Running a successful small business is very much like coaching a sports team: you need everyone on your staff working together to the best of their abilities if you want to accomplish your goal. So, what can you do to bring out the MVP in each of your employees? In this episode, Gene Marks and Sam Zullo, Basketball Coach and Founder of the Simsbury Youth Basketball Association, discuss how small business owners can use sports coaching strategies to help boost employee motivation and performance.
Podcast Key Highlights
- What Motivational Strategies Can Coaches Impart to Small Business Owners?
- Like coaches, business owners will always be the most passionate person in their organization about what they’re doing, so it is their responsibility to help their employees reach that same level of motivation.
- You need to make sure each of your employees knows that you care about them and that you value their work. Spend at least ten minutes a week thinking about every single employee and their specific needs.
- If a certain employee isn’t very motivated, take the time to find out their strengths and then, show them that you believe in them.
- Always have three types of goals: daily goals, individual goals, and big picture goals.
- Fostering a sense of togetherness will make your employees feel accountable towards one another.
- How Do I Ensure that My Employees can Work Effectively as a Team?
- You need to train each staff member so that they can work efficiently during your business’s peak times.
- It’s not enough to have high performing employees; they also need to be people you can trust and depend on.
- When interviewing potential employees, focus on finding people who are capable of fulfilling your non-negotiables.
- Every employee needs to know exactly what they’re accountable for in their job and how to carry out those duties properly.
- How Can I Maintain Employee Morale in Difficult Situations?
- While you should avoid yelling at your employees, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a stern conversation with them if they’re not living up to their full potential.
- Celebrating your employees’ small successes will not only offset any negative feedback you give them, but it will also motivate them to achieve even bigger successes.
- Leading by example, especially in difficult situations, is pivotal to motivating your employees because it shows them that you share a similar goal.
- Transparency and honesty is the key to delivering disappointing news to your employees.
- You can’t make everyone happy all the time; you have to be willing to lose people who aren’t dedicated to helping you achieve your end goal.
The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are for informational purposes only, and solely those of the podcast participants, contributors, and guests, and do not constitute an endorsement by or necessarily represent the views of The Hartford or its affiliates.
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Gene: Welcome to the Small Biz Ahead podcast. We interview great experts that offer advice and tips to help you run your business better. Hey everybody and welcome to another episode of The Hartford Small Biz Ahead Podcast. My name is Gene Marks. Thank you so much for joining us, both whether you’re listening or you’re watching us online as well. Today I’m speaking to Sam Zullo. Sam is a high school varsity basketball coach. He’s the founder of the Simsbury Youth Basketball Association, Sam or Team Youth Basketball?
Sam: Yeah, organization for about five to 600 community members in Simsbury.
Gene: Awesome. Okay, that sounds great. I have no idea where Simsbury is. I’m assuming that’s like a Connecticut thing, that’s right. Fair enough. We’re in Hartford guys, so it’s a Connecticut thing. But Sam is here to talk to us about, what Sam? Why would we have a basketball coach coming and talking to us on a small business podcast? You tell me.
Sam: Great question. First of all, thank you Gene for having me on today. Yeah. Why would you have a basketball coach come in to talk about how to help motivation in business? So for one, I’ve been working for The Hartford for 14 years now and a lot of my roles have actually been in the small business area and I’ve also been coaching basketball at a varsity level for 11 years. But really my whole life. I grew up with it. My father was a coach in New York State for over 30 years. I’ve always been on the bench, I’ve always been learning the ins and outs.
Sam: And I’ve also run a small business in our nonprofit in Simsbury, Connecticut. I see a lot of parallels between running a small business and coaching, especially coaching basketball. And I think there’s a lot of things that when we coach a sport, when we have to think about motivating young people, we know we have to do it every single day. And a lot of times in the business world you don’t realize that you need to motivate, but you do. There’s a lot of things we can share from the coaching world to help in that regard.
Gene: Yeah. So I mean, how does motivating young people different than motivating grown-ups and adults in the business world?
Sam: Yeah, it’s different and it’s not, in my opinion. The number one thing that I think is a parallel is that when you’re a coach, you’re the most passionate person on the field or in the gym about what you’re doing. And that’s why you’re doing it. You probably played the sport yourself, you know the ins and outs of every single skill. And you’re certainly not there for the money. You’re there because you absolutely love it and you know everything about it. Not everybody on your team is going to be the same way. You’re lucky to have one player that’s even 90% as into it as you are. And you have to find a way to motivate that group of people, even though they have different goals and motivations than you do to accomplish something as a team.
Sam: When you’re a small business owner, you are absolutely the most passionate person in your business about what you’re doing. It might be a lifelong dream, it might be a family thing. And it’s really going to be hard to find employees that are as motivated as you are to accomplish your goals. And the biggest thing I have to think about as a coach every day is how do I look at each person and help them get to the goal even though they’re not me? And I think that’s the challenge that small business owners face every day as well.
Gene: So first of all, you hit at my heart here. So all of my kids played sports growing up. They were all on travel team, none of them played basketball because we’re a very short family, but they play a lot of soccer. Squash was another big sport for my son and my daughter was a swimmer and my oldest son wound up playing four years of soccer. So many hours of travel soccer with them. And he had some great coaches and he had some lousy coaches. And I will tell you, Sam, that the couple of good coaches that he had impacted him for the rest of his life, he still talks about them. So I’m going to give you one great quality of, because I remember him telling me this and then I want to hear from you some other qualities that you think really matter.
Gene: But when I asked him why he had one coach at PIP his last two years that he just adored. And I was like, so what’s so great about this guy? I mean soccer, soccer. And he is like this coach cared about me and he cared about every, and equally so about every member. He took the time, he spent personal time with me, he took an interest in my life, he took an interest and my friends as well, my teammates. And he made the analogy to when he was speaking to the guy, you felt like you were the only person in the room. So caring about your people was a really huge thing. So let me ask you first of all to comment on that because that’s got to be a very important thing as a leader in a business and then also as you as a coach, what other sort of attributes do you think a really great coach has that a manager or an owner should also have?
Sam: Yeah. A great question and great context.
Gene: Long question.
Sam: It’s so easy to focus on the top people. And from an outside perspective looking into sports, that’s often what people think. Oh, they play favorites. This person, that person touches the ball the most. But…
Gene: I have to interrupt you, I have to interrupt you. Just so you know by context, for four years, my wife and I traveled to Pit to watch my son sit on the bench the entire game. And that he still love this coach so.
Sam: He still had that feedback about the coach. And so when you actually break it down and think about it, and this is going to be my bigger picture comment to your question of what are the other qualities is, break it down and think about everything you do. It’s so easy just to look at the big picture and the end goal and the best players or your high performing employees, but you have a whole team and they’re not all those people and you spend hours with them. And in a business you spend days with them, right, for long periods of time. So as a basketball coach, I have 12 to 16 kids in my gym and I have five kids playing most of the time. That’s only a third of the people in my gym,
Sam: So if I don’t care about those other 11 kids and I don’t spend the time to think about them, then at the end of the day, nobody has a good experience. And we’re not really a team, are we? We’re in a March Madness right now, right? So go turn on an NTA tournament game, watch the guys sitting on the bench and how into every single play they are. That’s a team. They’re just as important as everybody on the field or everybody on the court. And you have to take time to think about that. And the quality I think that it takes to do that, and I didn’t know this when I started coaching by the way, but I’ve learned it over the years, is you have to plan and think in advance.
Sam: So one thing that I do as a coach, and I would recommend every business owner to do this, I have to do it in my own small business as well, is have a weekly sit down with yourself. And it might just be 10 minutes to think about every employee or for me, it’s every kid on my team. I think about everyone. Have I had a touchpoint with her in the last couple weeks? Have I made sure I know where she is? How is she doing with her college applications? Does she know how valuable to this team she is even though she’s not playing? And the way that I try to do that, because it can be challenging, right, to think about all those people and keep track of it, is I always try to have three types of goals all the time. It helps me stay organized. And this is something that I really, really think is applicable to business as well, is we have daily goals, individual goals, and big picture team goals. We always have all three of those goals.
Sam: And so when you ask about another quality, to me it’s just the willingness when your mind’s going crazy and you have all this stuff you have to do, right, the bills are coming in, you’re just trying to get to the next busy period and trying to figure out how you’re going to manage the situation. Are you taking the time to sit down and make sure that you have these goals that everybody knows as well? And that’s kind of how we stay organized. And I can go a little bit more into those goals later.
Gene: No, that’s great. That’s great. You had mentioned about giving the feedback. Back in the day, it used to be that you have annual reviews for your employees.
Gene: Yeah. I mean that is just so old school now. I mean now people, particularly younger employees, they need to hear consistent feedback. And I’m sure you’re that way as well when you’re coaching. And I’m sure you would advise the same for business owners, correct?
Sam: Yeah, 100%. And it’s funny, you talk about the annual reviews, the corporate world is different than a small business. And I’d compare football coach, they’re going to get mad at me, but the corporate world to a football team a little bit more, right? There’s so many roles on a football team you can slot people into. There’s so many roles in the corporate world. You can move people around differently to make it work while in basketball, you have to play offense and defense. There’s no hiding. And if there’s a mismatch, you’re going to get picked on. In a small business, you have to do everything in a lot of businesses. You want people to be cross-trained, you want to be able to pick everything up.
Sam: And so you can’t hide from anything and you have to give the feedback. You have to develop every skill, but you also have to understand that everyone’s motivated differently. And the way that I like to think about that from a coaching perspective is the language that we use is preparing for peak. And I think it applies for business as well in that what is our big picture goal? Our big picture goal is to be able to compete against the best.
Sam: So I have to know how that’s going to happen and I need to know how everybody on my team is going to be ready for that. And in a business, your main goal is to have a peak, right? You want to be busy.
Gene: Sure. Sure.
Sam: You want to be busy as much as you can be. So when you’re trying to motivate your employees, you’re not trying to motivate them to be really good for you on a slow day. You want them to be motivated on your peak times so that they can perform their best there so that you have a sustainable business and more sustainable peak times. So your big picture end goal is that everybody on your team, no matter what their motivations are, they actually look forward. For us, it’s look forward for the big games. Right. For a business, look forward to the peak times. We want it to be busy because we want to tackle that situation and do it really well as opposed to thinking, oh man, we got to go play those guys. Or oh gosh, it’s going to be really busy on Friday night, I hope I don’t get that shift. That’s the mindset you want to create and you have to be thoughtful about doing it.
Gene: How old are the kids that you coach?
Sam: I’m a varsity coach. So we have anywhere from 15 year olds to 18 year olds mostly.
Gene: And about how many do you see during the course of the year? How many teams and how many players on the team?
Sam: Well, so I coach full year with the youth, I mean, I start with kids in pre-K to get to know them, but in terms of the kids on my actual high school team for what we’re talking about today, I see them six days a week during the season and a lot of times a seventh because they work our youth program, which is where we have a lot of those one-on-ones.
Sam: And then over the course of the off season, some of the kids I’ll see five days a week, four days a week, some of them two days a week, depending on other sports they play. But we try to make it a full year thing as much as we can.
Gene: All right, so let me throw a couple curveballs at, you say, because you’re dealing with a lot of kids and these are high school aged kids and they come from all sorts of walks of life. Say, you’ve got a star player for your team, but he ain’t a team player and is selfish and on his own or doesn’t want to listen. How do you deal with that?
Sam: That’s the hardest. Yeah, for sure. I have a whiteboard sitting next to me. I was going to break out, I just don’t know if it’s going to work for the camera here, but yeah I mean, if you put a graph up that’s your performance versus trust right on the grid. And the last thing you want is a high performer that you don’t trust. High performer sounds great. Oh, they can get it done. But if you can’t trust them, you can’t trust them when it matters most. They’re going to be the first one to complain. They’re going to be the first one to walk out. They’re going to be the first one to be rude to a customer. As a player, yeah, I could have someone that scores 30 points a game and then they face somebody as good as them. Are they going to fall apart on their team?
Sam: So I’ll bring it back to what I said before. Are you taking the time once a week or whatever the timeframe is for you to sit down and think about each person for just a few minutes and think about where they’re at and what they mean to your team and how they fit into the whole team? So we think about that constantly. We talk about it as a coaching staff constantly and we address it constantly. Over my 10 years in my current program, I’ve lost a number of kids that are really good players to other schools because they don’t fit into our program and we’ve still done pretty well so.
Gene: Great answer. Not that this would happen of course at The Hartford, but just theoretically, let’s assume that you’ve got an employee or team member on your team that I don’t know maybe isn’t so excited about coming into work. They might have some other things that they enjoy doing more like playing tennis or watching TV or just sleeping. And you must have kids that come in to your team that their parents are telling them, you’ve got to go and do this. Or it’s more of a keep busy activity than an actual passion of theirs. How do you get them motivated? You touched on this a little bit earlier about some of the peak times, but…
Gene: How do you get those kids that just aren’t really, don’t want to be there excited to be there? Just like how do you get those employees who don’t necessarily want to be at work all day excited to do their jobs?
Sam: I mean, you just define motivation right there, right?
Sam: Motivation isn’t about motivating the people that already want to be there and be the best every day. That’s the easy part, right?
Sam: Especially when you’re trying to create a team that’s going to accomplish a goal, right?
Sam: And so the hardest part is sitting there being like that person doesn’t care as much as I do. That’s really frustrating. And I think as a business owner, it’s probably more frustrating than as a coach because this is your life passion. This is your life on the line, right? And but you still need this. I mean, you might have seasonal people working for you, you might have people that have a second job, retirees, students. You’re going to have everything, a whole different mix. And one thing, and you talked about this earlier with the soccer coach is A show them that you care.
Sam: That is the first step. And is that going to resonate the same with everybody? No. But if it resonates enough to get them to work a little harder for you and accomplish a goal, then you can put them into a plan of where they can be when you’re busy, right? And so you have to show them that you care. And sometimes that’s not just showing them how to do a task that’s a part of your business. Find out a little bit about that person and what they’re going through with whatever they want to share and find out what they can do well for you. And this is what we try to do with basketball all the time, is I’ll bring it back to what I said before about preparing for peak, is we might have someone that scores all of our points, but we need people to rebound, people to defend, people to pass.
Sam: We need all these things. Right. And so in showing somebody that you care about them, you show them that you believe in them. And part of that is finding out what they can do well. So hey, do I want everyone to be great at everything? That would be ideal, but that’s just not how the world works. Right.
Sam: And I want to find out what you can do best for us. And I want to make you believe this is what you can do best for us. You are really, really good at this and we can count on you to do it. I believe in you to do it because once you know someone believes in you and is counting on you for something that you feel like you can do well, it’s a lot harder to not work hard for them, if that makes any sense. And so…
Gene: It does.
Sam: I actually used this example with my team because I’ve had players that actually worked in a coffee shop in town before. So I had used this with them and said, if you own a coffee shop, right, and you get really busy, you need someone to be busing tables, you need someone at the register, someone that can make the drinks the best. You need somebody that can wash the dishes and the glasses and make sure they’re actually clean so that when it gets to a customer, they’re not looking in wondering what’s going on. And maybe you cross train all your people on doing all that stuff when you’re slow. Because you might only have one or two people on. But when you get busy, you need that person that’s the best at clearing the tables fast and quietly to be doing that, you need your cash registered person to step up.
Sam: You need your drink maker to get in there and crank them out. And you need your utility person to be able to go and manage the line and make sure people are having a good experience. You need them to know that when it’s busy, or for us when we have a big game that “hey, this is what you’re going to do really, really well tonight.” As the owner or as the coach. I’m going to help you through the other stuff and I’m going to be here for you, but you’re going to do this thing really well tonight.
Gene: Do you recruit kids for any of your teams? Do you coach teams that are at a different competitive level where you have or do you just get the kids that are assigned to you as it is?
Sam: I don’t. I don’t recruit them. I’m not allowed to in public school. And so I get who I get. I try to show my younger kids that I care about them…
Sam: That are in elementary and middle school and work with them.
Sam: So that they know that I care and that I’m passionate about what I’m doing and that hopefully they think I’m a good coach. But no, I get who I get so.
Gene: Do kids try out for your teams and then you have to select them from a group, which means some you select and some you don’t, correct?
Sam: Yes. Yep.
Gene: Okay. So when I’m looking to hire an employee and I’ve got a bunch of candidates that are coming in applying for a job, and let’s assume there’s a similar level of skillset there, it’s hard for me to decide on who’s going to be that really great talent and not. How do you make those choices when you’re looking at those kids?
Sam: Yeah. Yeah. Great question. And the reality is, and I’m assuming this probably applies to a lot of small businesses as well, is that you don’t have all the perfect candidates in front of you.
Sam: You have candidates, but there’s probably very few of them that check every single box that you want. Right.
Sam: And so the thing that I try to focus on is what are my non-negotiables? So what are the things to me, and my non-negotiable can’t be that I want the five best players in the state because that’s just not going to happen. So what are my non-negotiables? And I make sure that when I’m going through tryouts, I’m not necessarily watching how many baskets you’re making. I’m watching your body language. I’m watching how you interact with your teammates. I’m watching how hard you play on defense. So for basketball, defense is a thing everybody can do. And every business might have a thing like that. Right. This is something that every person can do and I need them to be able to do really well, and I don’t really have time for them not to do it well, and that would be what I would focus my questions on. So whatever the non-negotiables are for you, I hit those the hardest on the first three days to make sure that I have a good base of everybody, at least being at a certain place that’s going to be on my team.
Gene: What are your non-negotiables?
Sam: Yeah, for us, it’s I mean we have it kind of written on our locker room wall. It’s…
Gene: Let do this from memory.
Sam: Defend and accountability. So for us, I mean accountability’s our biggest thing, and it doesn’t matter what your thing is. If you’re the 12th best player on the team or the best player on the team, the things that we talk about that we believe in you to do that you know are your strengths, you have to be accountable for those things. Our defensive style of playing is a very team oriented style, and every one of the five people has to know what their job is or it breaks down even if four people do it perfectly. And so we talk about the accountability on that all the time. But what we focus on the most in making that work is them actually knowing what they’re accountable for. So you would never see me coaching a game, yell at somebody for doing something we don’t work on in practice. Anytime that I see that happen in the game, I’ll turn to my assistants and say, write it down. We need to work on that tomorrow. We didn’t drill it. That’s my accountability.
Gene: Got it.
Sam: That applies in a business, right? Like,
Sam: Did you teach them how to do it? Did you focus with them on it, or did you just assume they knew how to do it? Right.
Gene: Well, it’s also meaning your job description, right?
Gene: And being very, very clear on what their responsibilities are. You just mentioned right now about if you yell at a kid for something, and I realize it’s not anything that’s like extreme, whatever, but is it ever appropriate to yell, or maybe yell is the wrong word, but to get emotional with an employee, to raise your voice, to show that you’re angry or that you’re frustrated. Do you think that there is a role for that for a business owner when they’re managing a group of people?
Sam: Yeah. That’s a great question and I think that you could have a day long debate on that.
Gene: It’s a debatable, yeah. And I’m asking you for your opinion because there’s no right or wrong answer.
Sam: Yeah. I mean in sports, it’s like you’re just used to yelling or voice raising. Right. I mean,
Gene: Sam, I have to interrupt you. The sweetest sounds that a father could hear is when the coach is yelling at his son, there is nothing better than that. Because I can my kids all day not to do whatever. But if the coach is yelling at him, it’s like, ah, this guy’s great.
Sam: Yeah, I wish all our parents felt that way. Thanks a lot. But yeah, I don’t know if yelling is the right approach in a business. I think handling something sternly is appropriate though. If it is the thing that’s one of your non-negotiables that you focus on, it’s one of the things that are most important to your business. It has to be. But if you’re going to do that, you also have to celebrate successes.
Sam: And not just big ones. You have to both ends of it or it doesn’t work. You have to celebrate the small successes for things to work. And when I say the small things, I mean even the smallest things like is that window cleaned the right way?
Sam: Because if you celebrate people doing those little things perfectly, and then you start to realize that that’s important, then the big things get a lot easier. Right. But if you’re only being stern about when something goes wrong, you’re just going to start to lose people, especially people that don’t care quite as much as you.
Gene: All right. Sam, only a couple more minutes left. And this is just great advice. Absolutely applicable to all of us watching who manage employees. Tell us about your own personal behavior, your own example that you set for your kids, which of course translates into the example we should be setting for our employees and our environment. How should we be behaving?
Gene: What kind of attitude should we have?
Sam: Great question. I’ve always been a firm believer in that the best way to lead and to motivate is to do it yourself and to be willing to get in there and get your hands dirty yourself. You know what I mean? I talked about peak time. I want my kids to know I am in it and I am there with them 100%. I am there and I am in it with you. When things go wrong, they go wrong for me too. It’s not your fault, it’s my fault. It’s us together. And so I mean, that’s my focus every day is that how can I make sure they know I am in this with them? And when things don’t go wrong in a day, the first thing I try to talk about in the locker room is, “Hey, here’s where I can help you guys out in the future.”
Sam: Here’s what I’m going to do to make this easier on you. Here’s what you can do so that’s easier for all of us, but it always comes back on me first. And especially with high school kids, but it’s pretty applicable when you have employees, right, that are just taking your lead. If you get too kind of high and mighty on the situation and oh, you know what? They just didn’t make those shots. They just didn’t play well. They didn’t care about their job enough today. You can be as mad as you want about it, but you’re just going to break your team down.
Sam: So get your hands dirty, show them that you care. And again, I’ll go back to the planning, like the sitting down and thinking about kids once a week is the best thing I do, I think because when I go have a one-on-one with them and ask them questions that have nothing to do with basketball, and then I followed up with, here’s how important you are to the team because of this and that, and here’s what you can do better, kind of at the end, they know I thought about it ahead of time. And then they know I care. And then by the end of it they know I believe in them. And if I can keep creating those things, hopefully we can do well.
Gene: Don’t you think guys, just because we talked about getting to know your people, you get to know the kids pretty well, you form clearly bonds with them and relationships with them. Do you think that makes it harder then to make hard decisions? You get to know these kids, I’m sure you like them,
Gene: And then you’re choosing not to play a kid in a game just like at a business, you’re choosing to pass over some person that you generally like and you’re friends with and had beers with, but you’re passing them up on this promotion. How do you balance that?
Sam: It’s transparency, honesty, it’s so hard. It brings me to tears often every year, multiple times with kids, every year. But it’s full honesty and transparency from day one. For me it’s with the parents and the kids. But…
Sam: And you have to be willing to lose people.
Sam: You have to be willing to lose people that don’t meet your end goals. And that doesn’t mean everyone that’s not a high performer, but if you can lose people through honesty and transparency, even if they walk out the door and slam it, you can live with yourself at the end of the day, but you also might get a few more people more motivated when they find out that, you know what? That was honest and I have to do better. That’s the only way you can do it. If you want to make everybody happy all the time, you’re not going to end up where you want to be when you’re trying to,
Gene: And in the end, it really is all about what’s best for the team or the organization, isn’t it?
Sam: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny, I thought we talked about this in the beginning, but it kind of makes sense at the end.
Sam: What do sports teams do every single time they go into a practice or go into a game? They bring it in.
Gene: Well, I’m from Philadelphia. They tend to lose, so but.
Sam: But they bring it in, everyone brings it, put their hands in, team on three, together on three, whatever it is they want to say. Why? Because they want to go feel a sense of togetherness when they go and do it. Right. Why don’t we do that in business every day?
Sam: That’s it. I’m not suggesting everybody goes and does that, but that’s the mentality you want to create, right? So when we go to accomplish this goal, we want to feel a sense of togetherness, that we’re in it and accountable together. And you don’t want to just say it, you actually want to feel it and you feel it through all the things that we’ve talked about, right, like caring in advance, talking to people, being honest with people so that when you get ready for that day, you can look around and feel pretty good about what everybody’s doing. And I think that it’s just something if you don’t think about and you don’t plan about, you can get overwhelmed, but it’s worth doing.
Gene: Sam Zullo, thank you so much for joining us. Great advice on leadership management. I mean, you work with high school kids and younger, but all these lessons apply to running a business as well. So it’s been a great conversation. Thank you so much.
Sam: Thank you so much for having me.
Gene: Hey everybody. You’ve been watching an episode of the Small Biz Ahead podcast from The Hartford. If you’d like any advice or tips or help in running your business, please visit us at the smallbizahead.com or SBA.thehartford.com. My name is Gene Marks. Thanks so much for joining us. We will see you again next time. Take care. Thanks so much for joining us on this week’s episode of The Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. If you like what you hear, please give us a shout-out on your favorite podcast platform. Your ratings, reviews and your comments really help us formulate our topics and help us grow this podcast. So thank you so much. My name is Gene Marks. It’s been great spending time with you. We’ll see you again soon.
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