For 12 years, 7’4” “Big” Mark Eaton played center for the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Utah Jazz where he reigned as one of the league’s preeminent defenders. Retired from the NBA since 1994, Eaton has forged a successful post-basketball career as an entrepreneur, business and community leader, and speaker. He now shares with individuals and organizations what he calls the “four commitments of a winning team”—strategies that empowered him and the Utah Jazz to win hundreds of games and compete for championships. Through his programs, he shows audiences how to apply the strategies of professional sports superstars to transform their lives and achieve greater productivity and profitability in their work.
JATHAN JANOVE: I understand your path to the NBA was atypical. What happened?
MARK EATON: At the age of 21, I was convinced I couldn’t play basketball. I didn’t even play recreationally. Instead, I was a full-time auto mechanic.
JJ: What changed things?
ME: A junior college coach drove by the shop where I worked and witnessed all 7’4” of me on the corner speaking to a very short customer!
Taken with my size and potential, he tried to persuade me to enroll in his school and join his team. I initially turned him down as I felt that that part of my life was behind me. However, he kept coming back and eventually showed me some things about the game of basketball that I had never considered.
JJ: What happened next?
ME: I decided to give it one more try and played at Cypress College for two years. I then transferred to UCLA to play on the team with a coach who thought I had a lot to offer. Turns out he was not as enamored with me as I had initially thought, and I spent two years on the bench.
JJ: So how did you go from college benchwarmer to 12-year NBA veteran?
ME: Well, I was pretty discouraged by my UCLA experience and prepared to quit basketball again, this time for good. However, something happened that changed my mind—a life-changing experience I had while playing a high-level recreational game on the UCLA campus. Frustrated with my inability to run with the smaller players, I had left the game, and sat down, dejected.
Suddenly I felt a large hand on my shoulder. It was Wilt Chamberlain, who at that time had just retired from the NBA. He gave me a pep talk that has profoundly influenced me to this day. He showed me what I could do on the court that I could be great at! The one thing I could do that would help my team and my career: Stop other players from getting to the basket! While I was busy trying to catch every point guard, I wasn’t getting underneath the basket quickly enough to do my job. After Wilt’s talk, I stopped running around, trying to do everything. Instead, I redefined my job to focus on defense and guarding the area around the basket.
Once in the NBA, I applied Wilt’s advice. I figured out my role, worked hard at it, and managed to turn it into a 12-year NBA career. [Note: Eaton did more than turn his role into a career. He made the All-Star team and won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award twice. He still holds the NBA single-season record for blocked shots. And, after his playing days ended, the Jazz retired his number.]
I didn’t know it at the time, but Wilt was explaining the first of four commitments I now share during my presentation, “The Four Commitments of a Winning Team”: Know Your Job. Focus on the one thing at which you are excellent and stay with it. This means taking the time to find out what your strengths are, if you don’t already know. Then, narrow and intensify your focus to hone the skills involved in what you do best. If everyone on your team focuses on what they do best, your company will have a great plan for victory.
JJ: What did you learn in the NBA about teamwork?
ME: That the success of a team is directly related to your ability to make the people around you look good.
My first NBA coach told us, “No one cares if you score a lot of points on a losing team; everyone wants the players from a winning team.” He said that if we would stop competing with each other, and would start to cooperate with each other, the individual accolades would eventually show up.
JJ: What parallels do you see in the workplace?
ME: In corporate culture, employees are often trying to protect their own turf or are trying to get to the next level at other employees’ expense. This creates a state of fear and unhealthy internal competition. In this environment, employees ultimately strive to avoid risk and don’t take chances. Great ideas stay parked at their desks.
The key is to end internal competition and get everybody aligned around a common goal. Employees have to see that if the team (or company) wins, they win also. In fact, that is the only way they will truly succeed. To do this, management has to embrace and reinforce a team mentality by instilling a sense of camaraderie and team spirit among employees. Managers can encourage group activities such as lunches and dinners, organize softball teams, or plan employee team-building retreats.
JJ: What can organizational leaders learn from basketball to overcome this problem?
ME: As a leader, you are responsible for instituting the team culture of making others look good and, in turn, explaining how that mindset will result in corporate and individual benefit.
JJ: What do you mean?
ME: When the employees on your workforce truly understand their roles and how their efforts will benefit themselves and their coworkers, harmony will replace war and you will have an unstoppable (and unbeatable) team!
How focused is your team on making others look good on a scale of 1-10? Want to improve that score?
Mark Eaton is a business speaker and coach who works with organizations and individuals sharing the four commitments that bring about teamwork, breakthrough success, and sustained cultural change. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website.
Jathan Janove, a former Ogletree Deakins shareholder and Director of Employee Engagement Solutions, is the Principal of Janove Organization Solutions (www.jathanjanove.com). Through consulting, executive coaching, and training, he helps organizations maximize the human potential within. He can be reached at email@example.com.