Oct 14 2015

NASCIO 2015: What Does Coach K Have to Do with IT?

Keynote speaker advises CIOs to help their teams find purpose in the mission.

State CIOs seeking to motivate their IT staff should look to the 1992 Olympics for inspiration, said Don Yaeger, bestselling author from The New York Times and longtime Sports Illustrated editor, in a closing keynote at the NASCIO 2015 Conference in Salt Lake City.

The U.S. men’s basketball team’s legendary dominance in that year’s contest showed the world that the Dream Team was the greatest collection of talent ever to wear the same jersey, said Yaeger.

In his keynote, Yaeger said the basketball players of that era were so great, they didn’t require surnames: They were simply Larry, Magic and Michael. “This team had it all. They had amazing leadership, both on the court and off. They had unbelievable depth. They knew that what they did mattered,” he said. From that year forward — in 1992, 1996 and 2000 — the team dominated and won Olympic gold.

Sports fans know what happened next. The team finished sixth in the World Championships in 2002, and netted only a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics. “What happens when you become really dominant or best in class? Arrogance had so overplayed its cards that we were showing up not prepared to fight,” Yaeger said.

But then a classic thing happened: Legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski — Coach K — came aboard to help the basketball team mount a comeback. How did he do it? By focusing on the ‘why’ behind the mission. A West Point graduate who began his career as an Army officer, Krzyzewski understood what it meant to wear USA on your chest.

“He wanted our players to appreciate what it meant to have something more than just what’s important than you,” Yaeger said. To do that, the coach had the team spend a few days living among men and women serving in the U.S. military in Japan. He launched a program with Wounded Warriors. He took the team to Arlington National Cemetery before it boarded an international flight. These acts created “feel-it moments” and helped players understand who they represented and why it mattered.

When team members understand the mission, they’re more likely to demonstrate sacrifice and commitment, Yaeger said. Just like sports teams, IT employees need to understand their ‘why.’ He advised CIOs to figure this out collectively with their groups, keeping the customer in mind.

“What happens to my customer if I fail?” Yaeger asked. “It’s not just your customer, but your downstream customer.” In state government, for example, a systems outage could mean that a family doesn’t receive benefits for the week.

Yaeger advised the audience to take this lesson back to their office and apply it as they build their own teams.

For more NASCIO 2015 coverage, head here.

west_point/Flickr Creative Commons

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