Thoughts from Ken Kaufman

Lessons from the Final Four

3 minute
Basketball on a court

The regular season of the men’s Division 1 NCAA college basketball season began on November 9, 2021, and concluded on March 13, 2022, In that time, 358 teams played more than 5,000 games.

As of March 30, the date I am writing this blog, 68 teams played 64 games in the NCAA Championship Tournament.

At this point in that long and competitive regular-season and post-season journey, we are left with four teams standing: Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and Villanova.

If the teams in this year’s Final Four look familiar, there is a reason. Since the NCAA men’s basketball tournament began in 1939, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and Villanova have participated in a combined 58 Final Fours. Between them, they have won 17 national championships.

To reach the Final Four in any single NCAA season is a major achievement. And this level of success, over many years against formidable competition, is no accident. It is the result of elements that only a few university men’s basketball programs have been able to fully achieve and sustain over time. And the elements that these blue-blood basketball programs have are the elements of success for any enterprise, particularly in today’s economy.

Management (coaching) excellence. Coach K, Bill Self, Hubert Davis, and Jay Wright are extraordinary leaders. They combine deep knowledge, strategic insight, organizational savvy, relentless drive, and superb motivational skills. There is no substitute for extraordinary leadership.

Resources and facilities. These schools make it a point to invest extravagantly in their basketball programs. All four are in the top 20 of university basketball program spending, and Duke is number 1. This level of investment gives their programs significant advantages in areas such as coaching, recruiting, and training.

A tradition of excellence. Winning is an ethic and a culture. An enterprise that succeeds year-in and year-out expects to win. These organizations know the resources, execution, and drive that go into winning, and they know how to marshal them every day and every year. They go into every situation with confidence, and with the fundamentals and history to back up that confidence.

The sustained experience of success. Top-flight enterprises are successful because they are successful. Success brings additional financial resources. Additional financial resources bring better tools and talent. It is no surprise that opportunity knocks repeatedly at the address of successful enterprises; the best people and the best organizations want to be part of that success.

The expectation of success. Organizations that win don’t expect to fail or perform poorly. Winning against all comers is the expectation. These organizations hate to lose, and the occasional inevitable losses are routinely transformed into fuel for future success.

In any tournament, we have upsets. Inevitably, an underdog makes a serious run at the title, such as we had this year when Saint Peter’s became the first 15-seed to reach the Elite Eight, and in the process wreaked havoc on my bracket. This phenomenon is inevitable. Statistics 101 tells us that any single head-to-head match-up carries the significant probability of the underdog winning. However, true enterprise success is never an upset. It is not a one-time occurrence against the odds, but rather a set of attributes that successful organizations put forth over the years.

In today’s economy, scale, aggressiveness, and ambition are central to success. Success over time has helped certain dominant companies grow to huge scale, and that level of scale is a platform for sustained success because of their advantageous access to financial and intellectual resources.

These companies are also successful because they have had the most imaginative, aggressive, and motivational leaders—some of the greatest business leaders of our time or any time.

And these companies are successful because winning is part of their culture. They pursue with the intention of dominating entire industry verticals and transforming how people interact with technology. And when failures occur, whether it’s a disappointing product launch or a bad earnings quarter, these organizations don’t back down, they double down.

The long-term attributes of this year’s Final Four are certainly the attributes of success in college basketball. They are also the attributes of success for businesses in a scaled economy. Whatever sort of enterprise you participate in, these observations form your own playbook for success in our current business environment.

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