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John Calipari lives by the credo 'Players First'

By Harvey Mackay

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, May 27 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kentucky head coach John Calipari answers a question after a practice session for a men's NCAA Final Four semifinal game in 2011.

David J. Phillip, Associated Press

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Editor’s note: Harvey Mackay will be one of several presenters at the June 19 Rocky Mountain Leadership Conference, sponsored by Utah Business Magazine. Utah Business has provided this column as insight into what Mackay will present at the conference. To learn about the conference, go to utahbusiness.com/rmlc.

John Calipari is one of the most fascinating basketball coaches you will ever meet. He is calm and animated at the same time. He is intense yet introspective. He loves — and lives — to win. And he always, always, always lives by the credo “Players First,” which is also the title of his new book.

The University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach has had much more than the usual amount of success. Well-deserved, I might add. And I had the pleasure of visiting with him during the recent NCAA Final Four. I’ve known him since he was the head coach of the New Jersey Nets; I spoke to their season ticket holders in 1997.

His book “Players First” is a straight talk, no-holds-barred, lay-it-on-the-line study of a man and his philosophy. He has stirred up controversy from time to time; he doesn’t apologize for that. He is committed to developing young players into the best team and the best people they can be.

That is where “Players First” comes in. He says, “We reach our goals by striving together toward collective goals. During the season, it’s all about the team; after the season, it’s about the individual.” His plain-spoken manner is central so that players can make honest self-appraisals.

He realizes he has a reputation as a “one and done” guy, where superstar kids play one year and then leave school to go into the NBA. He understands his role in their development and says that “some people see the young players as future millionaires, just stopping through before they cash in. That’s not what I see. They’re kids, some as young as 17 years old. They all need me in a different way.”

Calipari is completely honest with his players: “Playing for me is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. If you’re not up for that, go somewhere else. Please go somewhere else.”

As a real basketball junkie, I was completely enthralled with his book. I loved the stories, the strategy and the thoughts behind his decisions. And then I realized that I was reading a book about so much more than basketball. Calipari has incorporated a variety of business and life lessons that will resonate with sports fans as well as those who don’t know a slam dunk from a grand slam.

For example, he makes lists and advises readers to write things down and give themselves a deadline. Business people know the importance of being organized and setting goals. Take it from me: If you don’t have a good game plan, how do you expect to win?

Calipari tells his players, “You’ve got to love the grind. Embrace the work. Embrace the sweat. Embrace the pain.” Managers everywhere can relate to that kind of a pep talk. There are parts of every job that require the kind of dedication that enables you to work through the difficult or tedious tasks. Just like winning basketball requires practice, practice and more practice, to be really good at what you do takes plenty of preparation. You might as well enjoy the journey.

The coach discusses at length the importance of turning his players into “servant-leaders,” servants first and then a desire to lead. That concept easily translates to business. Management and staff alike need to demonstrate a servant mentality toward each other and toward customers. The leadership component is a logical next step for team players.

“Anyone who ever taught one of my kids,” Calipari says, “I wanted them to use every single tool they had to make my kids the best version of themselves.”

Good managers teach or train their staffs to develop their skills for the good of the team. I encourage mentoring at every level. Good advice and sincere interest in career advancement bring rewards to both sides of the relationship.

Calipari believes in sharing the glory, a concept that really successful businesses understand. He says, “After any kind of success we experience, I want every single person who works for the basketball program to feel that their personal imprint is on it.”

But perhaps his most valuable lesson is that he tells his players to “Fail fast. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Fail fast, and we’ll correct.”

I couldn’t agree more. I tell people that if you want to triple your success rate, you have to triple your failure rate. You can learn so much from your mistakes.

Mackay’s moral: Life’s failures are stepping stones to success.

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