Business, Basketball And Building A Winning Work Culture

As a former player on a two-time NCAA National Championship winning college basketball team, Mat Isbhia—the CEO and President of United Wholesale Mortgage (UWM)—has a unique perspective on teamwork and leadership.

For four years, Mat played for the elite Michigan State University squad under the leadership of legendary coach Tom Izzo. During two of those years, MSU won it all! Though was largely a bench player, Mat gained immense wisdom on the court and off. Today, those lessons have translated into nothing less than corporate success.

Mat wrote about this in his book on business, Running the Corporate Offense: Lessons in Effective Leadership from the Bench to the Board Room“The experience at UWM is so tied into my basketball experience and learning from Tom Izzo,” says Mat. “I thought I could share a lot of the best practices—by showing what has translated and how well it’s worked.”

And even if sports aren’t your thing, there’s still huge value within Mat’s business leadership insights. He knows firsthand why great teamwork creates workplace success and how strong leaders can make all the difference.

Culture is King: The Perks of a Disciplined Culture

Every business needs a consistent, well-defined work culture. And yes, your company has one whether you believe it or not.

“Anytime someone tells me that [they don’t have a culture],” Mat says, “it’s because your culture is probably not very good.” Any group of people coming together day and in and day out will inherently create a consistent set of habits, mindsets, and expectations.

Everyone’s got culture,” says Mat. “But what is your culture, and is it represented? Are you proud of it?” If those questions are hard to answer, then it’s time to think critically about how you can better support the people at your company—and culture is always at the heart.

“You have got to figure out what it is, design it, and live by it,” says Mat. Make sure the expectations are clear and well-defined. Once these expectations have been established, be disciplined about sticking to them. That means everyone from the interns to managers to the CEO.

As a leader, it’s part of your role to foster and support your company’s work culture. There is no “free pass” just because you’re in charge. So, does your company’s leadership follow the same culture guidelines as the rest of the team?

“It can’t be, ‘We have a culture where everyone works really hard,’ but then the CEO comes in at eleven and leaves at three,” Mat says. “That’s not a disciplined culture. That’s not truly who you are.”

Be an Effective Team Coach

There’s little doubt that Mat considers MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo to be his greatest leadership inspiration. One major lesson that Izzo instilled in his team was that every player had different coaching needs. At UWM, Mat realized the same mentality applies at the workplace.

“The easiest way is to find out what matters to them,” says Mat. “Find out what their goals are. You can’t coach two people the same way. Maybe one person has a goal to be a senior leader. Another wants to make enough money to go back to school. They have different goals. They have different paths.”

At Michigan State, every player served a different role. They had to be coached differently as well. “Tom Izzo didn’t push me the same way he pushed (MSU teammate and an eventual first-round draft pick) Mateen Cleeves. He’s going to the NBA.” Cleeves needed to know more than how to become a star player—he also had to learn the intricacies of moving from college sports into the pro leagues.

As for Mat? He wanted to be a strong, supporting member of the MSU team. Then after his college career ended, he wanted to become a basketball coach or start a business. To help them both succeed in their own ways, Izzo provided Cleeves and Mat with differing lessons tailor-made for their own unique life paths.

Now 20-years later, Mat uses this philosophy at UWM. “You have to know your team members,” he says. “What are they about? What matters to them?”

One way that Mat and the leadership team find the answers to these questions is by asking employees to set goals of their own. “Everyone at our company—5,500 people—sends two personal and two professional goals to their leader,” Mat says. “I can pull any team member’s goals and know what matters to them outside of work and inside of work. It’s game-changing.”

UWM’s leaders then prioritize making those goals a reality and regularly follow-up on their progress. With added insights and dedication to helping their team members succeed, everyone gets one-on-one coaching that’ll help them become the best at whatever matters most.

W.I.N.: What’s Important Now?

When trying to accomplish a big goal, Mat tells himself and his team to W.I.N.—or focus on What’s Important Now. He believes that this mindset of prioritizing and then quickly executing critical tasks is pivotal in achieving your goals.

“You say to yourself, W.I.N—What’s Important Now? What do I have to do right now to hit that goal?” says Mat. Maybe it’s hiring a larger team or training employees on a new product. Perhaps you need to come up with an in-depth plan and strategy. Whatever it might be, jump in and make it happen.

“Don’t wait,” Mat says. “Set a big goal. Say when, and attack it right away. Don’t sit around saying ‘I’m going to start working on that next week.’ That’s not how it works. You’ve already lost a week. Let’s get going!”

But what about when you start hitting those inevitable roadblocks? “Embrace them. Obstacles are just opportunities,” says Mat. “You’re always going to run across ups and downs…It’s just how you look at them and how you address them. I look at them as opportunities. It’s an opportunity to show that I can climb that mountain.

“An opportunity to separate yourself from the pack.”

Be Ambitious with Your Goals

As you can tell, Mat is a huge advocate for goal setting. Over the years, he’s also come up with tips, tricks, and strategies for making those goals stick. One of the most important of these tips is writing down your goals and sharing them. “The fact of thinking about the goal, putting a measurement on it, writing it down, and handing it to someone—that’s more than half the battle right there,” he says. “It holds you accountable.”

And what if you miss those big goals? “It’s okay,” says Mat. “Some people are so scared of missing goals. You’re not a failure if you miss some goals. You’re a failure if you don’t set a goal. I can miss some goals. I can reassess what I didn’t do to hit those goals—but I can’t fail.

“Set big goals, and reach for the stars,” he continues. “If you end up missing by a little bit, life’s still pretty good.”

Learn more about Mat Ishbia and his game-winning business and leadership tips on his three-part series of my podcast! You’ll hear about creating an incredible work culture, why success is a team sport, and more.

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