Episode 138 – The Four Commitments of a Winning Team with Mark Eaton

Rob: Alright, well good morning or good afternoon to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you’re at in the world. This is Rob Shallenberger. We have an incredible guest with us here today, and as many of our listeners know, you know, we bring people on Becoming Your Best podcast, who we feel are great leaders or high performers in their different areas of influence throughout their life. You know, Becoming Your Best is really about becoming the best leader or person that you can be, and of course, the 12 principles of highly successful leaders are all about how to get there.

Our guest today, Mark Eaton, many of you might have heard his name throughout the years, exemplifies these principles. He’s certainly to be considered a high performer throughout his life and in the spirit of good, better, best, we can all do better and I’m sure Mark will share some of those experiences today. But it’s amazing what can be accomplished when people do certain things. So, excited to hear what he has to say today, to have him share some of his stories and how they can help each one of us really become better leaders and become better people in our areas of influence.

So, let me give a brief introduction to Mark and then we’ll him expand that and share some of his thoughts, but I’ll probably say some things that he wouldn’t say about himself. First of all, what’s exciting is Mark has just released a book called The Four Commitments of a Winning Team that I invite all of our listeners to go on to Amazon to get or maybe another website that Mark can share with us here at the end of the podcast. But whatever you do, I invite you to go get his book, The Four Commitments of a Winning Team, just released. He takes a lifetime of experience and has put that into his book, and he’ll share with us some more about that during this podcast.

Mark has been around all over the world, he’s spoken to many Fortune 500 organizations. He may be best known in the beginning, widely for his experience in the NBA where he spent 12 seasons with Utah Jazz. He led the NBA in blocked shots for four of those seasons. He was named to the NBA all-defensive team five different times, which is, to me, very impressive and still to this day holds two NBA records in the most blocks in a single season and a career average block shots per game.

This is really telling of Mark because there’s a lot of people that do well in their professional athlete career, and then you really don’t hear their names again. There’s a lot of reasons for that and that’s a separate discussion. What’s been very impressive to me is to watch what happened after Mark retired from the NBA. He went on, he’s been a managing partner for two award winning restaurants in Salt Lake City. He is the founder and former chairman of a foundation called the Standing Tall for Youth Foundation, which provides sports and outdoor opportunities for more than 3000 at risk children. And then he was the host for eight years of the KJZZ-TV show and just has done a lot of different things. The outdoor channel and a lot of different things. So you can see that he’s been very successful post NBA. One of the things I always look for is, what does their personal life look like? And he lives in Park City, he loves to spend time with his wife, children, horses, dogs, so he’s my kind of guy. So Mark, welcome to the show.

Mark: Well, thanks Rob. It’s great to be with you today.

Rob: And maybe if there’s something I didn’t cover, give us from your perspective, a little bit more detail on your background if you wouldn’t mind. Just a little bit more personal look at Mark.

Mark: Sure. I grew up in Southern California, and my father was a vocational educator in Long Beach. I grew up working on boats with him and played a little bit of sports here and there growing up, like at the park with everybody else. When I was in high school, I was on the basketball team, but didn’t play very much and actually at the end of my senior year in high school, I decided that athletics there probably wasn’t much future in it and then it was time to go do something else. So I went to trade school, and learnt how to be an auto mechanic and was working in a tire store in Southern California in Buena Park for a couple years.

A junior college coach from the local junior college happened to wander around the corner one day and see me standing there talking to this little short guy and being 7’4″, I stood out quite a bit out there on the corner. He pulled in and proceeded to start telling me I should be playing basketball, which is what everybody told me when they walked in my shop. I told him to go away, but he didn’t and he kept coming back and coming back and finally one day he said, “Look, I can teach you some things about the game of basketball you probably don’t know.” And he said, “If you’re willing to just give it a try for 30 minutes one day.” He said, “If you don’t like it, I’ll leave you alone.” But he said, “I know some things about playing basketball as a big guy that’s different from the rest of the players out there on the floor that you probably don’t know about.”

So after much convincing and cajoling, I decided to go out with him one afternoon and he showed me some things on the basketball court I really never seen before, considered before, about how to play basketball as a big guy. I ultimately, after a few sessions with him, decided to continue working out with him in the evenings and then eventually decided to go back to junior college for a couple of years. There’s a lot more to the story than that but I’ve gone to junior college, I went to UCLA for two years and ended up with the Utah Jazz for 12 years.

Rob: You know, that’s an interesting background that I hadn’t heard, I’m glad you shared that. You actually described one of the things that we see oftentimes in the most successful leaders and people, and that is, at some point in their life, they had a mentor or someone who helped them see life differently than they may be saw it themselves. I had no idea that you had really written basketball off. So that’s a pretty amazing story.

Mark: It is. It’s remarkable because people hear it and they’re like, “Well, what do you mean, you didn’t play basketball in high school? What’s the matter? Didn’t you have a good coach?” I’m like, “Well, I was tall, I was growing, I was uncoordinated. I didn’t have that much muscle strength when you’re growing fast.” I grew till I was 20 years old and so I didn’t know what to do with me, the coach didn’t know what to do with me, and I just kind of languished at the end of the bench. The school I went to really didn’t have a great basketball program and this was in the 70s. You know, they didn’t have all the AAU and all the other things that kids get involved in now. A lot of guys played two or three sports in high school.

So I really didn’t think that much about it. I just thought, “Well, it’s just, this isn’t working and it’s time to go do something else.” I had this vocational background and so my intention was always like, get out of high school and get a job somehow. Trade school seemed to be a pretty quick way to get some training and get busy making some money.

Rob: You know, that probably gives me a lot of insights as to why you are who you are now too. Is you’ve seen a lot of different sides of the equation.

Mark: Yeah, I have and I think, even when I got to the NBA, you know, I came with a different perspective because I wasn’t, you know, the lauded high school phenom or college phenom. In fact, at UCLA I sat on the bench most of the time there too. The only way I got to tryout with the NBA was cold calling teams and asking for somebody to come take a look at me.

Rob: Wow.

Mark: So I think when I got to the league, I had a different perspective of, you know, I’m happy to be here, I’m lucky to have a job and I’m going to work my butt off to make sure that I hold that job. There’s other players who will come along, who might be more skilled than I am, but they’re not going to outwork me.

Rob: So let’s use that as the Segway into your book here. I’m very impressed with this. It’s been a while since you’ve been out of the NBA and you wrote the book of obviously, The Four Commitments of a Winning Team. Why did you write this book? What was the driver for writing this book?

Mark: Well, I’ve been doing corporate motivational speaking for about 10 years. When I started, through a series of trial and errors like every other project you start, I met a coach who helped me put my presentation together, who really took the time to dig deep and looked at what made me unique. As we did that, we identified these four characteristics that were sort of inherent to me, but also inherent to the teams that I played on. As we looked at those, you know, we built this presentation around and as I went out, started delivering it, people said, “Boy, that was great and what else can I learn or what else can I do and have you ever thought about writing a book.” A lot of speakers write books, because that’s their platform. You know, having played in the NBA, I guess, it got me in the door initially. You show up with some NBA highlights, people will at least listen to you for at least five minutes.

So it wasn’t really a requirement to get going speaking for me. So I kind of set it on the back shelf and thought about it, and started it a few times. Finally, last summer my wife said, “Come on. Well, I’m putting the hammer down, we’re going to get this thing done.” So she helped me find some resources to help us finish it, and we got it out in April and it’s doing really, really well. I’m excited about it, because it goes into a little bit more depth with some more examples, and some business examples of some of the companies and people that I’ve talked to over the last decade, and along with my personal story. It’s really designed to be a tool to pass on to other people the things that I learned in my career. You mentioned, the people that come alongside you and the coaches and the people that walked alongside of me and said, “Hey, have you ever thought about this or trying to trying this that way?” That, to me, I think is why I speak and why I write, is to share the lessons that others shared with me and kind of pass it on.

Rob: Yeah, great background. So I’m curious, probably everyone else listening to this is curious, what are the four commitments of winning team that you have in your book? If you could just maybe outline the four. Let’s start with the one that you think is the most impactful. So maybe outline the first four, and then going into the one that you think is the most impactful.

Mark: The premise behind this is that, you know, that a lot of organizations deal with that internal strife and internal competition and on an NBA team, you just can’t have that. Like, if you lose three games in one week, you could be living in a new city the next weekend. So you had to figure out team today. So I bring that perspective of playing team at the highest level, to the platform and to the book.

So the first one of the four commitments is really about focusing on that one thing that you’re excellent at. I call it knowing your job. I share a story about an interaction I had with Wilt Chamberlain one afternoon at the men’s gym at UCLA when I was in college. He saw me running around up and down the court trying to chase these little faster players that I couldn’t really catch, I mean, I’m 7’4″, I weigh 300 pounds. You know, I’m not going to catch a 6′ guard. And he pulled me aside and he said, “Why are you running up and down the court trying to chase these guys?” He said, “Come here.” And so he grabbed me and he put me out on the 40. He put me right in front of the basket. He said, “You see this basket behind you?” He said, “This is your job. Your job is to stop people from getting there. Your job is to make them miss their shot and collect the rebound and then throw it up to the guard. Let them go down the other end of the court and your job is kind of cruise up to half court and see what’s going on.”

It was this aha moment for me, because he showed me the one thing on the court that I could do really, really well. And so he took the whole game of basketball, of all these moving parts and pieces and helped me define my role in one thing that I could be great at. I turned that little five minute conversation into a 12 year career. So I call that knowing your job. You know, what’s, what’s that one thing you’re excellent at? What are the character traits and skills that you already have that you’re just not leveraging enough? So it’s not about working on weaknesses, it’s about going back and focusing in on the one thing you’re already great at, and finding out a way to do more of it. That’s the first point.

Rob: Yeah, and I love that, because it’s a variation of a lot of research. There’s the old adage that says, you know, get the people on the bus, but then get the people on the bus in the right seats, which is very similar in that, yeah, they’re in the right seats but now you’re taking it a step further, which is saying, “Look, if you’re the person, know your job and excel at it.”

Mark: Right. And stay in your lane. Stay in the lane that you do well. Like on the basketball court, you can’t start doing all the jobs out there. Everybody has their unique skill sets they bring to the party. A coach and the general manager does a good job of assembling the team or getting them on the bus, as you say, but once you’re there, like you’ve got to really double down and say, “How else can I enhance or improve what I’m already doing based on who I already am?” As opposed to, you know, trying to try to create the wheel over again.

Point number two is about doing what you’ve been asked to do. It’s about execution. It’s about really questioning, do you really know what people want from you. I tell the story about being at UCLA and not playing and my junior college coach saying, “Look, if you’re not going to play in the games, you’re going to fake the practices as your games. You’re still going to be the first guy there and the last to leave, because if you continue to work, you will have an opportunity to try out at the next level.” So he said, “We need to be thinking long term here. It’s not about whether you play or not this final year at UCLA, it’s really about what are we going to do after that, and you have to be ready for that.”

So I make the point in business that your job is not really to do your best, it’s to do what you’ve been asked. I did what my coach asked, are you doing what your customers ask? Are you doing what your boss wants? And really taking the time to ascertain what that is? I outlined in the book a way to do that. You don’t just walk in the office and say, “Hey, what should I be doing differently?” You know, it’s like, there’s ways to do it skillfully. But again, the key here is that execution is what we’re all looking for in business, right? We all know what the prize is and how to win the sale, but we have struggles with how to get that execution to make it happen. So I address that in point number two. That’s doing what you’ve been asked to do.

Rob: Just on that Mark, you know, it’s interesting on that particular one, one of the number one reasons for turnover is employee frustration. I try to really look at where does this frustration come from? Typically, it’s the same as it is in a marriage or anywhere else. Its misaligned expectations. It’s when one person expects one thing, another expects another and those are not aligned, there’s frustration that results

Mark: Yeah and as mergers happen and there’s a lot of ambiguity in the workplace, people, you know, they don’t know how to win. They don’t know what the prize is, they don’t know where they’re going. A lot of times people are afraid to ask. Look, I’m just going to keep my head down, stay here in my cubicle or shut the door in my office and hopefully nobody is going to bug me. But at the same time, to your point, it creates overwhelm, and a loss of direction and that’s a killer for you and it’s a killer for the organization.

Rob: Yeah, because putting the head down and just going to work and ignoring it, rarely makes it go away, it only causes that internal frustration to rise and rise until, you know, usually there’s a blow up at some point. It may take years to fester but that’s the end result. Okay, awesome. Number three.

Mark: Number three is about making the people around you look good. When it came to the Jazz in the early years, the team was a bad market, a bad team, not playing well, losing games, not much of a fan base. Our coach Frank Layden said, “Look, if you guys will stop competing with each other so much and start cooperating with each other just a little bit more, the individual accolades will show up.” So he got us to pay attention to trusting each other. You know, one of these key components of a team is making the people around you look good. I always say, you know, “The better you make the people around you look good, the better you look to them.”

But that’s a core component and so I asked the question, you know, how focused are you in making people you work with look good on a scale of 1 to 10? What could you do to improve that score? Is there an action step that you need to take in the next week? Do you need to buy somebody a cup of coffee or check in with somebody or acknowledge somebody? Because, again, we have a tendency to just get so self-centered in the workforce, that that we forget that the key to making the whole thing work is based largely on your ability to get outside of yourself a little bit, and go and check in with the people around you. You’ve probably seen this too with executives. You know, they get so focused on trying to build the company. When I coach I’m like, “You need to get out of the office and go sit with your VPs and go wander around and find out what’s really going on and get in touch with the reality of your business.”

Rob: Yeah, on that note, there’s an organizational assessment that we offer to organizations. A person just took that and only had a senior executive team take it and was really surprised by the results from it and he thought, “Man, in my mind, this was the core group that we are all completely aligned, that everyone was happy, we’re all firing on all cylinders.” He was really surprised to see that wasn’t the case, you know, to your point. Just one thought on this Mark, is that I’m listening to the book 1776 right now and I just finished another book, The Washington Hypothesis, and I think someone who exemplifies what you’re saying as we look through history is George Washington. A very imperfect person, plenty of his own flaws yet one of his characteristics is he constantly tried to praise others and recognize others and make the people around him become the stars and shine. Whoever that was, people just generally felt great when they were around George Washington and in the end, you know, 200 years later, he is the one that is recognized, to your point, that you as the Jazz worked so much better as a team rather than focusing on individual accolades. And when you did work together as a team, it’s amazing how the individual accolades came and they’re still there to this day.

Mark: Yeah, yeah. It was kind of a unique turnaround, because we went from a team that was rather the cellar dweller of the NBA and a year later made the playoffs for the first time in team history, won the division for the first time in team history. Most interestingly, we had four individual statistical leaders in the NBA, which is a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since then. So Frank’s philosophy came true that if we really paid more attention to helping each other, the winds would come and the accolades would come, and that that proved to be exactly right.

Rob: Yeah, that’s awesome. And what’s the fourth one?

Mark: So the last point is, what I did well in the basketball court is I protected my teammates. I gave my teammates the ability to go out and try and steal a basketball and if they miss, they knew that I would get between their man and the basket. They knew that they could count on me, that I had their back. And so I call that protect others. This is something that even transcends the workplace. I’m always there for the people around me and it’s just a part of who I am and on the basketball court, that’s what I did. You know, if a player got in an altercation, I was right there. You know, the player needed some extra help defensively, I was right there.

In the business world, I think that sometimes we miss the keys to trust and the keys to loyalty. They’re there right around us, but taking the time just to let people know that you have their back and you care about them, I think, pays huge dividends because people are always sitting on the edge of their seats. You know, what’s going to happen next? What happens when this company is buying us? Where are we going to go? Even if you as a leader don’t know the answer to that question, you can still assure them and be there with them and be there for them as you walk through those rough waters.

At the same time, if you’re trying to take your team from just good to great, so to speak, the more time you can spend getting to know those people and really letting them know that, hey, if you need something, come and talk to me. You don’t have to take them out to dinner, be their best friend, but you do have to let them know that they have faith that if there’s an issue or a challenge or even just looking at the next opportunity that they can walk in and sit down and have a conversation with you. So that’s called protect others. That’s number four.

Rob: I love it. If you had to choose one, I know people do this all the time with our 12 principles, if you had to choose one, what’s the most important? I can never hardly really do that because they’re all important. If you had to choose one of the four commitments that you are going to really focus on and say, you know, if we only had like 10 or 20 or 30 minutes with our team and you could choose one of these, what would it be and why?

Mark: Well, you know, I think from an emotional standpoint, protecting other people, really letting people know you’re there for them is so important. The rest of stuff you can figure out. But if you don’t have that baseline of trust, to begin with, you’re going to struggle with, you know, the rest of it. Trust is just so important. I was just listening to my friend David Horsager the other day talk about the eight pillars of trust and some of the research that he’s done. That that’s just such a key. You know, people don’t feel there’s trust in the workplace, they’re not going to give their best.

So I think it’s incumbent on leaders especially, to do whatever they can to foster that. I think we’re seeing a lot more of it in more to the millennial workplaces now, where some of the businesses that I go out to, are spending more time getting people connected, having team meetings, getting everybody involved. I was at a big finance company the other day, you know, every week they get everybody together in the whole office. They bring them all and they tell them exactly where the company is going, what’s happened. We got this contract, this just changed. But it gives everybody a sense that they care about them. So simple little things like that. I think if I was going to pick one thing, protecting others and really focusing on the trust and the loyalty with your workforce would be the place I would start.

Rob: Yeah, and without knowing what you’d said, I would agree that that would be…I mean, I was a fighter pilot for 11 years and what would be the impact if you don’t trust the person who was working on the engine, or the person talking to an air traffic controller, the person who packed the parachute in your ejection seat? If you don’t have that, what can you do? So I agree with you.

Mark: Yeah, I was going to say, I just heard another fighter pilot Waldo Walden last week saying the same thing. But, you know, just having your wingman there all the time is what makes it work.

Rob: Yeah, it’s exactly right. So here’s what I encourage our listeners, just go get The Four Commitments of a Winning Team. Read that, because obviously, there’s a lot more to it than we could cover on this podcast. It’s a fabulous book put together by someone who clearly has years and decades of experience in high performance habits and leadership, both on the court, off the court, and that’s very telling to me is what happens, you know, outside the profession or off the court, as you will.

Now, just as a fun question since we have just a few minutes left here, Mark. I love the book, I’m excited to read it. It’s going to be a book that I’ll finish by the end of this month. So I’m looking forward to it. If you had to look back at your NBA experience, because that’s a unique microcosm, it always fascinates people, what was one of your best memories from that entire experience? You know, your career in the NBA? What’s one or two of the experiences that really stood out to you and say, you know, those are one or two of the coolest things that happened to you while you’re in the NBA, and you’ll remember them the rest of your life?

Mark: You know, when you first get in the NBA, you’re trying to find your spot. Like, where do I fit, can I hang? You know, am I going to have a career? Am I just a one and done kind of guy? I remember my rookie season we were playing the Dallas Mavericks. I wasn’t starting at that time, but Frank was bringing me off the bench. He put me in the game in the second quarter, and I blocked like five shots and six minutes, something like that. I remember after the last one, I was running back up the court and I looked over and I saw the coaching staff all looking at each other and nodding, and I thought, “Okay, I can do this job.” That was one memory that really stood out for me.

I think the other was, you know, making the All-star team in 1989 and walking out on the court with, you know, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan and Kevin McHale and Charles Barkley and everybody else. That was that was a real highlight for me. I remember being on the bus going from the hotel over to the arena for that game at the Astrodome and thinking to myself, “What the heck am I doing on this bus?” It was an extraordinary experience.

Then finally, I think the camaraderie that I had with my teammates was one of the most important things to me. There was a one year about 85 or so, we had a couple of old NBA veterans on our team. Billy Paulson, Rich Kelly, both guys have been around the ABA and the NBA for quite some time. And we’re these young guys, John Stockton and I and Bobby Hansen, Thurl Bailey. We’re eating at Denny’s and places like that. I mean, back then we all made like 40 grand. So these guys would say, no, no, no. Come on, we’re going to the Palm. I’m like, what’s the palm? And they go waltzing in this place because they knew how to eat, they knew all the restaurants and they liked to have a good time.

So sitting in there and having them bring out a 20 pound lobster or whatever it was, that just blew our minds. But that here, hanging out with those guys, especially after games, because they like didn’t know the bar on the main street. They knew the one that was like two streets over that the locals went to, and going and hanging out with them after games and stuff was just so much fun and built such camaraderie in terms of our team and how we felt about each other. Back to your point about, you know, what’s going on off the court, offline. Now, again, we lived with each other for seven months. But that feeling is something that’s so special to me. The reason I still love going and hanging out with my old coaches and running into people, you know, I mentioned Billy Paulson, I’m going to be speaking at Houston in a couple of weeks and he works down there, and I’m going to go track him down. Those are the most special experiences to me, because those guys are my friends and my teammates and, you know, we went out and di battle together on the court, and we hung out afterwards. It was just a great era of basketball and teamwork.

Rob: Well, that’s pretty fun. What cool memories. You know, you mentioned a few names there. Thurl Bailey and all these different people did. Carl Malone, John Stockton, went to the finals, you’re on the All-star team. Here’s one final question. You know, you’ve had these people that you’ve been associated with throughout your life, done amazing things and people sometimes tend to go their own ways after it’s all done. You had that JV coach who became your mentor and really launched you into this world? Do you still stay in touch with these people? If so, what does that relationship look like?

Mark: I do. So my coach, Tom Lubin, is his name from Cypress College. He was a chemistry professor there, who’s the one that coached me in junior college. I still stay in touch with him. I talk to him at least twice a week. He found a lot of other guys who he helped get back into basketball or to just get a college scholarship. A few went over to play overseas in Europe. But yeah, he’s like my big brother. He’s getting up there in years a little bit now but I still stay in touch with a lot of those guys.

It’s just those bonds that never go away. You know, I tell people, as you get a little bit older, your circle gets a little smaller and it’s amazing how many connections you have through the sport and other places that serve you well going forward in your life. And so I always tell people, don’t burn bridges. Even if you get fired or something happens, just maintain good relationships and keep the four commitments in mind because you never know, 10 or 15 years later you could be full circle and you could be right back in there with that same person again somewhere else?

Rob: Well, that’s the truth. Well, Mark, how could people find out more about you? Do you have a website they could go to?

Mark: I do. My website is where you can find more about me and my book’s available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and other retailers. And obviously, social media as well, Mark Eaton 7ft4.

Rob: Yeah, and just to highlight when you say seven foot four, that’s the number seven and the number four. So the number “7 ft”, the number “4.dotcom”, right?

Mark: Right. Exactly.

Rob: Well, Mark it’s been a pleasure. You know, one of the things that stood out to me, I love the book, I’m going to read the book, encourage all our listeners to do that. Another one that was just very subtle, but very powerful and I hope everyone caught this, is the impact of one person, and this is one of the taglines we use at Becoming Your Best, that one person can make a difference. There’s a lot of self-doubt and people wonder internally, am I good enough? Can I do this? I’m sure that JV coach thought that many times internally, he maybe never voiced it. But the impact that he just had in your life, just his influence, and what the ripple effect from that has been. You know, without him, you may never have ended up in the NBA. This book may have never come about. That organization that has touched and influenced more than 3000 youth. So I just think, what would the alternate reality look like without certain people in our lives? The power in this is that we can be that one person in the lives of someone else. So I’m really glad you shared that. Thanks for the advice that you shared, Mark. Any parting comments or thoughts?

Mark: No, I think you hit it right on the head. I think it’s a two part equation that I had a coach who was willing to work with me, but I also at the same time said, “I’ll take this risk, I’ll try this.” Basketball is something that I failed at miserably and I didn’t really like it that much and yet at the same time, this coach’s commitment to me to say, “Look, if you want to do this, I’ll be here for you every morning and every evening and we’ll do this.” Didn’t want any money for it or anything else other than just wanted to share the knowledge he had and could see something in me that I didn’t see. So I think, that to me, is like you say that was the catalyst for the whole career and everything else that’s gone in my life. But I had to take that that risk and say, “Yes, I’ll give this a try.”

Rob: Absolutely. That’s a great parting thought. Well, Mark, it’s been a pleasure of visiting with you. Thank you and to all of our Becoming Your Best listeners and other listeners around the world, Mark Eaton’s book, The Four Commitments of a Winning Team and together we wish you a wonderful day and a great week.

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