7 Business Lessons From the Gridiron
Football is all about winning, but you also learn when to punt.
With football season well underway, I am reminded of how much the sport has meant to me. I played throughout high school, and for two years in college, and while my role wasn't always glamorous -- I was an offensive lineman -- my involvement in the sport shaped my professional career and taught me a number of valuable business lessons. Seven stand out in particular:
First, focus on fundamentals.
Football players, whether in youth leagues or the NFL, practice the basics of blocking, tackling, running and receiving on a daily basis. While players also need to be able to remember the plays and develop specialized skills, the fundamentals are at the foundation of everything they do. It's the same in business. Companies can develop innovative new products, and bold new strategies, but if they are going to be successful over the long term they can never lose sight of fundamentals like sales, customer service and overall operational excellence.
Second, know thyself.
Winning in football depends on studying one's opponents and identifying their vulnerabilities, but it's just as important for a team to understand its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, how does your cornerback match up against the opponent's wide receiver? There's an exact parallel in business. While companies need to analyze their rivals, they also need to ensure they are prepared to compete. Have the right people been selected to lead key lines of the business? Is a new product or service offering being deployed at the right time, price and functionality?
Third, leadership from the top is critical.
Winning teams have great coaches, and one of the many talents of such coaches is the ability to spot talent and to inspire their players. Bill Belichick, who has won five Super Bowls while head coach of the New England Patriots, helped make the unheralded Tom Brady into one of the best quarterbacks of all time. He's also made a star out of Chris Hogan, who only played one year of college football (after playing three years of lacrosse). It's
similar in business. Successful companies need great CEOs with the vision for how their companies are going to grow, and the ability to motivate their colleagues to implement that vision.
Fourth, be nimble.
A football team can have a comprehensive game strategy, but if the opponent does the unexpected and the strategy unravels, the team needs to be able to make a quick course correction, i.e., change your game plan. It's the same in business. While mapping out strategies for growth are critical, those strategies typically can't account for the unexpected, whether that's a popular new product from a competitor company or an economic downturn that depresses corporate spending. Having contingency plans, and the ability to make a quick pivot to those plans, is a key ingredient in every company's long-term success.
Related: 9 NFL Stars Turned Entrepreneurs
Fifth, foster teamwork.
Football has a greater variety of position players than just about any other sport. This underscores the importance of ensuring there is a commitment to teamwork, as the presence of even one or two people who aren't "all in" can have a corrosive effect. It's no different in business. I've never met an individual who can accomplish a complex business task better than a team focused on that same task. Almost everything done in business requires collaboration, in-depth choreography and unselfish participation to succeed. Building a competent and varied team will allow for diverse, disruptive opinions that improve the potential for success.
Related: 8 Motivational Peyton Manning Quotes
Sixth, play to win.
Football games are zero-sum -- you either win or you lose. But, some teams try to win by playing "not to lose," which is never a smart approach and often backfires. It's the same in business. Companies need to have a forward strategy for success, which means being on offense and being willing to take occasional risks in pursuit of new opportunities. That's what we have done at NCR since 2005, with a focus on reinventing the company. Had we played it safe and simply tried to preserve our market share, we would not be the company we are today. Had we not stretched ourselves, and have the courage to take bold decisions, we never would have separated ourselves from the competition.
Finally, there is no substitute for hard work.
My determination to excel in football motivated me to spend an hour or more in the weight room nearly every day of the week, for a period of many years, in order to develop my speed and strength. The strong work ethic I developed as part of my football training carried over to my professional career. I was not going to be out-worked, which enabled me to become a national sales leader at IBM at a very young age. I've maintained this work ethic ever since -- focusing on not just getting the job done but also putting in that extra effort that will distinguish me and my employer from others. My football experience set me on that path.
With college and pro teams gearing up for the post-season, it's useful to remember what Bear Bryant, the long-time coach of the University of Alabama, once said: "It's not the will to win that matters -- everyone has that. It's the will to prepare to win that matters." That sentiment explains why he was one of the winningest coaches in the history of college football when he retired in 1982. It's also a principle that needs to permeate a company if it's going to achieve long-term success.