and ethnically by making our message reach all girls,” Hesselbein said. “We asked ourselves, ‘When women and girls look at us, our board, staff, materials, and handbooks, can they find themselves?’ So we made a passionate commitment to make that a reality, and our people were ready for it.”


The back and forth between sports and business worlds is a lot of fun and helps stretch our way of thinking about teams and culture. Drawing the lines between the two helps us think of teams and culture more holistically and flexibly.

As a sports fan, I loved it because I got to read about the issue of organizational conflict framed not only around the example of IBM (which is a great example in its own right) but also around the rivalry between former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka and his Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan. It was a rivalry that extended to the players in the locker room and on the practice field, where the offense and defense were bitterly divided and the competition was fierce. The players eventually came together, however, which Mike Singletary credits to them making the Super Bowl Shuffle together. I mean, I grew up on the Super Bowl Shuffle. Learning how it brought the ’85 Bears together, and thinking about how getting together with your coworkers and having fun outside of work can break down barriers at work, makes me think about workplace conflict in a very different way than the example of IBM.

I would like to wrap this all up by pointing out that, as of this writing, the Cubs have the best record in baseball and are 6.5 games up on the Cardinals. It seems that under the ownership of the Ricketts, and the management of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Joe Maddon, they may finally be building a healthy culture and a great time on the North Side of Chicago. Perhaps, "next year" is a little closer than it ever has been, and this is just the beginning of a very different kind of 100-year run.

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