Photo Credit: UConn Athletics

As a Duke alum and avid basketball fan, I must admit I have trouble saying this: The University of Connecticut has the best men’s basketball program in the country. Period.

As a certified Scaling Up coach, I can’t help but admire the system that head coach Dan Hurley has built at UConn and the powerful lessons it offers CEOs who are courageous enough to apply his counterintuitive wisdom.

Having accomplished the rare achievement of repeating as national champions, UConn has built a dynasty.

They did this in dominating, exacting fashion: As the #1 seed in the East, UConn systematically dismantled a talented #1 Midwest seed, Purdue, on Monday night, April 8, 2024. They won by 75–60 to claim their second consecutive national title and 6th in program history. This makes UConn the only program except UCLA, Duke, and Florida to repeat as national champions. Achieving this feat puts the 51-year-old Hurley in the same rarified air as Hall of Famers John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, and Billy Donovan.

All year, UConn’s run to their second consecutive championship never seemed in doubt as they amassed an impressive 37–3 record in the 2023–24 season. In short, they simply dominated. The championship matchup against Purdue pitted the two teams billed as the best in the country and featured Purdue’s Zach Edey, the 7-foot, 4-inch center and two-time NCAA player of the year. Purdue hung with UConn for about six-and-a-half minutes before UConn’s precision-run offense wore down Purdue with motion, multiple screens, and precision passing, opening up high-precision shots that they made with effortless efficiency.

Earlier in the Final Four, when UConn pulled away from Alabama, TBS announcer Ian Eagle proclaimed “UConn is a machine!” For the first time in a sports broadcast, I heard announcers Bill Rafferty, Grant Hill, and Eagle repeatedly using the term “attention to detail” to describe the exactness and nuances in UConn’s plays, sets, execution, and matchups. Can you imagine the results your company would garner if it ran with the Swiss-watch precision of UConn? If you follow some of the lessons from coach Dan Hurley, you can!

Have Your System Design in Mind

Coach Hurley has a systems design for UConn basketball. This goes beyond having great winning strategies. It’s when your execution is also so good that the combination of these two elements manifests into a system. In short, Hurley can visualize what UConn basketball looks like from any lens he chooses. You can repeat a systems design day after day and year after year. It takes a commitment from the CEO to execute it to fruition. Having a systems design separates the perennial winners from those that win sporadically.

It’s OK to Be Authentically Intense, Demanding, and Tough

Coach, don’t manage your team.

When you have a systems design and a playbook, you no longer need to manage your executives. You coach them to your systems and playbook. We advise our clients to “be the coach!” When coaching your team members, think about how great coaches like Wooden, Sablan, Belichick, and now Hurley, would coach them. Would they tolerate one of your team members not being on top of their quarterly strategic plan? How would they react if an executive worked for their own amusement and didn’t follow a proven system? You know that the top sports coaches would not tolerate any of this, even from a star player. So why do most executives and CEOs let their employees slide?

Having been a business coach for over 15 years and studying leadership behavior, it appears that leaders have an assumption, and even a hope, that they have hired exceptionally smart people who will do all the hard work of thinking about business strategies, systems, and processes. They abdicate from this hard, intense work. I hate to tell you that less than 50% of even A Players (the top 10%) function at this level. Even top performers need and want to join successful, proven systems.

I hear from many CEOs that they feel they would insult executives’ intelligence and freedom if they actually coached them to follow their processes. I’m here to tell you that you want to hire people with 1. Coachability, 2. Accountability, and 3. Resourcefulness as their top three competencies. The best in the world, like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Tom Brady, allow their raw talents and creativity to flourish within the context of systems and playbooks.

It’s OK to be demanding about coaching to your system with precision and intensity. In an ESPN interview, Hurley said he is “an obsessed coach, and I’m going to be more of a maniac the next couple of days than I was leading up to this. I promise you. And then when this season’s over, it’s going to be worse!” That’s the mindset it takes to three-peat and build on your dynasty!

Embrace Blind Spots

Face the brutal truth. The true test of a leader is on the bad days, not the great days. The bad days show the weakness and vulnerabilities in our business and the hairline cracks in our character, resilience, teamwork, and leadership effectiveness. A few years ago, things weren’t so rosy for Hurley. His first four seasons at UConn ended with no NCAA wins and he was a high profile coach in search of NCAA tournament success to keep his job. “There were blind spots for this program to become elite,” he acknowledged. His solution was to build a detailed strategic plan that included implementing a systemic, high-motion offense that equaled UConn’s stifling shut-down defense in efficiency. He also recruited the right players with the right system and team mindset to execute UConn basketball.

Hurley is now chasing history. The good news for me is that my Duke Blue Devils are 12–1 odds to win next year’s national championship. The bad news? UConn has the best probability in the country at 10–1 odds to win and become the first team to three-peat since UCLA in 1973. Unless Duke implements a system like UConn, I don’t like our chances. Success is too often predicated on heroic performances by stars, which is fleeting in any circumstance.

Ready to grow the value of your business and dominate like this?

Our Scaling Up coaching practice does the 4 Decisions of Scaling Up: People, Strategy, Execution, and Cash better than anyone else. Schedule a conversation with us today. We will show you how to dramatically increase the value of your business and enjoy the ride while doing it.

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