Top athletic teams create exceptional levels of performance of people and teams. They aspire to move beyond competence to excellence. Their concepts and methods provide lessons to those that would build excellence in marketing teams. In that spirit, I was attracted to the new book entitled Toughness:  Developing True Strength on and off the Court by Jay Bilas. Jay was a top level basketball player for four years under fabled Coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, played professional ball in Italy and is now an ESPN basketball analyst. He explores the value of toughness in a basketball player and team, a quality much admired in the sports world. His observations contain some familiar and some less-familiar admonitions, but his “toughness” perspective provides insights into how to achieve real excellence in a marketing team.

Toughness is mental and is associated with the will to win, the belief that you will win, adjusting in the face of adversity when necessary, being smart and disciplined, doing the little things that may not be visible, and being relentless. It does not imply physical aggressiveness. Rather, it is the mental side of the job that in basketball especially has been described as more important (and in some cases much more important) than talent. And many basketball coaches assert that “toughness” can be and needs to be taught, it is not innate. It’s fascinating to see what Jay believes drives “toughness,” because many of the drivers will be familiar to organizational theorists. However, they are placed in a different context with the objective of having a mindset of delivering excellence and winning. These drivers are based on his rich experience of observing and talking to the best coaches and players in basketball.

In general, toughness in enhanced when people and teams:

  • Are flexible and adjust to the competition. Being tough does not mean being stubborn and sticking to a strategy that isn’t working. There is a culture that encourages adaptation.
  • Trust in the leadership and in the wisdom and feasibility of shared goals. A leader needs to get buy-in. The great coaches have credibility in their philosophy and system plus goals that make sense and that are much more refined than simply winning games.
  • Accept roles. Everyone can’t be a star. You need sixth men, defenders and rebounders. When players accept and take pride in their roles the team excels. Roles and role players in basketball are rewarded with praise and support.
  • Communicate and trust each other. People and teams cannot become tough on their own. Toughness requires the support of others, and that means communication and trust. In defense, a defender needs to know that a teammate is backing him or her up. There are explicit programs and drills that foster communication and trust in teammates.
  • Are confident in their abilities. Being tough requires confidence that is enhanced when coaches tell their teams and players that they are good and capable of beating the competition. Coach K would insist that his players transfer that confidence into body language so that it would be part of them.
  • Are prepared. Being tough means excelling under adversity. Coaches practice dealing with unexpected difficulties so that confidence is not shaken at crucial times. For example, teams might practice what to do when an opponent switches defenses.
  • Have fun. Ultimately it has to be fun, or there will be burn-out. During an intense moment in a game, Coach K smiled and asked if there was anything more fun than this. Good leaders, whether coaches or players, are more effective if they can lighten up at the right moment.

We too often focus on the strategies and mechanics of the job and struggle with developing and implementing the mental side: the culture, values, and higher level goals of the organization. We can learn from competitive basketball and from coaches, teams and players that have learned how to understand and manage the mental part of the game.

Their beliefs and experiences suggest that a dose of toughness might help a CMO and his or her team learn what it takes to be tough and deal with the difficult and complex challenges in today’s marketplace.