March Madness Lessons: Becoming A Change Leader

Avatar photo

March Madness is my favorite time of year. I love it more than all the other holidays combined. I love wondering which #1 will go down first, who the Cinderella will be, and when my bracket will get completely busted. But mostly, I love watching the games and cheering on the Kansas Jayhawks. 2022 was a special year for me as I got to watch my team make it all the way to the championship game. For those of you who may have watched that championship game, I’m sure many of you thought there was no way Kansas was going to win it all watching their first-half performance. Down 15 points at halftime, my team had dug a hole so deep that many people I knew were sending me condolences, turning off their TVs, and going to bed. But I had faith. And turn things around they did going on a 31-10 run at the start of the second half and the rest, as they say, is history.

In reflecting on that game and other games where teams come from behind to win it all, I realize that coaches are the ultimate change managers.  They are constantly responding to a set of circumstances and adjusting strategies to hopefully walk away with a W on the scoreboard. The job of a coach isn’t that much different than that of a leader during an organizational transformation. They must align their team on the goals, scan the environment and competition, prepare the team, execute the game plan, and coach the players to adapt to the circumstances. Maybe you’re skeptical of my analogy of a coach as a change leader, so let me explain using the ASPECT change framework below:

Align – For a coach, aligning may seem as straightforward as winning the game. But for a leader, it may be slightly more complicated given team personalities, competing priorities, and differences in opinion on what the organization should achieve. Getting the leadership team aligned on the vision and purpose as well as what behaviors you need to model as a leadership team to enable the change and how you will hold each other accountable are critical first steps towards transformation.

Scan – Just as coaches watch a lot of tapes, assess the strengths and weaknesses of the team, and think about matchups, a leader must have a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his or her leadership team, organizational health, and org readiness for change. Typical questions a leader should address are: Where may I find the most resistance? What impacts will this change have on my organization? Do we have the right skills and capabilities to lead our organization through this change? By scanning, the leader can understand what areas he or she needs to focus on to support his or her team and organization to get ready for change.

Prepare – Coaches prepare before games by practicing offensive and defensive plays they believe will help their team respond to their opponent on the court. Leaders must also prepare their leadership team and organization for change. Prepping the organization requires time, energy, and tailoring strategies to the needs of the different stakeholder groups but the most important part of preparing the organization, is linking transformation goals to the “what’s in it for me” (WIFM) from the very beginning.  Making this connection at the beginning will help people realize they have a stake in the process and make the change “real” for them.

Execute – Game day…or as we say in the corporate world, Day One! Whatever terminology you choose to call it, this is the day you execute the plan. Whether you’re initiating new processes, using new systems, moving leaders into place, or transitioning to a new structure, execution is where you see all the planning and preparation come to fruition.

Coach – Of all the steps outlined above, this is probably the most critical step and one of the hardest to maintain. Coaching requires active engagement, encouragement, transparency, empathy, and the ability to adjust. Right before the end of the first half of the 2022 NCAA championship game, the coach asked the team “Which would be harder, being down nine with two minutes left or being down 15 with 20?” (in reference to the position his national championship team found themselves in 2008 in the second half). They all answered being down 9. The coach also told them they “sucked” in the first half and weren’t playing like themselves. He was honest with the team but also found a way to convince them that they had an excellent chance to turn things around if they played with pride and to their true potential. A leader must embrace similar characteristics to coach his or her team and organization through transformation. Things are not always going to go as planned and sometimes things may suck but it’s how the leader adapts and coaches the organization and its leaders to help get things back on track or forge a new way forward.

Transform – Transform is the desired output of all the steps outlined above. Unlike many college basketball players these days, these steps are not “one and done” efforts to transform your organization but require iteration, flexibility, and adaptation to meet your organization where they are in the transformation process.

You may not be a Hall of Fame Coach facing a 15-point deficit on one of the world’s biggest stages but you may be a leader being tasked with leading your organization through a transformation and wondering where to start.  The ASPECT framework provides you with the necessary components to lead your organization through any type of transformation whether big or small.