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by Michael Sansolo

After making a career change a few years back, I received an unusual message from a friend. He congratulated me on the move and the work I had done, but said no one could grade my overall performance until they saw how my replacements worked out. In other words, my real success would be if my underlings were capable of making me dispensable.

When it comes to bosses and building bench strength, there are the great, the good, the bad and the forgettable. And then there is Pat Summitt the coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of Tennessee. She may be in a category all her own.

Summitt, the winningest coach ever in basketball, was profiled recently in the New York Times in an article every manager (past, present and future) should read. The key to the article is that Summitt, whose next win will be the 1,000th of her career, has produced a line of replacements like few other managers in sports or elsewhere.

Forty-five of Summitt’s past players are now themselves coaches. That’s nearly one-third of the players from all her teams.

Even more stunning than the numbers are the lessons. In the article, players recall how they chafed at some of Summitt’s rules as freshmen until they found themselves parroting her words to younger players in following seasons. And her rules are quite a mix, from the fine points of basketball, to behavior in classrooms and even to the type of courtesies they show each other. Many of the players recounted moments years after leaving Tennessee when Summitt would provide encouragement at seemingly the most important or difficult moments of their lives.

In short, Summitt’s on-court record is a small piece of what makes her such a success. Two quotes from Summitt make the point beautifully.

• “People talk about 1,000 wins. I remind them that I’ve never scored a basket for the University of Tennessee.”

• “This job is all about relationships.”

You have to think, there is something big to learn from Pat Summitt, something that goes way beyond winning and losing and into the realm of what makes leaders great.

Let me add a personal note. This story was simply too good to pass, despite one huge conflict of interest. Coach Summitt will be a featured speaker at FMI’s Future Connect leadership conference this May, and I am working with FMI on this event. But conflicts apart: I cannot wait to hear Coach Summitt speak.

When you look at Summitt and her record, you find almost a perfect example of the coach/mentor/manager/leader we all wish to be.

1. She’s tough, but her rules are clear, direct and, most importantly, fairly enforced. Summitt has coached regular players and mega-stars and there is no indication that anyone is treated differently.

2. She teaches constantly and her players learn so well that they start teaching despite themselves.

3. She plays by the rules. Think about how long she’s been coaching and how successful she’s been. Does any NCAA infraction come to mind for you? Summitt plays fair.

4. She wins and she wins in numbers like no one else has ever done. In short, you can be a great coach/mentor/manager/leader and still produce success.

She’s also creative. A few years back, Summitt noticed a prize recruit was waffling in her decision to attend Tennessee. Summitt met with the young woman and asked for a glass of water. In it she dropped a fizzy antacid tablet and when the water went cloudy she asked the young player why her crystal clear decision to attend UT had become cloudy.

The player not only enjoyed the point, but signed up to play for Summitt and became a star.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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