Creating a championship culture

A former hoops coach brings leadership to the fore at regional bank
[From our print edition featured in Monday's City Paper]

Winning – it's not just for sports anymore.

That's the approach Micheal Burt and FirstBank have taken in what they consider to be a cutting-edge partnership, not just for the banking industry but for the entire business world.

Burt, a former high school basketball coach with advanced degrees in leadership training, was hired last fall to be the "leadership coach" for the $2.2-billion-in-assets entity with branches in 43 cities throughout the state. Since then, he has implemented motivational and developmental programs rooted in his athletics background with the idea that they will improve FirstBank's operations and help generate new business.

"Coaches, in athletic arenas, take people who have dominant aspirations – they have championships to win, have timelines to do it, they have intensity and focus and urgency," Burt said. "That's something that we're sorely lacking in business. We lack intensity, focus and we don't know what a championship is."

To that end, Burt, 32, has worked to define "championships" for FirstBank at all levels, from corporate management to individual bank branches. He delivers his "game plan" with weekly e-mail blasts to the 500-plus employees augmented with regular visits to FirstBank locations throughout the state.

Through the first quarter of 2009, bank officials believe they are on their way to a victory.

"We call him ‘The Coach,'" said Wib Evans, FirstBank's chief operating officer. "He coaches us on leadership and personal development as well as sales.

"I wouldn't deem him as anything other than a leadership specialist and that's translated into great results for us. We have seen our enthusiasm pick up, and we have seen results from that enthusiasm on the new accounts side. ... We have been able to measure success."

A history of victories

Burt was just 18 years old when he led Woodbury Grammar School to a 31-5 record and the Class A state championship.

Four years later, he was the youngest high school girls basketball coach in the state when he was put in charge at Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro. In 10 seasons at the school, his teams went 221-77 and in 2007 Riverdale became Murfreesboro's first girls basketball state champion in 83 years.

"At Riverdale, all my players wanted the same thing," he said. "We all wanted to win a championship. That meant sacrificing certain things and giving up our personal agendas at times. It meant overcoming the common dysfunctions of a team and the pettiness that goes along with life. We had a dominant focus, and that was to win a championship."

In pursuit of that goal, he said, the players accepted coaching and endeavored to get better each day and each season. Also, Burt had the authority to make decisions about who was on his the team and who was in the game at a particular moment.

When he retired from coaching following the 2008 season to focus on his leadership consulting firm, Maximum Success, he found those sorts of dynamics in short supply in the business world – not only in practice but also in theory.

Burt noted that in "Good To Great" – a widely lauded business leadership manual – author Jim Collins focuses on the need to get the right people on a ‘team' but does not follow through to the next step.

Collins "didn't really speak to how you grow people," Burt said. "Well, that's unheard of in athletics. To get people on your team and not coach them? To not give them continual coaching?

"Everybody can think about their experiences in corporate America. How much coaching really goes on?"

The most common result, he said, is a largely dissatisfied work force with employees reporting to the job mainly to collect a check rather than to develop their skills and to perform their respective tasks at a high level.

Something different

Burt formally spelled out his impressions of traditional business attitudes and his vision for the future in "The Anatomy of Winning," which was released in March. It was the fourth book he authored, but the first targeted specifically to the business community.

To illustrate his points, he spent time with the Middle Tennessee State women's basketball team during the 2008-09 season. He used anecdotes from the Lady Raiders' efforts as well as insights from coach Rick Insell and then drew comparisons to similar circumstances, which typically arise in business.

"We're on the front end of this," Burt said. "What I thought made me different in coaching when I was in athletics was that I brought this business methodology to the table.

"When I got in the business world, what I started to see was that sports could use business concepts and business could use sports concepts."

His latest book is the culmination of that crossover ideology which was developed as Burt was still coaching but also speaking at leadership seminars in his free time. It was during that period that FirstBank's Evans first heard him and began to see the connection.

"It was sort of a thinking-outside-of-the-box thing," Evans said. "He had been a coach and a successful coach who understood how to build a team. We thought he could bring some of those same things to our industry and we have implemented some of those things with positive results."

Burt believes that his theories and approach can be universally successful but is hesitant to say that anyone from the sports world can step into business and immediately produce results.

He points to his education, capped by a 2006 doctorate in management in organizational leadership, which included intense study of why and how people respond to leadership. More important, he says, is the support of FirstBank's top officers, which has allowed him the freedom to make substantive changes.

"They've made this a companywide aspiration, which would have to happen in almost any company," Burt said. "How we're driving it and how we're creating new methodology ... it was unheard of for a bank to bring in a coach. It just doesn't happen. They had a vision to see, ‘Hey, this guy could come in and help us drive people toward where we're going.'

"Everybody needs coaching."

At least everybody who wants to win.