Watching the most competitive NFL League Championship games in history and Clemson’s dismantling of Alabama for the National Championship, I was reminded just how much we in business can learn from sports. Particularly in the way we think about competition.
There are two schools of thought on competition. One is “play your own game.” This means to focus on yourself and not allow your approach to be influenced by what anyone else is doing. The other is to study the competition relentlessly and react to everything they do.
Playing Your Own Game
When Dabo Swinney took over Clemson football he felt outside pressure to create a program that could compete with the elite national football programs like Alabama and Ohio State. But instead of studying them, he focused on what he wanted Clemson football to stand for and the impact he wanted to make.
When you listen to Swinney talk—and there are plenty of YouTube videos of him—you never hear him talk about winning National Championships or being like another program. Instead, he took his experience as an academic all-conference wide receiver at Alabama to sort out what was important, what the key tenets of his program should be, and then looked for players he could develop to fit that footprint. This meant focusing on graduation rates, GPA, and a team environment of players who were accountable to themselves and each other. In other words, he decided to play his own game.
The results speak for themselves. Dabo Swinney has a record of 101-30 in his head coaching career in 10 seasons. Off the field, Swinney has had 183 of his 188 senior-letterman (97 percent) graduate since he has been at Clemson, that includes all 24 seniors from the national championship team. Clemson’s current APR score of 987 is the fifth best among Power 5 schools, trailing only Northwestern (997), Vanderbilt (993), Duke (992) and Michigan (990).
The Clemson players are young men of high integrity who play for each other not just themselves—the kind of people we all would like to hire.
I did something similar when I was CEO of Accenture Operations. It has been well documented that after a rough first year, I played my own game. Instituting a “people centric” strategy helped me define what I wanted Accenture Operations to be, what we wanted to stand for as an organization, and the kind of impact we wanted to make for our people and in the industry. The “people centric” strategy was unique and highly criticized, at first.
Like Swinney’s football program, the first priority was developing and focusing on our people. The fact that it made Accenture Operations the leader in the space according to market share and the industry analysts, like Gartner, HfS, Everest, etc., was a welcome by-product of this strategy.
What to do about “The Competition”
That said, “playing your own game” can be dangerous when organizations underestimate the competition. I used to be amazed when direct reports to the CEO would talk about how crazy the competition was when a deal was lost. I recall a CEO and mentor of mine who always had a healthy respect for the competition no matter how well they were or weren’t doing. He used to say, “You really think they are that stupid? Don’t forget they are also a multi-billion dollar company.”
There is no question that ignoring—or worse, underestimating—your competition, is a dangerous practice. But businesses and teams, can also go too far to the other extreme. Think about the countless hours sports programs spend watching film of other teams’ games to learn every play, strength, weakness, and tendency.
You have to have a healthy awareness of your competition, but if you take it too far, it can dilute your message and you’ll end up deviating from what you stand for. I have seen this approach cost companies deals when they tried to play the competition’s game and came up short.
Finding the Right People to Play Your Game
Whatever the approach, it’s the people who will make or break your success. As the CEO, you need to define what personality types and skill sets you need in order to assemble a winning team.
In sports, people often bet on the wrong athletes. This is why they transfer from program to program. Everybody wants the biggest, fastest, strongest talent. They are easier to spot because their stats jump right off the page. If you examine Clemson, they have good athletes, but not the best. Clemson’s latest recruiting class ranked 8th nationally, but in Dabo Swinney’s mind, he has the number one class to fit his program and play his game. It’s not about finding “the best,” but finding the people who are the best for your program.
So instead of trying to find the smartest people in the room, look for people with the intangibles that will empower your business to thrive. It’s about developing a system that works. Think about qualities like:
1. Hard work and the ability to deliver. Hard work gives a person options. All great leaders (and future leaders) find a way to deliver in good times and bad, which reminds me of a quote I just heard: “Excuses are for losers. Winners need none.”
2. Self-awareness. You want people who know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and understand the impact they are having on other employees and customers.
3. Confidence. Great contributors have the confidence to listen to themselves, even when others doubt them.
4. Flexibility and desire to play any position. People who are curious and flexible can play multiple roles, adapt to changing business environments and add more long-term value.
5. Ability to deal with the highs and lows of business. This is a particular strength of athletes because they’ve learned how to behave after wins and losses. I’ve employed plenty of impressive scholars from elite schools around the world who couldn’t deal with failure, because they’d never failed.
If you bet on the wrong people, playing your game is much harder because they don’t move your game forward. But just imagine the impact your business can have, if you are able to look beyond the first round talent to spot a Tom Brady in the sixth.
So my advice is to play your own game, understand the kind of people you need to make your game successful, and always have a healthy respect for the competition (without being maniacal).
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