March Madness: What Seven Lessons Can We Learn From IU Athletics About Organizational Excellence?

By Bill Brown, Director

At a recent campus committee meeting it was proposed that we aim for the “mean” of the Big Ten to set a particular policy goal. Being in the middle of the pack is certainly safe and defensible, but the thought occurred to me, which I felt compelled to ask in the meeting, “What would Fred Glass or Tom Crean say about aiming for the middle of the Big Ten?”

So often institutions settle for compliance, which is the worst performance allowed by law, or something slightly above that which won’t attract too much attention. On the north side of this campus, the goal is always excellence, which means being number one. It is a high stakes gamble with great risks and the potential for great rewards.

Here are seven lessons we can all learn from IU Athletics: 

1. Have a vision of excellence. A vision should inspire people to imagine a future that is so compelling they personally commit to achieving it. This shared commitment unites the team and makes almost anything possible. Excellence becomes contagious.

2. Be prepared to lose before you win. The first years of a vision of excellence may be filled with frustration, especially if you are starting from the bottom.When Victor Oladipo was asked how IU basketball went from a losing team to a winning team last year, Victor replied, “it’s the will man.” If you ask Victor what his goal is this year, he will not tell you it is to achieve the mean of the Big Ten. They want to win it all, and they want to do it as a team. They are a tight-knit team because of the early hardships they had to endure together to get to this level as Big Ten champions and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Audacious goals require persistence and patience and will. Learn and grow from your defeats.

3. We are all in the education business. Cody Zeller and Jordan Hulls are Academic All-Americans. IU Athletics never forgets they are educating students and places academic excellence before athletics excellence in their mission statement. Even with the demands of a premier sports program, IU basketball players are graduating in less than four years. How can we make everything we do reinforce the educational and research mission of the university?

4. The business case for excellence is better than the business case for mediocrity. Ever try to get good seats for a sold-out IU game this season? Have you noticed all the five-star recruits visiting campus? How important is overall excellence to recruiting at Indiana University in terms of students, faculty and staff? Want to raise a lot of money from donors to build new facilities and attract the best people? Have a compelling vision of excellence. Donors invest in greatness.

5. Engage the Hoosier Nation. What’s with the toddlers wearing candy stripe pants? Turn spectators into part of your team. Engage students, faculty, staff, alumni, and all Hoosiers in your vision. Tap into the vast Hoosier Nation. Build a compelling winning brand and an enthusiastic fan base.

6. 24 sports, one team. Break down the silos, divisions, departments, units, or and other artificial barriers that are keeping your people from collaborating to achieve excellence. We are all one team.

7. Celebrate your successes. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating along the way those milestone successes.Storm the floor and ride the fire truck from time to time. Cut down the nets. Hang a new banner. Thank the people who have helped to make the vision a reality.

So, what does this have to do with campus sustainability? On April 5th, our board will revisit our 2020 Vision, originally created in 2010 at the beginning of the Decade of Sustainability at IUB. Our 2020 Vision states:

Indiana University is an international campus sustainability leader recognized for innovation and excellence in academic programs, research, campus environmental quality, campus operations and community outreach that facilitate and demonstrate the path to a more sustainable future.

The 20 Goals for 2020 that will lead to the achievement of that vision are about to get a tune-up. Some have already been achieved. We plan to hang a banner in 2020 with a #1 on it. There’s nothing in this vision about compliance or achieving the mean. It is about being the best in the world in preparing for a future in which we would all want to live.

Sustainability may not be as exciting as athletics, but it is very important to this generation of students. When Aramark surveyed thousands of students about their most important criteria for selecting their university, 26% listed campus sustainability and 14% listed collegiate athletics.  Excellence is important in all realms of the university experience and we can all learn many great lessons from our dedicated student athletes and their coaches and administrators.

Go Hoosiers!


One thought on “March Madness: What Seven Lessons Can We Learn From IU Athletics About Organizational Excellence?

  1. Bill, I loved this post. In higher education, we tend to dwell on how athletic programs are different than us; because of this, I have never considered using their structure or program components as a model for institutionalizing sustainability. You convinced me. Thanks for writing.

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