Business and Ex-Basketball Coach Offers Tips for Staying on Top of Your Game

by Kristine Hansen

4 min read

Whether he’s coaching small businesses or corporations like Dell and State Farm, Micheal Burt helps managers learn how to stand out in a crowd.

“As a small-business owner and entrepreneur, the biggest challenge we all face is obscurity,” says Burt (pictured), who likes to compare the marketplace to the animal kingdom. “There’s a strong need to look different than your competitors and run faster than them. A cheetah runs faster than all other animals. Your unique past all adds up to this. How can you be agile? How can you be an entrepreneur instead of a bureaucracy with a committee?”

In the new book Zebras & Cheetahs: Look Different and Stay Agile to Survive the Business Jungle, which he co-authored with Colby Jubenville, Burt digs even deeper into that analogy. He also borrows from his experience coaching a high-school women’s basketball team to seven consecutive winning seasons and a state championship in his home state of Tennessee.

“In the business world, we help people define a championship,” says Burt. “A lot of my thinking comes from this coaching acumen. What I was trying to build is a battle-tested tribe. When we went into metaphorical war, we had to have a tribe [whose members had] each other’s backs. That’s what great coaches do: They coach people toward a championship.”

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently spoke with Burt, who was fresh off a morning training session, about navigating the business jungle.

ISBB: What inspired you to write this book?

Burt: I had real estate agents in my training facility today. Ninety-five percent of them all look the same. They have websites where they cut and paste their picture in there. They all have the same position. When you’re competing in a commoditized industry, and you don’t look any different, why should I pick you? What makes me a zebra? What makes me look different than the other 2,000 real estate agents in my market?

What are examples of a 10,000-pound gorilla in the workplace?

A lot of small gorillas make up the big gorilla. It’s a metaphor we use for culture. John Kotter used to say, ‘Your culture will eat your strategy any day of the week.’ If you don’t have a culture to support your strategy, that will never happen.

It’s either a high-energy culture or an apathetic, cancerous culture. It powers over everything in the concrete jungle. Go into any bad restaurant and they’ve got a bad culture. Go to any sports team that’s not producing and they’ve got a bad culture. It’s almost like this huge intangible that you can’t measure, but it’s there. Almost everybody in America’s been in one of those.

All 10,000-pound gorillas are driven by the expectations and the accountability of the primary leader. When you go to a dirty restaurant, or if there’s bad service or it’s dated, it leads me to believe that the primary leader has very low expectations when it comes to culture. Bad leaders equal bad culture. No expectation in any company leads to bad culture. Bad culture leads to underperforming teams and usually overall apathy.

We just worked with a company today that has two progressive Realtors, but it all leads back to the team. They’re all energized up and want to do something big, but the culture is sucking that out of them.

What defines a “concrete jungle” in 2013?

Picture yourself going down the current as fast as you can and having all kinds of things hitting you from different directions. That’s the equivalent of 250 emails, unlimited social media, and between four to 10 voice mail messages per day. We call it “the current of the urgent.”

Then we have all the other animals — the turtles that are slow to opportunity and don’t want to change, and the alligators that are territorial. We do these workshops and we say, ‘Who is the turtle, and the alligator, and what about your 10,000-pound gorilla?’ Word association makes it fun. A cheetah leader is out there making things happen, and they’re never late to a party. They’re just waiting for an opportunity to pounce. You could equate turtles with big bureaucracy, where we have to go through 10 committees to make a decision.

What’s a recent example where you helped a client tame a gorilla?

We’re working with … a $20 million to $30 million in revenue company. Its external market shifted, and elements in the jungle changed. They’re still doing what they’re doing, but they’ve let off the gas pedal. Their morale is bad and there’s no accountability, which is leading this company close to bankruptcy if it doesn’t turn around.

We immediately [introduce] a thunderbolt — a lot of energy with a real methodology — to get them out of this mess that they’re in. What we would do is go in and add scoreboards, high-value activities, and constant coaching in areas of need. We coach these people toward a dominant focus.

What happens is the culture immediately improves: Activity goes up. Morale goes up. Energy goes up. Teamwork goes up. That, in turn, takes a negative culture and turns it into a positive culture. If you’ve got a bad culture, you need a culture shock. Many times your culture shock comes from the outside. You can’t see the picture when you’re inside the frame. That’s why you need an outside party and a specialist. Growth is incredibly complicated, getting everyone in the concrete jungle toward a dominant focus. Not everybody wants to go to the same place. Some will ask, What’s in it for me?

In an office, what constitutes a good tribe?

To build a strong tribe, think of engaged followers and engaged participants. Lots of people have a disengaged tribe, or a free-agent tribe, where everyone’s moving in different directions.

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