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Mendenhall never stops learning

His football practices are tough. There is a reason his name is Bronco instead of Maurice or Sebastian.

But why is Bronco Mendenhall studying brain function, referencing religious anecdotes — such as the story of the Sons of Helaman from the Book of Mormon — and handing out bracelets and T-shirts with mottoes and symbols? Why is Mendenhall reading articles from the Harvard Business Review, counseling with an organizational behavior expert and marching his squad up a mountain?

Why is he pairing off defensive and offensive players to work out in the weight room, poring over texts written by Ph.D.'s after his wife and kids are asleep, and using PowerPoint presentations? What's it all got to do with wearing a whistle?

It's simple, according to Paul Gustavson, one of the nation's leading strategy and leadership consultants. "When BYU hired Mendenhall, they picked a very good defensive coordinator who wants to be a great head coach."

And, I might add, when the program you took over has had three consecutive losing seasons, you set sail with a new and different GPS system.

Athletic director Tom Holmoe put Mendenhall on to Gustavson, who, in 1972, was the first walk-on returning missionary in LaVell Edwards' program. Today, Gustavson's clients include National Semiconductor, NASA, General Electric, American Express, Colgate and Amoco, now British Petroleum.

Gustavson's job? At Mendenhall's request, help him lead an organization.

Gustavson advises Mendenhall for free.

Why? I asked Gustavson, a walking Yoda of quotes and analogies who coaches corporate giants and CEOs on the nature of their business relationships.

"It's payback," Gustavson said. "When LaVell Edwards allowed me to walk on at BYU, it changed my life." Plus, it's part of Holmoe's play to engage "the BYU family."

Since the coach's hire Dec. 13, 2004, Gustavson was one of the first people Mendenhall reached out to, contacting him while recruiting Brandon Doman as quarterback coach in California. In return, Gustavson has spent time with Mendenhall and his staff.

"I have shared with him some of the best books and articles in the field of strategy, organization design and leadership, and he is devouring them," Gustavson said.

"It's fun and interesting to see Bronco with these articles and books and see the highlighting on page after page with little notes that he makes. Bronco's behavior isn't about getting through the material so he can say that he read it and put it on a shelf. It's all about a deep drive to really pull out the nuggets and then just ponder and meditate and let his creative juices flow on how he'll apply principles and models to differently go about recruiting and developing coaches and players."

Said Mendenhall of Gustavson after Friday's short scrimmage: "Of all the experiences I've had as a head coach, what I've learned from Paul, and how it's helped me grow as a person, as a leader, as a manager, is the most significant experience to date.

"Every time I meet with him, it's directly applicable to helping this football team win. My job is to apply it, but he's a wonderful teacher, and as a new football coach, with so many things to manage, I find I'm in an uncharted territory. He's given me a database leadership that's been proven in the most successful companies in the world. Why not apply it to this one?"

One thing Gustavson taught Mendenhall is that the big boys who succeed find a faster way to acquire knowledge. If you watch BYU practices, you see a fast-paced, high volume act on the field. More in less time.

Gustavson says Mendenhall's incubation is a pathway to master learner and BYU's coach is applying stuff on the fly.

"Research tells us the three strongest facilitators of long-term memory are emotion experiences, music and metaphor," Gustavson said. Thus, bracelets, T-shirts, slogans and emotionally lit fuses.

Gustavson introduced Mendenhall to his "Five Smooth Stones" for creating and sustaining high-performance organization. Gustavson named this after the biblical warrior David, who slew Goliath. Before his encounter with the giant Philistine, David chose five smooth stones to put in his pouch as ammunition for his sling.

Folks may wonder what religious stories have to do with sports performance. But just this week, Washington basketball coach Lorenzo Romar told USA Today his success in gaining his team a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament included application of his Christian beliefs and a strategy of discipline, hard work and unselfishness.

Said Romar: "I use those principles with the team. The word Bible doesn't come up, but I use the principles all the time. That's how my life is run. That's all I know."

Certainly a spiritual allegory is better than a needle with steroids.

Bracelets handed out to BYU players have the letters ADE, which stand for accountability, discipline and effort.

Mendenhall is seeking to turn BYU's honor code into a strength and centerpiece of recruiting and performance. Like the Sons of Helaman were inspired as warriors by the words of their mothers, Mendenhall believes BYU's code can propel his players to be winners, both as men and athletes.

"Bronco's strength is engaging people so he can capture their hearts and minds," Gustavson said.

"In his first hundred days, he's identified ways his team can compete, and that's a spirit that comes to players by living the Honor Code, an effort-based system of work, discipline and teamwork.

"What's very encouraging to me is how crisp he is on communicating how BYU will compete and cultivating the culture he needs to succeed."

Folks saw that early on, within weeks of his hire, when he shook up his roster and staff.

Said Gustavson, it was a matter of "Getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and the right people in the right seats on the bus."

Gustavson suggested a book on left-right brain function to enlighten Mendenhall on how people on his staff and roster learn in different ways.

"He models learning," Gustavson said. "I'll spend time with him, but he teaches his staff. What's impressive is he goes and teaches his staff and his team. He just wants to learn all that he can."

So, what will all this translate to?

Well, during losing seasons, the first in three decades at BYU, there was a philosophy that all BYU needed was a good quarterback and they'd win.

Gustavson called that kind of thinking pasture biscuits.

What Mendenhall brings, to quote an author Gustavson threw at Mendenhall (Jim Collins in "Good to Great"), is: "I want to give you a lobotomy about change."

What Mendenhall has is a sound strategy, said the scientist, who really believes he is helping Mendenhall get a master's degree in organizational behavior.

In 30 years working with business leaders, Gustavson says Mendenhall stands out among others because of intangibles unique to great ones.

"It is that they have a focus on acquiring knowledge that will better themselves and give their organizations a competitive advantage. Bronco has a wonderful spirit of inquiry and a thirst for knowledge and incredible intensity around discussing applications of the principles."

Yeah, but can he get BYU to win seven games?

"I'm betting on him," Gustavson said. "He's a keeper."

Mendenhall's reading list for 2005

"Good to Great: Why some Companies Make the Leap and Other's Don't," by Jim Collins

"Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies," by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras

"Seeing is Believing: How the New Art of Visual Management Can Boost Performance Throughout Your Organization," by Steward Liff and Pamela A. Posey

"The Whole Brain Business Book," by Ned Herrmann

"Peak Performance: Aligning the Hearts and Minds of Your Employees," by Jon R. Katzenbach

"Insight to Impact: Strategies for Interpersonal and Organizational Change," by William G. Dyer

"Peak Performances: Mental Training Techniques of the World's Greatest Athletes," By Charles A. Garfield, Hal Zina Bennett

Paul Gustavson's 5 Smooth Stones

Strategy is all about creating sustainable competitive advantage — not from doing the same thing that others do but by doing similar things differently than your competitors.

Organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get. If you don't like results (three losing seasons in a row) then you need to change your design.

Not all work is created equal — you need to focus on your most important work. If you don't identify what that is, then the business essentials and compliance will eat up the work that truly makes a difference.

Knowledge is the purest source of competitive advantage — so it is all about learning and applying knowledge. Football coaches and players are knowledge workers.

Capturing hearts and minds. Statistics say 70 percent of all strategies fail, 70 percent of all mergers and acquisitions fail, 70 percent of all change efforts fail. Why? Because they don't capture the hearts and minds of the key people.