What does it take to transform a good, strong cross country program into a great one with long term success? Coming into my final cross country season for Syracuse University, I found myself asking this question in regards to what I think will become one of the greatest programs in the NCAA. I was blessed and fortunate enough to have the opportunity to come back to Syracuse University for my fifth year of eligibility in Cross Country and Indoor Track—an opportunity that I wanted to capitalize on to create momentum for the program going forward.
For SUXC, 2013 saw tremendous success. We took home the first ever ACC Championship in school history with five All-ACC selections, won the Northeast Regional Championships with six All-Northeast Region selections, and took tenth place at the NCAA Championships, the first men’s top ten finish under the current coaching staff and the highest finish since 1957. Coach Fox also received the ACC Coach of the Year award, the first in Syracuse history. It was a season to remember, and although it was a long push to get there, it was a lot of fun and I loved every minute of it.
Throughout the semester, I read the highly acclaimed management novel Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t by Jim Collins. The novel dissects 11 companies who transformed from having mediocre results within the market to results that beat the market by 3.5 times per one dollar invested over a period of 15 years. Collins and his research team created a Good to Great Model and identified six important steps a company must take in order to achieve greatness propelled by a concept he called the flywheel. Each step was categorized into three groups based upon disciplinary values a good company must gain and possess in order to become great. While reading the novel, I found myself applying each step of Collins’ model to our cross country team.
Level 5 Leadership: The Syracuse University Cross Country Team was coached and guided by the best coaching staff in the NCAA. A level five leader is characterized by their humility while leading, yet they possess rigorous drive to do what is best for the company. I can vouch for the entire team that the entire coaching staff at Syracuse is driven to being the best, making hard decisions along that stay within the confines of creating one of the best cross country programs in the NCAA. As a result of these decisions, success emerged; however, the success achieved over the last decade by the team, especially the initial success of this year, was taken humbly. The coaches allowed the running to do the talking and gain press (although limited) rather than taking credit for everything they had previously accomplished.
First Who, Then What: It is important to create goals, but these goals mean nothing unless you are surrounded by the right people. First choose the right people you want onboard, then formulate your goals and where you want to go. It became evident to me that Syracuse Cross Country has had all the right people come through the program. The coaches have done a phenomenal job recruiting and bringing the best all-around athletes into the program, athletes who I cannot be more proud of to call teammates. By finding and choosing the right people to join the program, those who are driven and work extremely well together, it is easier and more effective in forming goals. For SUXC, these goals were to win the first ACC Championship and place on the podium (top 4) at the NCAA Championships. These goals were not chosen, but rather realized once everyone was aware of the talented group we had.
Confront the Brutal Facts: It is important to confront the current reality of the situation, but never lose hope of what can be accomplished in the future. For SUXC, we had to be honest with ourselves. One day, we would love to hoist the national championship trophy, yet we realized this is not entirely the time to do it. It is a long process that takes years of work and momentum. We knew we could be top ten, even top five, on a really good day at nationals, but we still kept the faith that one day we can be the greatest team in the country. It is a hard pill to swallow, but when a team cares about building towards the future of the program, the team keeps the dreams and hopes for future goals alive even if that goal cannot immediately be met.
The Hedgehog Concept: What is your passion? What can you be the best at? What is your driving resource? These three questions, when overlapping, form the basis of one’s hedgehog concept. For SUXC, the passion of running, the goal to be the best in the NCAA, and the success we achieve along the way are our hedgehog concept. It is important to stick to this concept when making all decisions, and although it may seem simple, it is a lot harder than it looks in the model. All the training and racing decisions made for the program were geared towards success in the future. All members of the team, coaches, athletes, and administration, adhered closely to the hedgehog concept. By using the hedgehog concept as a guideline, the team was able to achieve success by simply training and staying focused on what needed to be accomplished.
Culture of Discipline: In my mind, this concept was the most crucial aspect to this season and the program as a whole. All the puzzle pieces can be there, but unless a company consists of self-disciplined individuals who focus on their responsibilities at hand, the puzzle cannot be put together. My teammates were extremely self-disciplined this season. We had ample guidance from our coaches, but still had many freedoms to control on our own, freedoms that can only be conquered by self-disciplined and motivated people. Every teammate did their part and responsibility to ensure the overall success of the program, and the end results spoke for themselves. I owe a lot to my teammates for the sacrifices they had to make to stay self-disciplined, and I’m excited to see where their self-discipline will carry them in the future of SUXC.
The Flywheel: Throughout the six steps taken to becoming great, there is a great deal of momentum built until a company, or in this case the SUXC team, breaks through into greatness. The concept of this buildup of momentum is known as the flywheel. Once our team had achieved all the necessary steps towards becoming great, we began to see success. Momentum built as early as the hiring of the coaching staff and recruiting of their first SUXC athletes and culminated with the self-displined actions of my teammates adhering to our hedgehog concept. We saw momentum carry us through to our first ACC Championship win, the first top ten finish in recent program history, and we had multiple All-Northeast Region and All-ACC recipients. The best part about the flywheel is that it keeps on turning as long as the six steps continue to be followed, meaning future success for SUXC.
(Note: I did not include technological accelerators due to relevancy, although it is one of the six steps mentioned by Collins)
Overall, while it was nice to draw parallels between SUXC and Good to Great, there were many other factors that made this season a huge success. The approach we took this year was very laid back and fun. Every trip was exciting to be a part of and the team had really good chemistry. Racing was treated as it should—just another workout. Other than running with a mass of other teams from all over the country, it was just running. For years I put a lot of pressure on myself until I was finally able to realize the reason that I ran in the first place, that is because I love to run, I love to compete, I love being a part of a team, and I love my school. I saw myself this season treat running for Syracuse as a privilege and a fun opportunity to express my passions, rather than treating it like a job.
The concepts in Good to Great seem relatively common sense and simple—and they are. If I just run with passion and stay focused on what lies ahead, that’s all there is to it. Running is, simply put, just running. If a team and program like Syracuse can follow these simple steps, anyone can do it, right? Wrong. It is easy to get caught up and lose focus of goals and carrying out one’s responsibilities. Following these steps is so much easier said than done, and I challenge you all to take part in following Collins’ model to transform into greatness.
Being a part of Syracuse Cross Country for the last five years has taught me a lot about myself, helped me to find my faith again, and given me reason to pursue my passion of running as a career, whether professionally or on the business side of it. I have so many people to thank for the opportunity to represent, in my opinion, the greatest school in the NCAA including family, teammates, friends, coaches, and mentors (As well as NYRR, huge thanks to everyone I worked with this past summer! It was an incredible experience). I am really excited for this upcoming Indoor Track season for one last opportunity to represent Syracuse, as well as watching SUXC in the years to come. Here’s to continuing the momentum and keeping the flywheel spinning.