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Go for Chess Not Checkers When Running a Business

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Recently Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports claimed Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was using his position as head coach of Team USA to gain an unfair recruiting advantage. The assertion is that as Coach K travels while running Team USA youth camps, he consistently gains contact with the country's best players before the NCAA grants such access to his coaching competitors.

We don’t know if Krzyzewski is coaching Team USA for selfish reasons. The only person who knows is Coach K.

Let’s assume he's doing it for that calculated reason. Doesn't everyone want that same advantage in business?  

Related: What Athletics Can Teach About the Characteristics of Great Leaders

One of my favorite Denzel Washington lines is uttered by his rogue detective character in the movie Training Day who tells his new protégé in effect, “This is chess not checkers.” He means that the job is way more complicated than it seems, a fast, dynamic process with lots of moving parts. Sounds a lot like entrepreneurship, doesn't it?

Whether it’s detective work, coaching or entrepreneurship, the best people are playing chess while the rest are playing checkers. They can see the big picture and adeptly anticipate several moves in advance. They exhibit the difference between being proactive and reactive. If there ever were a basketball coach who plays chess while his competitors play checkers, it’s Coach K.

Run a business the same way. Imagine gaining unfettered early access to prospects before the competition. It's possible. Just adopt what I call the coach approach to new business development.

Over the years Coach K has proved himself a master at branding himself, to the point that he has become a target. Several years ago he starred in American Express commercials drawing criticism that the spots were more of a sales pitch for Duke basketball than for the credit card. The commercials aired during the NCAA’s national recruiting quiet period, a seven-day period when coaches aren't allowed to talk to recruits. Did the commercials let Duke stay top of mind with prospects and grant Coach K an unfair advantage?

Coach K has not broken any NCAA rules. He has simply been a great opportunist.  

Entrepreneurship and college coaching are incredibly similar. Both are hypercompetitive professions, when it comes to recruiting. Whether new recruiting employees of  clients or blue-chip athletes, a top performer is operating from a vantage point of expansion. Everyone wants a competitive advantage nd hates anyone else who is having an edge.

To learn from his “chess move,” understand that Mike Krzyzewski the basketball coach didn’t make these decisions. It's all for Coach K the brand, who has also appeared in Allstate and Chevrolet commercials for the same reasons. An entrepreneur has a brand, too. Much like recruits must be sold on Coach K before they're sold on Duke, business prospects have to be sold on the entrepreneur as a brand before they’re sold on the company.

The ability to elevate and separate a brand from the competition is playing chess. Doing the same tired, old business-development strategies used by others is playing checkers. Strategically be positioned as the go-to expert in the industry to enjoy early access, credibility and preferential treatment.

Here are three strategies to put into practice immediately:

1. Move from backstage to center stage.

While competitors are side by side at conferences, busy hunting  for business, offer to be the keynote speaker. This will provide the opportunity to showcase talents and converse with sponsors, leaders and prospective clients that others won’t get.

2. Do good and good will follow.

Volunteer to serve on the board of a charity or nonprofit closely tied to the industry. If there isn’t one, create one. Overdeliver value and give generously of  time and resources. I promise this makes an entrepreneur stand out as remarkable in comparison to his or her peers.

Related: How Scoring Celebrity Clients Can Take Your Business to the Next Level

3. Earn credibility by proximity.

It’s the opposite of  guilt by association. Just like how Coach K's photo ops with NBA stars could serve as testament to his coaching genius, create strategic alliances with high-profile industry titans. 

Leverage social media, specifically Twitter, which has game changer, providing people direct access to celebrities. Make an appealing, compelling pitch to an A-lister and his or her public relations department requesting an interview for a blog or podcast. This becomes the first step toward building a relationship with that celebrity. (Having a blog, YouTube channel or podcast means a business leader is missing a huge branding opportunity and customer touch point.)

In an age of teleprompters, Photoshop, video editing and scripted sound bites, the world is starving for authenticity from leaders. Customers truly crave this  but rarely get it from leaders and brands. Entrepreneurs should be unapologetic about who they are and what they  stand for. Authenticity wins and Coach K is a great example of this. Be forewarned. There will be some boos and criticism because success breeds jealousy.

Is there a risk to  pursuing what Coach K has done? If he ends up being a failure and Team USA loses the Olympics, it would tarnish his brand.

Likewise can the entrepreneur fall flat on his or her face? The biggest risk in trying to get to the next level doesn't come from playing chess. It comes from continuing to play checkers.

Related: Hoping to Strike Off-Court Gold, Carmelo Anthony Launches a VC Firm