I love college football. There’s something about the rivalry, the enthusiasm of players (most of whom have to know they’re playing for the love of the game, not for a shot at the pros), and the strategy that’s great fun to watch.
Football also offers lessons for business development, as I noticed recently. A few of my favorites:
- Play to win, not to avoid losing. In 2010, Auburn was the #1 team. Cam Newton (and other strong players) graduated, and Auburn’s ranking plummeted. The team suspended one of its strongest players who violated team rules at the tail end of the season. It would be hard to blame Auburn for coming to the Chik-fil-A Bowl against Virginia with a plan to play it safe and to make a strong enough showing NOT to lose, and better luck next year.
Instead, Auburn played full-out, even making the unusual play of an onside kick in the second quarter while leading. (Onside kicks are usually reserved for near-desperation moves late in a game.) That play has been marked as the game’s turning point, but it’s simply one example of Auburn’s “all in” play.
In business development, you may find yourself tempted to play it safe or to avoid making a risky move for fear of failure. Calculated risk that reflects your full commitment will always pay off. Sometimes it will result in a glorious failure first, but playing to win succeeds far more often than playing not to lose. Which are you doing now?
- Watch your timing. Jittery players get penalized for anticipating the snap, or for delaying the snap and thus the game. Knowing when to take a time-out and how to control the tempo of the game is a key aspect of football strategy. Each play calls for careful timing, in knowing when to hold and release a pass, when to power through opponents and when to run out of bounds, and much more.
Timing is less precise in business development, but it matters. Consider the stereotypical bad networker who hands out business cards reflexively and doesn’t understand why no one calls. Promoting oneself before understanding a potential client’s needs rarely succeeds. (That goes for online and website strategy as well.) Especially if you’re eager or uncomfortable, it’s easy to jump directly into how you can help a potential client. Instead, start by exploring the client’s concerns. In other words, don’t lead with your experience or your skills. Remember, we all want to know what’s in it for me?
By the same token, timing comes into play in knowing when to ask for the business. Too soon, and it may come across as pushy; too late, and you may miss the opportunity.
What’s your rainmaking rhythm? If you don’t have a system or at least markers that guide your steps, you may be missing important aspects of timing.
- Build a team and treat members with respect. Although we tend to herald individual players in football, it’s the team that wins or loses. And while the stars are usually a key force, the best player ever will be ineffective without the support and help of other team members. A brilliant pass is nothing without a receiver, and no play can succeed without blockers.
That’s true in business as well. Your team may include other firm attorneys and staff; sole practitioners may count business allies and centers of influence as part of the team. However you define your team, know that you cannot succeed alone.
Remember that (depending on your area of practice) your former clients may be one of your most important team members. Happy clients will help your practice expand by referring others and perhaps by bringing you repeat business. Client service matters deeply.
Who’s on your team now, and what positions must you fill to support your business development effort?
Those are just three of the reminders I picked up while watching bowl games this week. For you football fans, think about what else you can learn. How do you respond to “penalties” (setbacks), fair or unfair? How do you handle it when one of your “players” makes a mistake? Who helps you to see the big picture, to better coordinate your efforts? Who pushes you to deliver more than you thought you could? How many “plays” can you run? Do you know which are most effective?