Lessons of a basketball turnaround

CEO: Terps coach Gary Williams displays the qualities of a turnaround specialist, business experts say.

March 18, 2004|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

As business school dean at the University of Maryland, Howard Frank was as impressed as anyone on campus with the turnaround of the men's basketball team and what it said about the management skills of a certain 1967 graduate of the business school - coach Gary Williams.

"Sports and business, they're the same. You have to have management structure. You have to have people selection skills. You have to train. That's what great coaches and great executives do," said Frank, who heads the Robert H. Smith School of Business. "I always knew Gary had it in him."

Business educators, corporate turnaround specialists and management consultants were as impressed as any fan with the recent, dramatic reversal of play that led the University of Maryland men's basketball team to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship Sunday and into the NCAA tournament that begins today.

Nearly bankrupt in the standings three weeks ago - in business speak, "missing their numbers" - the team's rise in performance under pressure offers lessons of leadership as relevant in a boardroom as on the hardwood, executives said.

Call it Management 101: Turning around the Terps.

"He had to be a good salesman. He had to be a mentor. He had to get his team's attention and he had a heavy conviction in what he believed in," Waring Justis Jr., a partner of Justis & Justis, a turnaround firm in Baltimore County, said of the coach. "He instilled a desire in his team. Then he closed the deal."

In the case of a troubled team or a troubled company, management experts said, turnarounds typically share three key traits: the ability to identify talent, develop a good strategy and find a leader who can forge a supporting cast. Such a leader was sophomore guard John Gilchrist, who won the Most Valuable Player award of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

"Think of it as a stool that has three legs," said John M. Collard of Strategic Management Partners, a turnaround specialist in Annapolis. "If you cut one leg out, it's not going to support itself. When I got into a turnaround situation as a CEO of a company, what I'm looking for is the strength of the people left within the organization."

Some keys to the turnaround of a basketball team or a business, they said:

A leader doesn't give up. In that regard, they noted, Williams has been unfailing.

Having lost two of four games in the ACC by Feb. 1, Williams still maintained a positive outlook. "You have to win the games you can win and move on. And if you don't, you can't get down," he said two days before losing to North Carolina State, 81-69.

A leader must be patient and allow for mistakes.

"I've rarely seen a successful turnaround without mistakes," Justis said. "What's important is that you back up and do it again. You don't dwell on it. You learn from it and then you keep moving on."

Though famously emotional and impatient, Williams spent the better part of the season drilling the team on plays over and over, especially in trying to avoid turning the ball over.

A leader must keep a positive attitude, while remaining realistic.

After Maryland lost to Georgia Tech on Feb. 19 and needed to win three of its last five games to have a shot at qualifying for the NCAA tournament for its 11th straight season, Williams said of his team, "This is a long way from being over." But he also didn't mince words later about his team's continuing problems with missed free throws, scoring droughts and weak passing.

A leader needs charisma and team loyalty.

"In this case, coach Williams was a very focused person and he focused his team," Justis said. "The most important quality a boss can imbue in the chain of command is that he has trust in them. When someone trusts you to do something, you don't want to breach that trust. You'll go 120 percent to accomplish that to make sure the person knows that the trust is well-placed."

The team sensed that trust and responded to the coach's admonitions about living up to the squad's legacy by scoring three upsets within 42 hours last weekend, beating Wake Forest, North Carolina State and arch rival Duke.

"Most good turnaround managers motivate people instead of threatening them," said John Rizzardi, a Seattle attorney who also serves as chairman of the Turnaround Management Association in Chicago that specializes in restoring and strengthening troubled companies. "Coach Williams obviously looked up at the sky and found some inspiration."

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