Sports, Leadership & Life » Sports and Life: Common Principles of Success Part II
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The Sports, Leadership & Life series will explore the lessons offered by the games we watch and play. Our lineup of contributors — which includes New England leaders in business, culture, politics and sports — will reflect on how their lives and thinking were shaped by athletics in this weekly series.
Stephen G. Pagliuca
April 8, 2009
Sports and Life: Common Principles of Success Part II
By

This is the second installment of a two-part series by Steve Pagliuca of Bain Capital and the Boston Celtics exploring some of the life and business lessons learned through his involvement with sports. Part I ran on April 2 and can be found here.

The many lessons learned while playing team sports have served me well. Upon reflection, my passion for sports has benefited me greatly by helping me on an ongoing basis to learn many fundamental principles that apply to life and business.

Passion for Being Part of the Team

Principle: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

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The Missiles (1963)

Then: My first experience with organized sports was in 1963 on a Pee Wee football team. I still remember that there were four teams in our league of 8-year-olds. In those days the teams had militaristic names—the Missiles, the Rockets, the Comets and the Jets—synonymous with the Cold War Era.

I remember the practices and the games every Saturday in the fall. Our whole family would go to the field to watch the teams play. The coach was a neighbor and our team really bonded each week to face one of the three opponents in a six-game season. Every boy on the team was excited about playing and tried his best to beat the other teams in this evenly matched league. We had many close games and ups and downs. We came in third the first season but ultimately came back to win the championship. It was like winning the Super Bowl and started for us a lifelong passion for sports. My mother, who stored everything, sent us the l964 trophy. It now rests in a little case in our home today.  It was a great feeling back then to be part of something that was bigger than myself, and I have never lost that joy.

Now: Today, I am fortunate to be part of two wonderful organizations that evoke those same emotions about great teams of people. The first, Bain Capital, has been a leader in institutionalizing the private equity business by building a fantastic group of team-oriented partners. I am lucky to be one of those partners. Bain Capital has grown from a small 15-person company with $36 million under management in 1984 into a global private equity firm with over $75 billion under management today. The firm was originally conceived by partners of the consulting group, Bain & Company, who had a passion for building great businesses and transforming companies into market leaders. The team at Bain Capital today, 25 years later, has that same enthusiasm and passion for the private equity business.

In the summer of 2002, I had the opportunity to partner with Wyc and Irv Grousbeck in the acquisition and turnaround of the Boston Celtics.  We developed a strategic vision and set three major goals: we wanted to bring a World Championship to Boston; have the best in-game experience for our fans in the arena; and reinvigorate the Celtics’ commitment to the community.  We worked hard bringing in a terrific group of community leaders to be our partners and invest in the team.  The ownership group has been a great asset for both the team and the community. Under the leadership of CEO and Managing Partner Wyc Grousbeck, we have stayed true to the original concept of  “Celtic Pride.”  It was very gratifying in 2008 when the Celtics were crowned as NBA World Champions. The win was even better, as we had beaten our archrivals of many years, the L.A. Lakers.  Being part of this organization has been extremely uplifting and rewarding for me. We wake up every day with the excitement of competing in the NBA, making a contribution to the community, and continuing the quest to build upon the Celtics’ storied legacy.

A Positive Approach to Life

Principle: Positive reinforcement develops winners.

Then: While being coached by a large number of different grade school, high school and college coaches in basketball, football and baseball, I realized that

Joe Pagliuca at Duke

Joe Pagliuca at Duke

the coaches who cared and took a positive outlook about their players were always the most successful. I continued to observe this dynamic as my four children played different sports. The most striking example came one winter when one of my sons played basketball for both an AAU team and a high school.

My son was an excellent shooter. The coach of the AAU team would encourage him to shoot to an extreme, going so far as to tell him that he would take him out of the game unless he was taking every open shot that he had. In one AAU game, my son hit nine consecutive three-point shots to help his team to victory.

At the same time, my son played for a high school team whose coach would take his players out as soon as they missed a shot or made a mistake. This led to the players focusing more on the coach than on the game. Instead of trying to win, they were trying not to lose or make a mistake. In my son’s first game for his high school coach, he missed almost every shot and was shuttled in and out of the lineup. His AAU coach took him aside and told him that he needed to block out the criticism and play his own game. The other players also decided to focus on the game rather than mistakes. My son listened and became the co-captain and one of the leading scorers on the team.  The team made it to the state semi-finals. It always amazed me that players could perform so differently based on a positive versus negative reinforcing approach.

Now: In business today, the best companies focus and reward people based on what they can do while trying to help them develop areas where they can improve. To me, this positive coaching approach is critical to the success of large business organizations and separates the great companies from the good companies.

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Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge

I have also directly observed this dynamic in the NBA, where coaches like Doc Rivers and general managers like Danny Ainge get so much out of their players because they believe in them and put them in positions where their skills are best utilized. The power of positive reinforcement brings extraordinary results in sports and in life. Doc teaches and cares about his players. He builds them up rather than tearing them down.  Danny is brilliant at drafting players and focusing relentlessly on their strengths.  This approach has been instrumental in the team’s success, serving as part of the reason why the Celtics play hard every single night.  There is great drama in seeing the players perform at their best and continue to learn and grow.

Potential

Principle: Focus on your potential instead of your limitations.

Then: In the mid-70s, the country got swept up in the historic tennis rivalry between Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. Each of these individuals had worked tirelessly to reach his full potential. I especially appreciated the mindset of Borg, who hit the ball as hard as he could and played the best he could without ever thinking about his opponent. He represented the epitome of being the best you can be.

In high school, I tried to follow this lead by practicing hard and focusing on the little things. As a point guard I tried to make the other players better. Passing, defending and taking charges allowed me to be a starter and contributor on the team. Focusing on what you do best and your own potential often generates superior results.

Now: Too many times in business today, companies or organizations become overly focused on what the competition is doing rather than focusing on their core customers. Many companies have gone astray by abandoning their core and trying to be bigger or more diversified than their competitors, driven by a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. Many organizations, especially in today’s economic downturn, are rife with “schadenfreude,” a German term for taking pleasure in the misfortune of your competitors. I think the best organizations can learn a lot from Bjorn Borg, who relentlessly focused on the things he did best without regard to the competition. This approach allowed him to become one of the greatest champions of all time. It also won him the respect and admiration of fans and even his competitors.  Focusing on your strengths and fulfilling your potential always creates the best results.

Reach for the Stars

Principle: Dare to be great.

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Sharing in a Team Triumph

Then and now: The qualities of dreaming, reaching for and achieving success are fundamental to excelling in sports. These same qualities translate perfectly into the business world and life in general. The values of teamwork and achieving a common goal are fundamental to success in business and life.

We learn that striving for excellence in any endeavor requires hard work. Reaching the pinnacle of achievement – the World Championship or a place in the Hall of Fame – requires daring dreams that can sustain years of intensive effort.  In a team context, a bold, shared vision inspires us to reach beyond our own individual achievements and toward a greater purpose. This vision — whether it is in sports, business or any aspect of life — transforms you and those around you.

More than 100 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt captured the essence of this quest: The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

From the locker room to the boardroom, these lessons are timeless.

The principles that were taught and the ambitions that were fueled by Pee Wee football back in 1963 still hold true. Today, the Lakers, Cavaliers and Magic have replaced the Rockets, Comets and Jets of my youth, but the patience, perseverance, passion, positive attitude, and daring dreams that were ingredients for success then remain invaluable in facing the challenges to come.

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2 Comments for “Sports and Life: Common Principles of Success Part II”

  1. Dr. Dennis Becker Says:

    This is one of the best sports-business commentaries I’ve ever read, direct, related, and written in shirt sleeve English. Those of us who have followed a similar path can validate and appreciate each example given by Steve. It is even more meaningful to those of us who are lifelong Celtics fans and who understand the patience, perseverance, passion, and positive attitude that only a Red Auerbach could teach. Lead on ,Steve.

  2. Elena Barmakova, Chairman of the Board FCI Says:

    For someone who relates to sports, especially in basketball, and has established a career in business, this article will provide a great deal of inspiration. Those who follow this path (sports-business) are often over-achievers. Steve’s article teaches us to think on the positive scale of life. His passion for sports and business success highlights his article, which can be great guide for life and its ups and downs. It is good to remember Steve’s point, “taking a chance is critical in a moment of crisis”. It is all positive depending on how you handle, it is all about a turnaround situation.
    Being a former pro basketball player and now businesswomen (active member of Young Global Leaders), I always relate to, and get a great deal of life encouragement, from someone who has been there, has done it, and has done the best and become the best example in our life time. Steve leads in sports, business and life.
    I met Steve recently at a Celtics game, and reading this article was a very inspiring and elevating experience, (great basketball photos!).
    It is all about the right team, leadership, taking the right shot, making the right decision in the critical moment, and long life preparation for that moment…and it will come.
    Love it!
    Keep highlights of his article on your desk to find more success in life!

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