A person can learn a lot about success from carrying a clipboard--if you're carrying it for Duke University basketball legend, Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K. In a New York Times article about the team's student managers, it's clear that Coach K's winning record at Duke over 38 seasons starts with the smallest details.

If you watch Coach K's 'clipboard guy,' Jack Spiera, during NCAA basketball's March Madness, you'll notice that he's standing back and to the left of the inspirational coach. Spiera must always be in exactly the same spot. The board must be held at exactly the right angle and the marker must be uncapped when the coach reaches for it. According to the article, "It's the way things are done at Duke; the Coach K way, the right way."

Student managers who rebound balls during practices or wipe sweat from benches love working for Coach K--even if they have no aspirations to pursue the sport after graduation. They love it because they learn the habit of excellence.

Steve Jobs Believed Excellence Was a 'Yardstick of Quality'

Paying attention to details has helped Duke earn five national championships under Coach K. It reminds me of Steve Jobs' leadership traits at Apple. "Be a yardstick of quality," he once said. "Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected."

I wrote two books on Steve Jobs and one on the Apple store model. I heard so many stories of Jobs' commitment to excellence in every detail, there were too many for me to fit in the books.

For example, walk into an Apple store and you'll notice that the laptop screens are tilted at exactly the same angle. Employees use a digital level (yes, there's an app for it) that helps measure the tilt perfectly. The angle makes it easy to see the screen, but invites a customer to adjust it. Apple wants its customers to touch the product, establishing a stronger connection with it.

There are many other examples of excellence directly tied to Jobs. While visiting an Apple store, Jobs noticed that the handrails in the elevator left visible fingerprints. The handrails were replaced, immediately. The obsession to detail extended to suppliers. I once visited a cardboard box manufacturer for Apple products. "Steve Jobs wanted the box to look a certain way, feel a certain way, and even sound a certain way," a plant manager told me.

"That sounds demanding," I responded.

"Yes, but Jobs is committed to excellence, and so are we."

For Steve Jobs, excellence started with the smallest details, even those that nobody would see. Jobs drove his engineers to make the inside of computers--the wires--aesthetically pleasing. "Nobody will see it," one engineer shot back. "We'll know it's there," Jobs replied. Jobs then delivered one of the best analogies ever used to explain why he was such a stickler for details.

"When you're a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you're not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will see it. You'll know it's there, so you're going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through."

When quality isn't carried all the way through, it shows. When I was researching a book on the Apple store, I came across a story of a couple vacationing overseas. They walked into an 'Apple store' and reported it to the company. It was counterfeit. The details gave it away--or lack of them. The store was messy and the products disheveled. "It's not the Apple way," the couple said.

The Apple way and the Coach K way both pave the road to winning teams.

As a leader, you have to demand excellence. In his book, Leading From The Heart, Coach K writes, "My hunger is not for success, it is for excellence. When you attain excellence, success naturally follows."

From Steve Jobs to Coach K, the leader sets the standards of performance. The leader has to care about the details--or no one else will.

Published on: Mar 21, 2018