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Volume 20 No. 42
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Taking risks, even with setbacks, propels us to greater heights

The following is an excerpt from Pam Borton’s new book, “On Point: A Coach’s Game Plan for Life, Leadership, and Performing with Grace Under Fire” (Morgan James Publishers, New York).

I have been asked by many people to write or to speak about leadership and risk-taking, especially for women. When I stop and think about these topics and what risks I have taken during my personal and professional life, I realize I have taken more risks than I thought.

Reflecting on my early childhood, I have always been a risk-taker. Some have been worth it and others I have learned from and were mistakes. My risk-taking started early growing up on a farm and riding dirt bikes, driving snowmobiles and operating heavy machinery — I lived on the edge and flirted with danger routinely. In taking risks growing up, I learned a lot about myself and I pushed myself beyond limits I never knew I faced. I loved speed, thrived on adventure, was comfortable taking risks; I experienced failure and learned at an early age to move on to the next play in life, never delaying too long in any one moment.

In a small community, families tend to stay near home and to live near each other. I was the first one of my siblings to go to a four-year college and then moved away from home to the east coast to take my first job at the age of 22. I was considered the black sheep in the family and the one who wasn’t afraid to take risks.

Lessons from athletics translate well to risk-taking in the business world.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
Moving to the east coast, I spent nine years at the University of Vermont, first as an assistant and then as the head coach. After nine years, I was successful and comfortable in Burlington, but I was only 31 years old and I wanted more. I wanted to be at an institution and with a program with a chance to go to a Final Four and win a national championship. We couldn’t achieve that at Vermont. So, I took a professional risk and stepped back in the hope that eventually I would land a head-coaching job in one of the top five conferences in the country.

Leaving Vermont, I accepted an assistant coaching position at Boston College. I struggled for a few weeks and obsessed about making the right decision. I was worried about what everyone would think and I wondered if the move would help me accomplish my goals. I accepted the risk and took what most considered a step backwards, joining Boston College as an assistant. In three years, I was promoted to associate head coach and eventually was recruited and hired at the University of Minnesota as head basketball coach.

Leaving Vermont involved risk-taking, and the decision was one I anguished over. But I made the decision and was optimistic and approached it as a win-win, no matter what happened. The risk paid off five years later when I landed a big-time job in the best and richest conference in the country, the Big Ten. This risk, and others in my life, have paid off and propelled me to greater heights. In addition, success in accepting risk gave me more confidence to continue taking more risks.

The greater the risk, the greater the reward — we’ve all heard this saying — and it was a common refrain from many people who were close to me. As a head coach, it felt like every year I was hiring people for assistant positions, securing new support staff and, of course, recruiting players. Several times while hiring my staff, I was torn between two people. On a few occasions I chose the wrong one, trying to select what I thought was the “less risky” candidate. I was being careful and didn’t want to make a mistake, so I played it safe more times than I want to admit. Some of these choices turned out just fine and some didn’t. What I learned is that I am an expert in hiring people and putting teams together, so I should trust myself and take the risk on a person if I felt it would benefit me and my team.

I also took risks on the types of student athletes I recruited. Some of these risks did not turn out so well. When you sacrifice values and what you look for in the people you surround yourself with, in a brutal and results-driven profession, too many mistakes will cost you your job. You need to select people who will perform on and off the floor: those who would fit your style, personality and expectations and those who could compete in the Big Ten and at the University of Minnesota, academically, socially and athletically. I took risks in recruiting that set the program back.

“If you’re too slow to adapt to changes … the entire enterprise will come tumbling down.”
Today, I’m surrounded by the best! My board members, my business partners, the people who run my organizations, my clients and my friends all have these characteristics and traits. I learned the hard way but now, in my own businesses and in life, these are the only types of people I hire, work with or have on my teams.

Deciding to leave college basketball coaching after 27 years to start my own business represented a huge risk. People thought I was crazy. College coaches looked at me and said, All you/we know how to do is coach basketball. True, we had played and coached basketball our whole lives and to think about doing something else was scary and daunting.
Recently, I spoke to one of my greatest mentors who still coaches the game today.

He has coached for more than 30 years and is in the Hall of Fame. He said to me, “I thought all we could ever do was coach basketball. But look at what you have done. You transferred all of your skills of managing, leading, coaching and motivating, and you took those skills into coaching and consulting in business and corporate America.”

It’s in an organization’s best interest to combine lessons from athletics for managing change in universities and in business. If you’re too slow to adapt to changes taking place in the university and collegiate athletics environment, the entire enterprise will come tumbling down. In business, if you’re too slow to change or you don’t manage change effectively or quickly, you’ll find yourself and your organization disjointed while the competition is winning and moving light years ahead.

Pam Borton, the winningest coach in University of Minnesota women’s basketball, is president and CEO of Borton Partners and a top-performing ICF executive coach and keynote speaker.