How You Play the Game: 5 Business Lessons Learned From Sports

When most of us think about sports, we think about winning and glory. Scoring the last-second, game-winning goal. Standing on the podium with an Olympic gold medal around our neck. Pouring Gatorade on the coach after winning the national championship. We don't spend much time thinking about all of the hard work that led to those moments. The coaches' meetings. The grueling practice sessions. The countless hours spent watching game tape, and preparing yourself mentally and physically to play at a high level. But really, it's these moments that define athletes, teams, and coaches, because without the behind-the-scenes hard work, achieving moments of glory would just be wishful thinking.

In many ways running a business is like playing a sport. Business success is what most people pay attention to. But it's the day-to-day grind of running a business -- constantly trying to improve processes, boost employee performance, adapt to changing market conditions, be a strong leader, dodge obstacles, and create opportunities -- that determines an entrepreneur's success.

As an athlete, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play for some great coaches, who led my teams to multiple championships and taught me how to win, overcome adversity, and be a leader on a winning team. An underlying ingredient to that success was my willingness to compete. It's this competitiveness that pushes athletes, and similarly business owners, to achieve consistent long-term success. Without sports, I don't think I would have been able to see these areas so clearly as a business owner.

But that's not all I learned from sports. I've been able to transfer many of the other lessons I learned out on the ice to my successful career as a business owner. Read on for a few of them.

Take the lead. It's one thing to know what leadership is; it's quite another to have the courage and self-discipline to actually take the bull by the horns and lead. That said, there is a lot of "noise" out there about leadership. But there are two fundamental concepts that I learned from playing sports that often get lost in the mix.

First, not all leadership is positive. A few teammates could constantly be negative, which spreads throughout the locker room. The result is this negative leadership affects more than just the complainers because it gives some of the mentally weaker players an excuse not to perform well. Or the coach might be a sarcastic, degrading communicator who blames players for his being a poor leader or constantly being out-coached.

The same counter-productive leadership happens in business. You see this when an owner or manager puts their own interests ahead of the company, or is constantly critical without educating employees on how things should be done. Or, when an owner or manager doesn't have the courage to fire the "whiners" or fails to enforce processes, expectations, and standard procedures.

Secondly, being a good leader isn't enough. Coaches lead, but they must make sure they have at least a few players who are able to lead while out on the field, on the ice, or on the court. Owners must be good at teaching leadership by example and encouraging others to become leaders as well. The more positive leaders a company has the stronger the business will become. This one aspect of leadership -- the spreading of it -- is often lost on owners who struggle with leadership. For businesses and sports teams, the concept is simple: The more leaders a team or business has the better the overall results and the daily performance, provided the leadership is positive, focused, and consistent.

Know what is expected of you. Great coaches and consistently successful business owners understand teamwork is essential to success. They also understand the key reality to successful teams and businesses: Winning teams and successful businesses depend on individuals consistently achieving the expected. In other words, great teams and businesses are formed on the foundation of leaders and organized around individuals doing what's expected every day.

The coaches I liked to play for the most were the ones who could explain what my job was, what I was accountable for, and what I could expect from my teammates around me. It made me focus on what I was supposed to do and what I was accountable for. And I knew what my teammates were going to do. It's simple: If I do what's expected of me, and my teammates or employees do what is expected of them -- we win.

Great teams and successful businesses won't develop unless individuals and departments consistently perform and achieve what's expected.

Go for the balanced attack. Sports teams that experience continued success understand the importance of maintaining a balanced team, one that plays both offense and defense well, and continuously focuses on this balance. Businesses must maintain a balance between offense -- selling -- and defense -- protecting their assets. Unfortunately, far too many owners place too much focus on selling and not enough attention on protecting assets like customers, employees, processes, inventory, and asset maximization. The truth is owners need to balance both in order to create and maintain long-term success. Everyone likes to sell, but without asset protection, the impact of a strong selling "punch" will be significantly diminished and will continually affect the bottom line -- and not in a good way.

I have played on very talented offensive teams. We should have won championships but didn't. I have also played on teams that won championships even though we didn't have the most offensive power. In both cases, the difference was defense. The championship teams had a distinct advantage over most of our competition -- we were balanced. Not only could we score, but we could stop teams from scoring.

It should be the same for businesses as well. Think about companies with long-term success. They all work hard to gain new customers and increase market share, which is the offensive game. And, they work hard to protect their brand, look after their customers, improve their employees' performance, and focus on protecting and maximizing their other assets -- the defensive game. Maintaining this balance is an essential part of achieving long-term success.

Don't be afraid of hard work. Anyone who has ever played a competitive sport knows that if you aren't willing to work hard, display courage, and showcase your talent, you won't earn much respect as a player. The same is true for business owners. But what does hard work mean? For owners it means being visible to your employees and listening to their ideas, leading by example, setting and meeting your ownership goals, educating your employees, keeping up with the changing market and the improvements of your employees, and recognizing them when they deliver the expected and unexpected.

The hard work that doesn't get a lot of attention where successful ownership is concerned is the work owners must put in to beat out their competition, meaning out-working and out-smarting your competitive counterpoints -- other owners. This is an important point, because if you, as an owner, aren't willing to compete head to head with other owners, your business will be slow in reacting to new opportunities and will be slow in reacting to threats to your continued success, all of which affects profits. Hard work is the key, but so is knowing what to work hard at and where to concentrate your efforts. Starting with a goal of becoming the best owner in your market isn't a bad starting point.

Sports, even team sports, have a lot of man-on-man, head-to-head battles. The more you win these individual battles the more success your team will have. It's a simple formula and one that transcends sports.

Preparation makes perfect. We see the value in preparation every day in sports. Winning teams attribute their success to the amount of time they spent practicing, conditioning, watching game tape, and strategizing as a team in order to improve their strengths, correct their weaknesses, and prepare for their opponents.

In sports, preparation is an expected reality. But for business owners, this expected reality isn't the norm. And that's unfortunate because lack of preparation is a big contributing factor to business failure or underperforming in profits and the marketplace. Preparation goes hand in hand with constant improvement, which is the key to continual business success.

Successful owners know their competitors -- and what to expect from them -- from the preparation they have done. And it's this preparation that separates the men and women from the boys and the girls, or, plainly stated, the winners from the losers.

In sports, it's never just one thing that creates a winning team. It's a combination of a number of factors and how they are implemented, both behind the scenes and in front of fans. It's the same in business, because successful businesses have to do a number of things well -- every day -- in order to serve customers and create value for them. And, like in sports, most of the activity to satisfy the customer is done behind the scenes.

© 2012 Bill McBean, author of The Facts of Business Life: What Every Successful Business Owner Knows that You Don't