top of page
  • Simon Boardman

How to Avoid Scoring an "Own Goal" in Business

So what do the use of stories, sporting analogies, and metaphors have to do with achieving success for B2B companies? Good question. A determining factor for success in any company is leadership, and not just the very top, but the executive and managerial leadership that exists throughout a company. As leaders, we are also inevitably "teachers." Teaching is a part of the inspiration of leadership. When we teach, we must ensure we are communicating clearly and effectively otherwise rather than clarifying we tend to confuse. Stories and analogies have always been useful vehicles for communication. However, we see too many examples where leaders and so called “experts” are using the wrong stories, or examples, and consequently people are either not learning at all or, more dangerously, are learning the wrong lessons. The stories we hear are increasingly meaningless and the ever popular sports similes show glaring contradictions demonstrating the reverse of the analogy for which they were intended. The younger field sales, inside sales, BDR's, SDR's and marketing teams are learning the wrong things, so we are compelled to speak out! So, let’s dive right in (that's a swimming metaphor - see?).

The old saying that "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" was originally spoken by UCLA Bruins football coach "Red" Sanders in 1950. The meaning is clear - anything other than winning is losing. There's no nobility in competing, only in coming first. We all know that it is meant to motivate people to try harder to win. Sorry Red, but the evidence suggests that not only doesn’t this fly in the real world, neither does it in the sports world. Let's look at three examples to illustrate the point.

You're ALL Winners!

"We're giving a 150%, Boss…no 180%...or maybe 200%? Whatever. We're giving it all and won't leave nothing in the locker room." Well, one thing that does get left in the locker room is the bank account. In 2015, the revenue of all 32 NFL teams added up to around $12.16b. While total payroll is not an easy figure to find, it looks like the teams paid out around $4.6b of this across 32 teams with 53 man rosters which make 1,696 players meaning the average is $2.7m per player. There's usually only one Super Bowl winner, which is one out of 32 teams or 53 out of 1696 players. But hold on there … the 1,643 players who did not win the Superbowl (and by our current convention are therefore losers) earned a combined $4.4b. So, I guess winning isn't "the only thing," in fact not winning is both rewarding and lucrative. Golf is also a great example…click here to see a list of the top PGA golfers who earn loads of money but have never won a single PGA tournament. According to Daniel Wilco, a senior writer at "In terms of events played without a win; Brett Quigley is unrivaled. The 47-year-old has played in 407 Tour events without winning." Brett has earned over $11m losing week in and week out (not including sponsorship and endorsement dollars). Another great loser (according to this conventional "winning" thinking) is "42-year-old Brian Davis, who has racked up $13.2 in his 23-year career (again exclusive of sponsorship and endorsement dollars), a greater sum than all other golfers in consideration." So, this guy has made more money than most in the sport of golf doing something for which we should (apparently) treat him with contempt – losing. There are lots of lessons to learn here, most of them good, but not the ones we have been seduced into believing over the years – that winning is "the only thing." All these NFL and PGA players are committed, talented, disciplined professionals. So they don't win all the time? So what? That's life. However, there are plenty of more meaningful lessons for us to learn from their commitment, talent, and discipline…not the oversimplified and untrue one which convinces us that only winning is important and has any value.

The Era When EVERYONE Gets a Cup...or Not

Our next example is accepting that maybe American Football and professional golf are bad examples of the "winning is the only thing" belief (because we have just shown how lucrative it is to lose) let's look at another professional sport and see if it's a better example of rewarding winners while punishing losers. In an adaptation from his new book, "The Club: How The English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports," Joshua Robinson spends chapter four describing how American heir Randy Lerner lost his shirt (there's another metaphor) when he bought the English soccer team Aston Villa. Lerner bought Villa in 2006 for $118m (pocket change in NFL terms and to Lerner who inherited both the Cleveland Browns and the credit card giant MBNA). Long story short, Aston Villa proceeded to lose another $260m until Lerner sold them in 2016 for around $75m. During that period the best they did was finish in the top six for three straight seasons. In the English Premier League, the bottom three teams get relegated to a lower division every season, condemning them to the increased financial hardship that accompanies growing obscurity, making it even more difficult to claw your way back up to the top division. In other words, the worst losers are punished.

The EPL has the other side of winning – losing, and the losers get punished in the EPL. Lerner was not accustomed to this. Besides waking up on third and thinking he'd hit a triple (a great sporting metaphor to describe the fateful combination of arrogance and privilege), Lerner was used to a system that worked differently. As Robinson describes it "Lerner's experience in the NFL had gotten him used to dealing with owners and executives, flawed as they might have been, who operated within a certain familiar business framework by an agreed-upon set of rules. The Premier League, he discovered, could hardly have been more different." The "familiar" NFL framework (by the way) is a rigged system which guarantees that everyone associated with it makes a load of dough (which is a "win" by modern standards) irrelevant of their on-field performance. Other comparisons of the relative merits of the NFL and the EPL are for another day. For this purpose, Lerner’s' team lost and were punished accordingly. But don't feel too bad for Lerner, losing a couple of hundred mill won't put him out on the street. However, maybe this story at least serves as an example where failure was NOT rewarded.

The Man With The Plan

The last example is one where sports learned something from business. This is about controlling the process and realizing that you can't control (but can only influence) the outcomes. This assumption is valid for various reasons including; that we are usually acting with incomplete information, we are dealing with human beings who are predictably irrational and the fickle hand of fate. The latter being unfashionable because it entertains the notion that our fate can rest in hands other than our own, a phenomenon that modern humans find deeply disturbing. When Gareth Southgate took over the job of Manager of the England Football (soccer) team, he was following in the footsteps of failure and mediocrity. Long-suffering fans had seen England exit World and European championship prematurely, often in penalty shootouts, and most recently by lowly Iceland. Southgate bought at least two things with him (other than his hallmark fashion sense); a clear philosophy and a belief in mastering the process.

The example here is that of penalty shoot-outs. England felt snake bitten, and the prospect of a penalty shoot-out filled the fans (and probably the players) with dread. Great players (including Southgate himself) missed penalties condemning England to defeat. "England has had three penalty shootouts at World Cups – 1990, 1998 and 2006 – and have lost all three of them" according to Southgate's predecessors generally maintained that because you cannot simulate the atmosphere of a World Cup penalty shootout, you cannot meaningfully practice or prepare for it. This is patently wrong as well as showing a glaring difference between American and British management philosophies. By the way, Southgate spent time in the U.S. studying the operations with both NFL and NBA teams during his early months as England manager.

Maybe because he missed a penalty causing England's exit from the 1996 European Championships, Southgate refused to subscribe to the view that you couldn't prepare for penalty shoot-outs. As Jonathan Brown's July 2018 Telegraph article says, "If you imagine how stressed an England player might be before taking a penalty in a World Cup, it goes back to the oldest cliché – "control the controllables." You cannot control whether or not you are going to score, so you think: ‘"What is our process for taking a good penalty?" They will have practiced that again and again. We saw how hard they had prepared for that shoot-out against Colombia. They brought it back to what they could control – the process rather than the outcome." They identified the parts of the process, broke them down and practiced them over and over. Just like an NFL kicker practices kicking at one post, blindfolded. That's how good you must be…right up to the point that you kick the ball – then it's out of your hands. Southgate practiced all the "set pieces" (penalties, free kick, and corners) and England scored more goals than any other team from set pieces, even though they had fewer shots on target than half the teams in the tournament. Therefore, their "conversion rate" from set pieces was even more remarkable. ( There are many lessons to be learned from England's 2018 World Cup adventures under Gareth Southgate – like have a plan, have a philosophy, work with the talent you have, always use the advantages that the game (or life or business) sometimes gives you (as in this case the set pieces). However, the main one here is to own the process. Realize if you are adequately prepared (by practicing and working the process) you will exert more significant influence on the outcome. You will have increased your odds of achieving the desired outcome while accepting that you cannot guarantee that outcome.

The Verto Verdict

What's this got to do with the Verto business of providing sales and marketing consulting and advice to B2B companies? We use the analogy of gaps. This gap is the one that can open when we adopt fashionable, over-used ideas without thinking critically enough. This thinking shapes our ideas and influences our professional behaviors. It mainly affects how we teach and train those young emerging professionals who work with us. We're trying to show the need to ensure the authenticity of the analogy – lest we learn, or even worse, teach the wrong lesson.

We all know the power of stories. It is generally accepted that human beings are more likely to understand, consider, and be receptive to ideas wrapped within stories. Mike Adams explains the importance of this idea in his book "The Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell." Story-Telling and listening are part of how we are neurologically hard-wired.

  • So, first exercise some judgment and don't take the "winning is everything" mantra too literally. Winning has different definitions, and just because you're not Google, Microsoft, Tom Brady, Jordan Spieth, or Cristiano Ronaldo, doesn't mean you don't or can't have a great business and career and be "winners.". We think in extremes – angels or demons, heroes or villains, black or white, winner or loser and if you're not one, you're by definition the other. Back on planet earth most of us live somewhere between these extremes. As long as you're closer to winning than losing and moving in the right direction – you’re shooting par!

  • Second, make sure you're consistent in your points of reference. Ensure you're comparing apples with apples. While all those professional sports players are great athletes and achieve fame and fortune, they're still human. They make mistakes, so don't make them out to be something that they're not. Make sure you learn the right lessons from those examples, then you need to try to be their equivalent in your profession (not there's). If you think Bill Belichick is the greatest, and you're a VP of Sales, then you should become the Bill Belichick of VP'ing Sales. If the Gareth Southgate example speaks to you, then do everything you can to own your sales and marketing process, acknowledging that at some point the word "outcome" contains the word "out" for a reason.

Closing thought - one of the partners in a company we knew was continually complaining about "not catching lightning in a bottle." He failed to realize that they had caught lightning when they started their business. For a variety of reasons, it was unlikely that the company would catch more lightning and grow much further. He was guilty of using the extreme examples of "winners" and "losers," making comparisons that were unrealistic. Our advice is NOT to get overly judgmental here. We all think we are worthier and more deserving than the next. This was a good, successful business, but the chances of it becoming significantly more were remote - which is perfectly ok. Again, it's about balance. Don't constantly beat yourselves or your team up because you're not doubling your revenue every year. You can still "win." In many cases you already have.

181 views0 comments
bottom of page