She Leads a Championship Team

Abby Conklin discusses her slow start and fast finish as cocaptain of the Lady Vols — and what she learned about leading.

Last September, when she became cocaptain of the 1996-97 Lady Vols, the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, Abby Conklin made a visible transition from team player to team leader. The 6’3″ forward/center assumed a leadership position on a squad that had won the NCAA championship the year before.


There was no denying Conklin’s credentials. During her career at Tennessee, she set an array of three-point shooting records and became the 21st player in team history to score more than 1,000 points.

But credentials don’t guarantee a smooth transition. Early on, Conklin says, she made several big mistakes. “At times I doubted if I could be a leader,” she says. But her tenure ended in winning form. The Lady Vols won the NCAA tournament and repeated as national champions.

In an interview with Fast Company, Conklin discussed her slow start and fast finish as cocaptain — and what she learned about leading.

1. Manage up before you manage down.

“In the beginning, one of the things I struggled with was communication with our head coach, Pat Summitt. I didn’t understand that Pat expected me to be her liaison with the team, to let her know how the team was feeling about things. We just weren’t connected. That was a mistake. You can’t assume you know what’s expected of you.”

2. Motivation is a one-on-one game.

“Early on, I didn’t know my teammates as well as I should have — who I had to be positive with, who I could yell at, what made each person tick. You have to do that one on one. People are different in group situations. They’re quiet, uncomfortable.”

3. Want participation? Demand clarity.

“I never liked when decisions were made without my input. So when I became cocaptain I always asked the team what it wanted to do. That can create problems. I also worried too much about getting feedback. If we had a bad practice, I’d ask people what went wrong. If they didn’t respond, I got frustrated. Our assistant coach gave me some advice. She said to tell the team what we needed to do, and then just do my part. Lead by example and everyone else will follow.”


4. Stay confident under criticism.

“Pat Summitt is a vocal, hard-nosed coach. She was just always on me. Then she would turn around and tell someone, ‘If I didn’t think Conklin could handle this, I wouldn’t be all over her.’

“I realized that when someone doesn’t have faith in you as a leader, that’s when they stop pushing. They just wash their hands of you.”