Focus On The Fundamentals

I walked into the call center training room and the team was all working on the call center equivalent of a basketball “3 pointer”. Even the rookies. Figurative basket balls were bouncing off the rim and the walls and one another. Every now and then one would go in, and the coach would go wild, “see YOU CAN do this woot woot!!!”

They were all concentrating on our hardest call type, the one that’s getting all the executive attention. Clearly they had heard my message loud and clear. Everyone was breaking a sweat. Bless their hearts, the stress grew more intense with each missed shot. Sadly, their efforts didn’t show in their results. In fact, not only were they not shooting 3 pointers, they were missing the lay-ups.

“I wasn’t real quick, and I wasn’t real strong. Some guys will just take off and it’s like, whoa. So I beat them with my mind and my fundamentals.”
~ Larry Bird

In the next room the coach was calmly talking fundamentals. He had a few in the corner practicing their 3 pointers and coaching one another, but the rest were focused on the basics: sounding friendly and empathetic; really listening to the customer; using their tools. Sure, they talked about what to do when you must shoot from the outside, but that wasn’t the focus, until they were ready. Here’s the crazy part, not only was this team out executing the first group in all metrics, they were nailing more 3 pointers.

Why We Ignore the Fundamentals

As leaders it’s easy to assume our team is ready for more. In fact, over-all results can be deceiving. We see trends improving, and we start teaching Harlem Globe Trotter stunts. It could be just a few superstars influencing the trend.

Plus, fundamentals are boring. Your team is tired of practicing, “one more role play and I’m going to barf.”

And then there’s the pressure from folks like me. “Come-on, the other centers nailing 3 pointers why not you?” Great leaders tell overly zealous leaders to chill down, and focus on the fundamentals.

 How to Nail the Fundamentals

  1. Know what skills matter: First figure out what fundamentals are really driving your performance
  2. Don’t assume winning means they’ve got it: Congratulate the win, and dig deeper into each skill
  3. Encourage teamwork: Find ways for the team to help one another, pair them up for skills drills
  4. Understand each player’s performance: Customize a development plan for each team member
  5. Teach in confidence bursts: Build confidence through the small wins
  6. Constantly refresh: Develop a regular cadence of back-to-basics practice
  7. Don’t grow too fast: Be sure you have a critical mass nailing the fundamentals before you rapidly grow the team
Posted in Career & Learning, Results & Execution and tagged , , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


    • Loved this. It’s awesome when folks share what they’re reading with our crew. Of course, if Warren is reading and thinking 80% of the time, surely he has time for LGL. I’ll reach out and see if he would be interested in joining our conversation 😉

  1. In regards to leadership, less is more.

    Use the coach approach for people to define their own way.

    p.s. The movie “White Man Can’t Jump” was based on my vertical rise capabilities.

  2. Repetition. Just like in athletics you have to practice all the time. But in leadership and management people think they can get better without practicing. You can’t expect to improve by read something once, or going to one training, developing goals and looking at them every once and while. You have to do something everyday.

  3. Sometimes as leaders, we mistakenly assume our team understands the fundamentals. This happened with me yesterday.

    I had a quarterly review with one of my senior technicians – been with me for 11 years. He mentioned he would like to improve his business writing because there are times when his customers struggle to follow his instructions. In talking more with him, I came to realize he was not aware people have different learning styles.

    I “assumed” a senior technician would have understood the three learning styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic; but then again, I never covered that fundamental topic before.

    Guess what’s on the agenda for this weekend’s team meeting?

  4. Whenever I present a program on Effective Communication I am always taken back when some of the participants seem like they are learning all the basics for the first time. I wonder how this is possible, but true.

    Instead of assuming leaders are well-equipped with the necessary capabilities, have fun and re-introduce the lesson in a different, more creative way. Play games. Share stories. Focus on what one has learned along the way.

    Nice post, Karin!

  5. Two thoughts come to mind. Back in early high school I cut out an article from Time magazine (or equivalent publication) and it took the reader inside the Fermilab particle collider. The quote I remember was this: “First we do it right. Then we do it faster.” My second thought, which is a personal opinion, is that Lean thinking is grounded in getting the fundamentals right. Get it right, then build.

  6. Karin, The words that always resonate with me are: “Plan the work, and work the plan.” These fundamentals will get the work done and achieve real results. Plans adjust as new information is learned but we don’t get distracted by “shiny” objects. Thanks! Jon

  7. I am caught by two points in your post, Karin. The first one is: It could be just a few superstars influencing the trend. I accept this as a fact of life. It is the few that carry on and it is their job to jump the chasm and convince others. My fundamental here is to work with the few to reach the masses.
    The second point is: Confidence Bursts. I agree totally. Birds do that to encourage the leader while on flight to carry on.

    I might sound weird, but I know it is the world of the active few. Otherwise; why the 80/20 Rule still functions? I call the 20% few the Oxygen of employees; the remaining 80% the Nitrogen of employees.

  8. It comes down to our desire to achieve, or over-achieve as the case may be…as leaders we really do want everyone on our team to excel.

    For me, it’s not that I’ve forgotten the basics; it’s about applying all the advanced sophisticated tricks and tips to the basics. To do that, we need to go back and revisit them so we know how to better apply the stuff we’ve learned in the interim.

    Loved this post, Karin!

    • LaRae, I know… we do want them to excel, but I find sometimes by pushing to hard to quickly, I can actually impede progress.. You bring up an important point about building on and revisiting the basics. So vital.

  9. Love the context for this one! As a part of the leadership team in the call center we struggled, brought in training etc, but we really needed more manager engagement too.

    I’m a big fan of hip-to-hip coaching. Our managers would sit with people 1×1. Sometimes they would plug into the calls, other times they only heard one side. Immediately following it was:

    – How do you think it went?
    – Here’s where you rocked!
    – What did you struggle with?
    – Next time think about…

    We didn’t wait until a monthly 1×1 to give feedback and coaching. Fundamentals matter every day and on the spot guidance, using an in the moment example, can make them stronger too.

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