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Play To Win

Even when they battle the competition for fun, CEOs don’t like finishing second.

We knew going in that we faced an uphill battle. A key competitor held a better position. But, with the odds against us, our team came from behind to win-it was an extraordinary performance.

No, a major consulting assignment wasn’t on the line. It was the local finals of the Corporate Sports Battle. Booz, Allen was three points ahead of Mobil going into the last event, the tug of war. The giant oil company had just moved corporate headquarters to Fairfax, VA, bringing thousands of employees-formidable sports battle opponents, as we saw it-into the Washington, DC, region. Nonetheless, we won four straight single-elimination tugs to edge Mobil for the local title.

The similarities between competing against Mobil, MCI, and Westinghouse in track and swimming-and competing against Arthur Andersen, BCG, and McKinsey in systems and strategy-are striking.

When I stand on the sidelines to cheer our team and compete as a member of the team in the Battle‘s CEO Golf event, I can understand why sports analogies are so powerful in the world of business. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat on the track feel much like winning and losing in the marketplace.

Xerox Corporation, then the local sponsor of the Corporate Sports Battle, contacted Booz, Allen chairman Mike McCullough seven years ago to inquire about the firm participating. The Battle piqued Mike’s interest, both for the concept of corporate sports competition and the beneficiary, which in the Washington area is Special Olympics.

Over time, the Battle has become a rally point for internal spirit and community service, and it has nurtured friendships and respect for competitors in other companies. However, the active involvement in charity, which attracted Mike in the first place, continues to drive our involvement in the Corporate Sports Battle. Around the country, it benefits local charities such as Special Olympics, Big Brothers, and Just Say No.

In the Corporate Sports Battle, teams of 20 men and women compete in a series of track and swimming events, ranging from traditional relays to balloon races. The top finishers in each local competition advance to the national competition. In the past seven years of competition, our team has racked up two local titles and five top-three finishes, and placed in the top-four three years in a row at the ESPN-televised national competition. Colleagues from other companies press me for our secret to success. It’s not that we hire star athletes. MBAs, engineers, and computer scientists make up the majority of our workforce-not exactly disciplines rich in athletic scholarships. Rather, we train hard and smart, and use technology for advantage.

The technology we bring to the Battle is legend. Our van resembles a corporate command post, full of headsets, walkie-talkies, stopwatches, and PCs. During the two days of Battle events, results and standings are typically unavailable until well after the Battle is over. Thus, Battle organizers are barraged with questions from participants and spectators. After the first day of track events at the 1990 nationals in Boca Raton, the director announced over the loudspeaker, “We won’t have current standings for an hour or so. But, you can always go ask Booz, Allen.”

Our coaches and computers had, of course, tabulated results of all the events and calculated standings of the teams. And, judging from the line at our van, everyone assumed we had the right figures.

Technology aside, I believe the key reason we win is because our staff is driven to excel. In the highly competitive consulting field, our people-at all levels-are on the line every day, helping to deliver results for demanding clients. There is no doubt in my mind that this drive carries over onto the athletic field.

It is important for companies to provide a way for staff to learn, work, and play together. Ideas, relationships, and achievement grow best when not contained by office walls. Sports offer that, which is why Booz, Allen sponsors teams and events in golf, tennis, volleyball, bowling, and softball, and underwrites charity events.

My feelings on this subject are hardly unique. Mobil sponsors intramural-type sports for employees and underwrites a number of professional and amateur sports events. According to Joe Cooper, executive vice president for U.S. marketing and refining, Mobil participates in the Corporate Sports Battle because “it’s for a good cause, and we have a lot of young employees who like to compete.” He also cites the Battle as an enjoyable, yet serious, outlet for the competitive spirit of his staff.

Xerox is of a similar mind. “In the Corporate Sports Battle, comraderie, competition, and charity add up to a great experience for our employees,” said Larry Brown, manager of government and community relations for Xerox and a former NFL all-pro running back. Xerox sponsors a range of sports events for employees and charities including the Cystic Fibrosis Celebrity Golf and Tennis Tournament.

At a time when “corporate battle” conjures up images of hostile takeovers and huge legal fees, it is gratifying to compete on a playing field where everyone wins. The prize is much greater than medals and an afternoon of fame on ESPN.

William F. Stasior is chairman and CEO of Booz, Allen & Hamilton, an international management and technology consulting firm based in Bethesda, MD.

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