Lax to the Max
This week, we learned about the incredible story behind the rise of the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse program. As some backstory, women’s lacrosse is historically an East-Coast/Mid-Atlantic sport with perennial top teams including schools like Duke, Princeton, Dartmouth, and University of Virginia. Northwestern, based in Illinois, is not a hotbed of lacrosse activity. Furthermore, it’s not as if the university had a legacy in building strong athletic programs – its only NCAA title was earned in men’s fencing back in 1941.
Enter Kelly Amonte Hiller. In 2001, Hiller, herself a decorated lacrosse player (sometimes referred to as the “Mia Hamm of women’s lacrosse”), got a job coaching the Northwestern women’s lacrosse team. Only, she had a little bit of a problem. At the time, Northwestern didn’t even have a team. She was hired, at the age of 26, to build a program from scratch. In this situation, most would have started off with some small, modest goals. Not Hiller. From RadioLab:
MATT: But when she went recruiting, she would ask these girls point blank …
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: “Do you want to be a national champion?” And we’re sort of like, I mean …
KATE DARMODY BURKE: I remember giggling and laughing, but there was no smile on her face.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: I thought this lady is crazy/I love her.
MATT: So she managed to get a team together.
KATE DARMODY BURKE: Just picture a lot of really intense, short East Coast ladies making their way to the Midwest. [laughs]
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: She was pulling people from everywhere.
MATT: She got these twins who she found on the street just jogging.
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: Asked them if they wanted to play lacrosse. They thought lacrosse was a town in Wisconsin.
HEATHER: They don’t even have a practice field.
MATT: They practiced on the flag football field.
HEATHER: But early on, she sat them down and she said to them …
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: We will be national champions. And we need everybody to buy in. You know, I say “Jump,” you say “How high?”
SHELBY CHLOPAK: She had us boxing and doing yoga and meditating.
HEATHER: They did these things called affirmation circles.
SHELBY CHLOPAK: And we would go around and tell each other positive things about us. You know, “Oh, you’re so fast, Jenny.” “Your shot is so strong, Ashley.”
KATE DARMODY BURKE: We drank the Kool-Aid. She told us we could do anything, and we really just believed her.
Predictably, the team got off to a slow start. In 2002, the team went 5-10, but they kept trucking and in 2003, they improved to 8-8. They continued their work and in 2004, they went 15-3 and made it to the playoffs, but lost in the quarterfinals to UVA. Amazingly, in 2005, they went undefeated and beat UVA in the championship game, becoming NCAA champions. Radio Lab again:
MATT: They win. They win the championship. The bench clears.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: First time in a championship game, and national title winners!]
MATT: They’re, like, hugging, crying, jumping, laughing.
ASHLEY GERSUK MURPHY: I mean, it was the most incredible. You know, I now have two children and that’s pretty incredible, but truthfully, the most incredible experience of my life. We went nuts.
Once they had a winning attitude, they kept on rolling. Northwestern won the championship again in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012. That’s impressive and as unlikely as it seems, the story of this women’s lacrosse team has some relevant takeaways for Chenmark and our team of small businesses.
The first is that in a small team – or small business – setting, leadership matters. Hiller, despite being only 26 years old with no head coaching experience, was a capable leader, had a vision, and perhaps most importantly, had the day-to-day dedication needed to organize a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. As Hiller reflected on the early days: “It was quite a scene…it was exciting. … You had a chance to really build something brand new. … Once we started the program that was it. I put my head in. I knew we were going to be successful. I think that mentality has really helped these girls get this far this quickly.”
That leadership mentality transcends sports. Our GVP program is designed to support individuals who think like Hiller – individuals who want to be in that lead role and who understand that their day-to-day actions set a tone and make a tangible difference to the people they lead and the company in which they all operate.
The second lesson is that it pays to keep going. When the team went 5-10 in its first season, it would have been easy to ease up. It would have been even easier to do so after going 8-8 in their second year. At that point, the team was decent and everybody probably congratulated them for making something out of nothing in short order. But, they kept moving forward, focused on their ultimate goal. In small business, it is easy to settle for ‘good enough’ or ‘not bad’ but it is hard to win that way. One of Chenmark’s core beliefs is to Chase Better – that is to always believe in our potential to improve. This is key when things are bad, but frankly, it’s even more important of a mindset when things are okay. No matter the circumstances, you just have to remember to Lax to the Max.