XChange: Employees Do Best When They Understand The 'Why'

Nike may have ridden the "Just Do It" advertising campaign to success, but that slogan is not the way to succeed in business.

Sports teams --and all businesses -- perform at their best when they understand how what they do changes people's lives, according to Don Yaeger, a best-selling sports author and motivational speaker.

"Your team plays differently when it plays with a 'why', when it understands their greater and grander purpose," Yaeger said Monday during a general session at 2015 XChange Solution Provider in Dallas.

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Yaeger's work as a Sports Illustrated editor and contributor to The Wall Street Journal sports section allowed him to examine what makes some teams great while other teams falter.

Yaeger pointed to the U.S. men's national basketball team, which hit rock bottom just a decade after the Dream Team took the world by storm during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

Despite having the best players in the world, the team was rudderless and sputtered to a sixth-place finish at the 2002 FIBA World Championships and lost by 19 to Puerto Rico during the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

The disappointing results led USA Basketball to do some soul-searching and ultimately taskedDuke University coaching legend Mike Krzyzewski with turning the team around.

Krzyzewski did that in part by giving the team a series of "feel-it" moments, Yaeger said, under the belief that players would give of themselves at a different level if they saw themselves as part of something bigger.

Coach K had USA Basketball stay with active duty military in Korea for three days prior to the 2006 FIBA World Championships in Japan, brought in Wounded Warriors to start practices and give pregame speeches, and arranged for military swearing-in ceremonies to occur during the halftime of the team's games.

The military moments were capped off in 2012 by a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where the team placed a wreath of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider (an honor normally reserved for members of the military and foreign heads of state) and spoke with a soldier who had lost the rest of his troop in Afghanistan.

The team has since gone 49-1, won two Olympic Gold medals, and is favored to win the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The need for "feel-it" moments can be applied to organizations outside sports as well, Yaeger said, noting how medical device maker Medtronic invites families to speak each year at the company's annual public meeting about how Medtronic's products have touched their lives.

Similarly, the Make-a-Wish Foundation board of directors begins each day of its quarterly meetings by having a family sit down to talk or watching a video about the role the nonprofit organization has played in the life of a particular child.

"Great teams have a purpose that is greater than returning profit to shareholders," Yaeger said.

NEXT: Giving Workers A Deeper Sense of Purpose

Organizations are at their best, Yaeger said, when every member understands why they should be passionate about what they're doing. Conversely, he said sacrifice becomes suffering if employees are unclear about the cause they're trying to advance.

Businesses can best go about understanding their "why," Yaeger said, by going all the way downstream to their end user and learning about how he or she benefits if the company does its job well, or how he or she is harmed if the company does not.

Yaeger urged the solution providers in attendance to focus more heavily on their culture than their product set, noting that a good culture drives good employee behavior, which in turn drives good habits, which ultimately leads a business into the winner's circle.

"Great teams understand that their culture shapes who they recruit," Yaeger said.

And once all that work is done, Yaeger said the hardest thing to do is to come back to the drawing board and start all over again.

"Human nature says that when you're successful, the first thing you do is sit back and enjoy your success," he said.

Consistently successful organizations, however, don't rest on their laurels, Yaeger said, and instead redouble their efforts to create new ways to be successful.

One organization that took this message to heart was the San Francisco Giants, who hired a mental strength coach after their 2010 World Series win to help the players figure out how to handle success, Yaeger said.

The Giants have gone on to win World Series in 2012 and 2014.

Yaeger's remarks made John Convery, a vendor relations and marketing consultant for Denali Advanced Integration, want to circle back with employees and have discussions about how Denali influences and assists its customers.

"We're only as important as our employees think we are," Convery said. "We have to keep reinventing ourselves."