Why winning in sports might be a lousy template for business success

Sports metaphors are incredibly common in the world of business motivation. Probably even more common than military metaphors. We raise the bar, huddle, put on a full court press, try for the home run, and we use the winning sports team as a template for the winning management team.

At first glance, that makes sense. Team sports require, well, teamwork, as does business. A sports team that plays well together is much stronger than a simple sum of the individuals. That principle holds true in a corporate environment too. A team working well together is more multiplicative than additive. With that being the case, how can I say that sports metaphors are bad news? It comes down to the origin of purpose. It’s about why every one is there; what their foundational motivation is.

Success in team sports require much of the same recipe as does success in business. You need a common purpose. You need an understanding of what each teammate needs. You don’t necessarily need deep knowledge of everyone’s positions and jobs, but you need to know enough to help and understand all of them. Everyone has a place and must fill that place, and none of those places stand alone.

Everyone on a winning sports team is there for one purpose: to end the game with a higher score than the other team. Every member of the great team lives that purpose, and has for most of their life. Many of them have been handling the ball or bat since before they started school. Some as soon as they could sit up as a baby and reach out for the brightly colored round thing coming at them. By the time they reached high school, college, or the pros, they have all been living the same dream for a substantial portion of their life.

By the time a soccer player reaches high school, the serious ones are all thinking about playing college ball, perhaps even with a scholarship. In college, it’s the Olympics, the world cup, and a coveted spot on a pro team. They are all after that exact same goal, and have been since their formative years.

Those new freshman team members have all of the ingredients needed to form a winning team. A great coach can work with those ingredients because all of the individuals come into the team with the same goal. They all live, breath, eat, and sleep that goal. All they need is to have it tied together.

And right there, my friend, is where the metaphor falls flat in the business world. First, if you pick the wrong sport to anchor your story, someone’s going to think: “that’s not a real sport. My sport is the real sport.” Someone else, the clumsy nerd, is going to think: “great more glorification of the hot shot popular kids that made my life miserable back then.”

Your company doesn’t have a homogenous-thinking group of people that have held the same dream since potty training. Great sports teams do. You don’t have the same raw material. What you have is just about the opposite of what a sports coach has to work with. Different ingredients require a different formula. Look at what you’ve got:

  • At the age of six, Aaaa was dreaming of walking on the moon. But then, we stopped going to to moon, so they found a different career.
  • Bbbb mostly played in the mud a lot and drove their parents nuts with all of the laundry and ruined church clothes. Yet, in their head, they were creating giant hydroelectric dams and other massive public works.
  • Cccc wanted to be a great leader of soldiers, protecting the weak and saving the world for democracy.
  • Dddd wanted to be the next Joe Montana and win the Superbowl.
  • Eeee was lost and already starting to dabble in what would become a decade centered around creative ways to abuse drugs and alcohol.
  • Ffff couldn’t think about much more than a future family with happy spouse and kids, cars, a house, and relaxing vacations.
  • At five, Gggg was trading little used toys for slightly better ones with neighbor kids. Then came lemonade stands, paper routes and odd jobs up and down the street. Never any doubt that this one would grow up to be an entrepreneur.
  • Hhhh ran track, played basketball and baseball throughout most of K-12, settling on track in college. After not quite making the Olympic team, they became a fighter pilot and finally ended up in sales because the airlines weren’t hiring at the right time.
  • Iiii just followed the formula – grade school, middle school, high school, college, an MBA, and some lifeless job.

It’s quite unlikely that any of your management team was dreaming about middleware software as a service when they were five.

Unless you’re in one of the few overtly world-changing companies, it’s quite unlikely that even half of your management team is really passionate about the products or services that the company produces and delivers.

They may be passionate about creating a great user experience, but that can be done just about anywhere, as long as there’s enough money in the budget. They may be driven by quality, but that drive can be fulfilled in a lot of different companies.

No. You don’t have that common fundamental purpose so important to the sports team as a starting point. You don’t have a group of people that are driven by the same thing, and you can’t treat them as if they do. You’ve got to find and or build a different purpose, and you’ve got to understand that you may always have a few team members that aren’t motivated by what you really need them to be motivated by.

It’s easy to say that such people should just leave and go elsewhere. Ideally they will, and you’ll replace them with better fits. But, you can’t depend on it. It’s not practical to expect everyone that isn’t spot on with your purpose to quit or be fired. The real world doesn’t work that way.

You need to create a team building strategy that accommodates some crosses of purpose and some unproductive behavior. If your team building strategy requires that everyone come around and see and live by the common vision, it will very likely not live up to your goals.

You’ve got to find commonality in what drives every member of your team. And the purpose you derive from that needs to be robust enough to deal with some level of indifference. It can’t be dependent upon 100% buy-in. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got it that easy.

What The Millennials Think They Understand

I recently read an article on Inc. online, titled “5 Traits Older Generations Don’t Understand About Millennials (According to a Millennial)”, by Nicolas Cole. You can find it here.

It’s a good read, although, it may raise your blood pressure a bit. Read it. What I have to say may not make a lot of sense without his article as a prerequisite. Read it and cut him some slack. We were all there once.

What cracks me up the most is that this could have been written 10 years ago, 20, or 30… When I was young, we were thought to be the narcissistic self centered arrogant punks full of ourselves. The old folks thought us to be useless and lazy and wanted us to calm down and wait and see – we’d understand in a few years.

We didn’t. We rolled over that generation and changed the world. They didn’t know what hit them.

And this millennial generation didn’t invent the vision quest, the “finding myself” by traveling the world. We wanted to travel and see it all. We didn’t want to accept the status quo and settle into a single career, falling asleep until retirement. And we didn’t. The millennials have access to everything – the world at their fingertips because my generation said about life and the world: “It’s not good enough – we can make it better.” And we did.

Foregoing the American dream? The so called “American Dream” was not a white picket fence to us. The American dream for us equaled possibility. It meant that we didn’t have to settle into what we thought the old world expected. We could make the dream what we wanted it to be. And we did.

Our American dreams are the reality of the Internet, your smart phone, global connectivity, supercomputers, space probes, robots on mars – those were our American dream, and, as you can see, we didn’t forgo it, we made it happen.

Our American dream was equality and fairness. Not a dream limited to a few or to just those like us. This has been the hardest fight, yet the most important. It’s far from done, but we were not about to accept any dream that ruled people out. The house at 927 W. Drury Lane only existed for the privileged class, so we burned it down.

Oh, did we ever want – and find or make – something of our own! The on-fire startup was born in my generation. The rejection of the establishment for creations of our own was a solid theme for us. We rejected, We built our own, and we never looked back. We recreated business, media, entertainment. We wanted our own, and we made our own.

that little phone in your pocket that allows you to do so much; we made that

Tackling brand new industries… You don’t know the half of it. We destroyed old industries. Not just industries, we smashed the whole economy into bits and built our own out of the shreds.

Again, that little phone in your pocket that allows you to do so much; we made that. We ripped the cord out of the wall and remade communications. We thought it up. We made the infrastructure that enables it and we built it. Then we kept rebuilding it and making it better.

The gaming company that hired you – they’re only here for you because my generation rejected the old and created your world for you. We liked board games, but they weren’t enough for us. We liked sports and activities, but they weren’t enough for us. Not only did we create digital versions of it all, we reinvented it in the physical world too.

And, don’t think you’re special because you’ve done all of your great work in the shadow of economic demise, terrorism, and global competition. Even we didn’t invent that one. But we certainly lived it. When I was young, the American Century was over. We were getting our clock cleaned by Asia and Europe. Malaise was the watchword of the day.

The Soviet Union was putting weaponized smallpox into ICBMs to finish off anything their nukes missed. Western Europe was expecting the tanks to roll in at any moment. We grew up always 30 minutes from a fiery obliteration. Hang that over your head. It nearly happened, by accident or by design, more times than I’d like to count. I’ll take the world of now over what we had, any day.

So, you also think you’re special and different because you’re the modern-day disrupters? You d*** well better be. That self-confidence you speak of – you’d better have it and you’d better have it in quantity. If you don’t have a wanderlust, a disquiet, and need for more, that will make my generation’s version of the same look small, than you are letting us and yourselves down.

You see things different than my generation does? I hope so. You are obligated to. You owe it to us, yourself, and the generations that follow to see things differently. My generation didn’t create all of this stuff for you to rest on our laurels. We built this new world so that our children and their children can take it to places we can’t even imagine. Don’t waste what we built. There’s too much that still needs to be done.

And one final thing I ask of you; when your kids say something similar about themselves vs. your generation, as you have in this article (and they will), don’t get defensive. Tell them that it’s their job to think different and to never be satisfied with the way things are. It was my generation’s job, it’s yours now, and it will be theirs soon. Tell them to never back down.

Communicating Up and Sideways

A good leader should communicate in the language of his or her subordinates. A good leader should be the one to adjust dialect and language. This is well accepted wisdom. The problem is that “should” is a rather meaningless word. “Should” doesn’t require, nor does it instruct. “Should” implies obligation, but doesn’t imply action or consequence of not taking action.

Expecting a superior or colleague to speak in your language only ensures that you “should” be able to communicate, not that you will. Relying on “should” is a lot like relying on luck. You give up control when you rely on luck or “should.” It’s fine if you don’t care, but not if you do.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that effective communication is a vital part of surviving and advancing in the business world. Without it, no one knows what you do or what your worth is to them.

In this context, “shouldn’t” is an appropriate word. The usage here is that the argument is common enough knowledge that it’s reasonable to assume that a reasonable person would agree. It doesn’t imply, nor need to imply any action or consequence.

This isn’t an article about “managing your boss. I’ve seen enough of those, and have always thought them rather presumptuous. “Managing your boss” is really more manipulation and exploitation than it is about managing, and I’m not at all a fan of manipulation. What you can do, and will benefit from, though, is to manage the communications with your boss and co-workers.

It’s great if you have a boss that knows how to communicate well. Not everyone does, and even for those that do, it can be pretty helpful to share the job of effectively communicating.

One of the easiest illustrations is in the contrast between a visual person and a numbers person. The numbers person needs to see metrics in spreadsheet or table form. The visual person needs the same information in chart and graph format. Trying to get one to accept the other often results in little or no actual communication and lots of frustration.

If your boss is a visual person, and you hand in a table with all of the data, plus rows and columns of only distantly related numbers, they will have a hard time with it. Their brain wants to be able see structures at a glance. Instead, you’ve given them a jumbled mess of indistinguishable black and white hieroglyphs.

On the other side, if you give your numbers-person boss a nice bar chart, they will see a bunch of fluffy colors that do little more than obscure the details. They need to see not only the numbers they’re interested, but also the data behind the numbers.

But shouldn’t a good leader be the one adjusting language, you ask? Again, I’ll compare the word “shouldn’t” in this context to luck.

Good leaders do adjust their language, and listen carefully. They are putting in the effort, and what you are trying to say is (presumably) important. Why would you not do as much as you can to complement their effort. Good leaders have also hired you, in part, for your communications skills. Assuming the leader will do the majority of the work is doing them a disservice and is a failure to live up to your commitment as an employee.

The same holds when dealing with colleagues you don’t report to. It may seem like you’re partly doing their job if you adjust your communication to fit their style, but if your message is important enough to give, it’s important enough to justify the extra work toward clarity for your recipient. Ideally both parties are doing it so that misses by one will be more likely to be covered by the other.

A good example would be in the use of acronyms and jargon with (or as) a new coworker. Communications problems happen quite often when one person has a background from a large, tightly structured company, and the other is from a smaller, more cowboy like, company.

Jane joins a small start-up company from a large multi-national corporation. Her former company spent a lot of time studying lean manufacturing, the Toyota Production System, and other process improvement systems. Bob at the small company doesn’t have the same language.

Jane is aghast when she suggests “Poka-yoking” a process and Bob doesn’t understand her. She drops her jaw and wonders what kind of a mess she got herself into when she took the job. She’s surrounded by bozos that don’t know the most basic of business processes.

Poka-yoke is a term used in the Toyota Production System. (Wikipedia entry here) It sounds like a rather exotic process, but it just means to make a product or system mistake proof. If a plug would damage a piece of equipment when plugged in backwards, key the plug so it can’t be plugged in backwards. Just design in some mistake proofing. It’s as simple as that.

In this scenario, it turns out that Bob is a brilliant user experience designer and considers mistake proofing to be just about the most important aspect of a design. Jane and Bob are on the same page; they both strongly believe in mistake proofing products. However, since Jane didn’t take into consideration the possibility that Bob might not have been exposed to that one specific set of business terms, she feels he must be incompetent. Both Jane and Bob would be well served to accommodate the language of the other.

I’ve found, over my career, that there are an astounding number of terminology differences between different corporate cultures. There are terms that have different meaning altogether, and there are different terms used to describe the same thing. Even the basics like “margin” can be used differently in different organizations.

Jargon and acronyms are okay, as long as you never assume that the person you’re communicating with has the same jargon dictionary in their head as you do.

Millennials Need Not Apply? Boomers?

Do you know how to get past your biases and market to “the other” generation? Are they just too mysterious? Well, I don’t give a flying fig if you’re a millennial, a boomer, or anything in between or outside. It’s not about the label. It’s about doing what you’re paid to do.

If you’re marketing to a thirty five year old population, and they’re not getting your messaging, it’s not because you can’t understand their generation. It’s because you aren’t doing your job. Don’t blame it on “the millennials and their different way of thinking.” Blame it on you for failing at one of the most fundamental tenets of marketing: understanding your customer.

When you got out of business school and started working for a component manufacturer selling to specialty electronics developers (or whatever), you probably didn’t know much about that industry, right? But you learned. You did your homework, researched, talked, and listened. You figured it out (or you didn’t and either got fired, or barely skated by. I hope you figured it out). If you’re not of the generation you’re selling to, learn with an open mind. Don’t take anyone’s age as an excuse, your included. If you don’t want to or feel you can’t, get a new job.

Of course, a “boomer” can better understand other boomers. If you’re not one and are marketing to them, here’s an idea; talk to boomers. The same goes for any cross-generation marketing.

If you’re trying to blame your failure on a labeled generation, I’ve got some bad news for you. Time keeps moving, and generations change. It always has happened, and always will happen, at least until our sun becomes a cold dark lump of coal.


I wrote this a number of years ago and ran across it recently. Even though it’s from 2007, it’s still very relevant.

Jumping back to 2014; people might say that PR is dead and has been replaced by social media. Not true. Social media is a very powerful vehicle with which you can spread PR, but it’s not a direct replacement. Social media is a channel. PR is a type of content that can go through that channel. That being the case, good PR help can be invaluable to a small business.

Back when I wrote this in 2007 I had run across a couple of Public Relations-related posts on Guy Kawasaki’s blog. I’m a big fan of PR. I’ve used DIY PR and big-agency PR. I’ve had the privilege of working with The Bohle Company, out of LA, with a fairly reasonable budget. The crew there taught me about the real value of efficient, highly targeted, well messaged Public Relations.

Unfortunately, I’ve more recently found myself in a situation where I don’t have the funds to hire help to do it right. The upside is that I have developed opinions and methodologies surrounding the do it your self or do it mostly yourself pr plan.

The agency vs. DIY argument seems to run like an anti-US or anti-Microsoft argument. “The big guy is always unconditionally bad” and “It’s a conspiracy to suck money out of companies without adding any value.” If I had my choice, I’d always hire a great agency, like The Bohle Company; professionals that will push me to think about the audience, not my own ego and who will relish results. But if I have to, I will do with what I have.2cc406a

I enjoyed Guy’s post about Margie Zable. Although, I did disagree with a few points. The post by Glenn Kelman, on the other hand just upsets me. A while back, an executive in the company I worked for at the time told me that “we don’t need to do any PR because that’s just what big companies do to waste money.” Mr. Kelman’s post seems to be a continuation of that theme. Well, you can waste money doing just about anything, but PR, if handled properly, can be an extremely cost efficient method of getting attention.

1. About Glenn’s first point, the truth setting you free – Publicists tell their clients to stick to the “decided upon message” because many folks are simply not capable of coherently answering a question from a seasoned press professional. Public speaking is called, what, the second most feared thing after death? Speaking to a reporter is public speaking – just through a conduit.

Journalists may tell you that they are after the truth, but, being mostly human, they are really after a “story”, and not necessarily your story. It takes a certain skill to navigate through the manipulation to make sure that your story is actually represented. A good PR professional is only trying to help you do that.

If you have the skill to take on a seasoned journalist, by all means do so. If not, hire a good PR specialist. Be involved and make it clear to them that you are interested in results and not self-coddling. This is where people get into trouble. They don’t help the PR folks help them or they use the PR folks to boost their own personal egos or as a shield.

2. Yes, the Rolodex is already on line, but count the hours in the day. If you have the time to sift through every site then you probably don’t need any PR help. You probably need a real job. PR folks do need pressure to be creative and search beyond the top level publicly published editorial contacts, but, in theory, they have the time and expertise to do so. I know how to speak with my customers better than just about anyone else. That’s why I’m successful in my job. Editors speak a different language and a good PR person will speak that language.

3. “grown up and boring?” Mr Kelman’s challenge is that he likely hasn’t been working with the right PR agencies. The good ones will keep you from sounding grown up and boring. The good ones will take your words and adjust them so that not only will your audience find them exciting, but the editors will hear them and see circulation numbers and most important, it will be the truth.

4. Journalists do love great ideas, but they are busy folks and see a million of them. How you speak to them counts. Again, my voice is targeted at my ultimate audience. If you don’t have any customers, perhaps you can afford to make the press community your ultimate target audience, but it can be a lot more effective to have someone that lives in that world do it for you.

5, 7. Maybe many PR people are afraid of a controversial or dramatic story. That’s probably true, just as it is probably true for most people in general. If drama and or controversy are good for your cause, or can be made to be good for your cause, make sure your PR people understand that. If they don’t, perhaps you don’t have the right PR people. Get some that will relish it and will build on it.

8. When I was 16, I had my driver’s license but I wasn’t a good driver. I thought I was, but I wasn’t. I recall a few excursions when I was so nervous that my driving made my passengers nervous enough to just want to get home. That didn’t work out so well. Another way to look at this is the journalist may very well get a charge when the publicist sits back and you take control of the interview. Use the PR resources for coaching before you go in and as a prop when you get into the interview. You can even add some drama by asking the PR person to leave the room or wait outside. Let them clear the way so your passion for your cause won’t be obscured by lousy driving skills.

9. Most publicists don’t have the same passion that I have for my business. But, they also don’t have the same self-love and ego that I have. The publicist should act like a sounding board and tell me when and where I’m just full of myself. Sure there are times that I’ll fight back, but a good back-and-forth will far better prepare me to really let that passion out without having self-centered glurge interfere with the real message.

I currently do much of my PR myself. I have a few outside contract PR specialists that help me out and if I had more money, I’d have more outside help. There are plenty of contract / commission / hire options, but the real message should be to pay attention to whom you are hiring, be it an agency, a consultant or an employee. Pay attention to what they are telling you and make sure they pay attention to you and make sure you both pay attention to the truth. If they aren’t the right person, get a different one. Don’t throw away a great tool based on one or a few bad experiences.