As the NCAA basketball tournament gets underway, I’ve been thinking a lot about some words of wisdom that I heard from the Suzy Merchant, the MSU women’s basketball coach. As a Michigan State University employee, I was fortunate to attend a staff meeting held by University Advancement this past January at which Ms. Merchant was the keynote speaker. She was asked to talk about teamwork and what she looks for in scouting her team members. Her words were very insightful for both athletic teams and office teams. The bottom line: teams are built on character, and you can look for certain characteristics when you build your team (read: hire employees or gather volunteers) that could help your organization to be more successful.

So, according to Ms. Merchant, what mix of character makes for the right team member?

Sign reading "work in progress"

Photo: Flickr user blumpy

1. Work Ethic

Work ethic is key in the highly competitive world of Big Ten sports. As Ms. Merchant points out, if you want something you have to go and get it. You can’t expect things to come to you easily. You need to pursue them. You need to dare to take risks and dare to be great. You need to prepare, because preparation leads to confidence and confidence leads to success.

In the business world, this also applies. If you want your business or organization to succeed, you need to work. You can’t just show up, punch in at eight and out at five and expect your business to go anywhere. As a team, everyone needs to have a strong work ethic. If one person isn’t pulling their weight the whole team can suffer.

2. High Character

Ms. Merchant noted that athletic coaches are only one player away from getting fired. You scout one bad apple who messes up in a major way, and your own career can be over. As a team member, each players’ actions affect the team as a whole, from the way they are viewed by the media to the respect they receive from fans and competitors. It is up to each individual team member to represent the organization well.

Another element of this comes in the form of the way you treat your teammates. You can’t coach or work well with people you don’t like. You need to treat each other and act like decent human beings. In Ms. Merchant’s words, “It’s not that hard!” You need to be all in, all the time – constantly working for the good of the team because you know the team reflects back on you. You need to be mentally and physically tough, and make no excuses. Accept the consequences of your actions and hold yourself accountable, because your team does.

How’s this for tough? The basketball team has conducted leadership and team building activities with Navy SEALs. If that doesn’t toughen you up, I don’t know what will. Note (especially to my boss, if she’s reading this): I’m not saying that you should bring drill sergeants into your next staff meeting. But it can’t hurt to take a look at ourselves and evaluate whether we hold ourselves to a high standard, and whether we hold ourselves just as accountable for projects as we do our fellow teammates. Give yourself a little tough love if you need it.

3. Passion

You need to bring passion to what you do and to your team. Ms. Merchant notes that you are either an energy giver or an energy taker. If you have passion for what you do then you’ll bring energy to the project and energy to your team. If you’re a taker, you could be a drain on others. Life is hard and it isn’t fair, but if you suck it up and approach your projects enthusiastically you’ll have an easier time of things. Enthusiasm can be a key trait to leadership.