The University of Arkansas has a tradition-rich men’s basketball program, but it fell on hard times for several years.
The Razorbacks, who have played in the Final Four six times and won the national title in 1994, made the NCAA Tournament just eight times from 2000 through 2019 and never advanced beyond the second round during that stretch.
Then they hired Eric Musselman, and things quickly got back on track.
The Razorbacks have a 73-28 record in three seasons under Musselman, and in each of the past two years he took Arkansas to the Elite Eight – one win away from the Final Four. Then he signed a top-five recruiting class to restock for the 2022-23 season.
The secret to Musselman’s success?
Well, maybe that’s not the only key, but successful, collaborative meetings play an important role in everything his program does — from innovative social media campaigns, to off-the-court team-building sessions, to preparations for games.
There are all types of meetings, of course, but what caught my attention with Musselman was what I would call his daily “whatever” meetings — times when he and his staff collaborate on ideas about whatever they deem relevant.
“Every day when I come in, I gather everybody up together – they’re people of all ages – and we just have a think tank,” Musselman said earlier this summer during a seminar on teamwork for the Walton Family Foundation. “We just throw ideas around. Some of them are, ‘Hey, how can we be creative on social media today? Tomorrow? Next week?’ (Or) ‘Hey, how can we be creative with the drills that we’re going to give our players in practice? What can we do different? What’s new?’”
The benefit to Musselman, according to assistant coach Keith Smart, is that he gets tons of information and ideas that he and his team (players, coaches, and staff) can sift through and use to get better.
“He might use that information right then, he might use it later on,” said Smart. “He might not use it at all. Muss has always been that guy who says, ‘Give me the information, let me process it and then I’ll make a determination how I’m going to use it.’ But he wants as much information as he can get from everyone.”
The benefit to the staff members is that they get to contribute to the team’s success and feel empowered, grow in their roles, and move up in their profession. Jon Blake, a former member of the Arkansas basketball administrative staff and now assistant director of football operations at Georgia Tech, put it this way: “Coach Muss helps people develop in their careers. He gets it.”
After looking into his approach, here’s what I saw as some keys to making those “whatever” meetings really matter:
Make the meetings a priority.
Many leaders never hold a “whatever” meeting, much less hold one every day. Arkansas schedules them regularly. Making them intentional and routine helps reinforce their importance in the culture and allows momentum to build as participants become comfortable sharing their information and ideas.
Include a diverse group of people
Musselman’s meetings include his assistant coaches, but also administrative staff. There are usually at least nine staff members in the room, from former NBA players and coaches to graduate assistants.
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Riley Hall, a student manager at Arkansas from 2013-16 before Musselman arrived and now director of internal operations, said its unusual in other programs for young staff members to have so much of a voice. “But Coach Muss gives us a way to express our thoughts, and it’s a way for us to learn and grow,” he said. “We can say what we’re thinking, and Coach Muss can say, ‘Hey that’s a good idea.’ Or, ‘Hey, this is why we don’t do it that way anymore.’”
Honor the voices in the room
The only way people will truly open up and share their ideas – and risk sharing ideas they might land with the thud of a deflated basketball – is to treat those people with respect and to value their input. Otherwise, there’s no collaboration.
“I think you’ve got to respect everybody,” Musselman said. “Everybody’s got incredible ideas. You’ve got to give them a voice, and then you’ve got to listen to them … because everybody’s got some gift that God has blessed them with. … So I think you need to have great respect for everybody you’re working with and just listen, because it’s incredible how many people can give you great ideas.”
There are times for formal meetings and there are times when meetings need a tight agenda, but creativity and innovation flow more freely when the structure isn’t so restrictive. When people realize interesting ideas will be discussed and vetted in a respectful manner, they start seeing ideas all around them and anticipating the conversations. The next thing you know, those ideas are leading to initiatives that help produce victories for your team.