Technically, I was a business management major at Michigan State University, but actually I majored in basketball. In the early 2000s, I played for coach Tom Izzo, one of the elite coaches in basketball. During my four-year career, he guided our team to three Big Ten championships, three NCAA Final Four appearances, and an NCAA national championship--a truly amazing run.
I was not the star of the team, believe me. A walk-on player at a skinny 5 foot 9, I was the third-string point guard, the last guy off the bench. I was scrappy, but tenacity is not enough when you're playing on a team with seven future NBA players. I only stepped onto the court in the waning seconds of blowouts. I was the equivalent of Red Auerbach's victory cigar: When I checked in, it was clear that the win had been secured.
But, as little as I played, I saw enough to realize that basketball is not just a game, with jump shots and pick and rolls and all that. It's an approach to life. It's about all the things that go into success: discipline, reliability, teamwork, practice, recruiting, promptness, aspirations, goals, and so much more. It's about creating a culture of winning that applies anywhere--especially in business. It has to be built piece by piece until it makes its own universe.
Although I excelled more in the classroom than on the court, I considered making a career as a college coach. Then, after working with Izzo for a year after college as a graduate assistant coach, I decided to put my business major to use instead. When I joined United Wholesale Mortgage as an account executive making $18,000 a year in 2003, I didn't know squat about mortgages, or about business, really. But I knew basketball, and I knew it the way that Izzo taught it. So I applied the focus and drive that I had and he helped me harness. I rolled up my sleeves and worked my way up as my father, who founded the company in 1986, made it clear I would have to do.
As I earned more responsibility and grew into a leadership role at the company, which operates under its umbrella company, United Shore Financial Services, I didn't lead my mortgage lending team with the usual lectures and memos, but coached it as if my team were a group of freshmen in preseason. I laid out my core principles and provided the instruction--and inspiration--to meet them. I taught them best practices and gave advice for keeping ahead of the curve and beating the competition. It was a page out of Izzo's playbook: Learn, practice, and then learn and practice some more. When I joined the company, we had 12 employees closing about 40 loans per month. I had some jitters, sure. But I stuck to what I knew, and the business grew consistently and quickly, as we climbed to the top of our category. Today United Shore has more than 1,100 employees and is home to the No. 1 wholesale lender in the country, closing more than 3,500 loans every month.
So, what are those principles that have made such a difference to this company, which hit $244 million in revenue and closed $10 billion in loans this year? Most of them are about creating teamwork. I learned this one from Izzo: Be a thumb pointer, not a finger pointer. When adversity strikes, pointing your finger at someone else doesn't solve anything. Instead, be accountable; point your thumb at yourself and get better. If all members of the team perform to their very best, there is no need to point your finger at someone else. An example that comes to mind is when our Michigan State team trailed an opponent by two points with 10 seconds remaining in a big game. Izzo called for our best shooter to put up a three-pointer. The shot went up--clang. Izzo never blamed the player who failed. He blamed himself for not coaching better, and he got everyone else to think of things they'd done to cost us points throughout the game. To Izzo, the game was never about just one play, let alone one guy. It's easy to make excuses and blame the next guy, but that won't get the team anywhere. It's better to take responsibility, talk it through, and improve.
After the star player missed that big shot, Izzo asked him to come in every day before school for the next three weeks and shoot 300 three-pointers daily, just like the one he had missed. The regimen wasn't punitive, like cleaning the erasers; it was Izzo doing everything possible to make that guy better--to practice, and increase his chance of making the next big shot. But here's the thing: Izzo would be at the gym waiting for him, along with someone to rebound his shots, and a videographer to record the efforts so they could be reviewed and analyzed. So Izzo owned the problem as well. Might the star shooter miss again in the future? Of course, but Izzo had certainly done what he could to push the probabilities in the team's favor.
Another principle: Give everyone a chance to shine. Under Izzo, I was a walk-on player, but he treated me just like he treated the starters. I couldn't change the fact that I was 5 foot 9, but I could control my work ethic and my attitude. That hard work was rewarded. When any team member at United Shore is deserving of a star turn, we give it to him or her with a team double clap--a burst of recognition for a job well done. That was Izzo's way too. It emphasizes the group as much as the individual. We all want to thank you. No individual player ever wins a game. At Michigan State, it took 14 players, plus the coaches. That made for a 14-person dance; at United Shore, it's a 1,100-person dance. Everyone matters. Everything matters. From the way the receptionist greets you to our follow-up after a loan closing, we are determined to get everything right--like a series of crisp passes around the arc for a wide-open three-pointer.
One more principle: Have a scouting report. In basketball, you scout the other team to learn their tendencies. Does the point guard prefer to go right or left? What do their coaching signals mean? In business, your competitors are the same. They prefer to go right or left, and they signal their intentions beforehand. Well, pay attention and train hard. Keep on top of your business. Study the category, the competition, and listen to clients. You should be on top of your game so you can seize every opportunity or overcome any barrier.
Sound simple? Maybe, but there are a lot more principles where these came from, and it takes effort to make them pay off. A free throw isn't easy, either. But if you practice, learn the proper techniques, focus on what you're doing, and gain confidence, you'll get better. And getting better is what it's all about--in basketball and in business.