Nothing sticks like a lesson learned while hurtling 10,500 feet through the air at 120 miles per hour. So it is no wonder John Hart improved his listening skills when he started jumping out of airplanes.
Hart, the owner of Selection.com, a background-check company in Cincinnati, had always cared more about getting his point across than listening to others. "I was a creator. I built things, and I moved on. I didn't take the time to listen," says Hart, 45. Then five years ago, he took up team-formation skydiving, a test of grace and guts in which up to 17 people leap simultaneously from a plane and arrange themselves in a pattern in the 35 seconds before their parachutes open. This requires jumpers to know in advance what their teammates will do and to communicate through eye contact and hand gestures while plunging through the air. "When I took up skydiving, I couldn't randomly decide what I wanted to listen to," Hart says. "I had to pay attention to everything."
The more Hart jumped, the more parallels he saw between his avocation and his business life. Specifically, he came to realize that when meeting with customers he talked a lot more than he listened. Selection.com provides companies with background-check software, and for more than a year customers had been complaining that the product was slow. Hart paid little attention. "We thought our application was superior to anything in the industry, and we made changes as we saw fit," he says. After skydiving for a while, however, he began to wonder if his selective listening could hurt the business.
For CEOs and CEOs-to-be, sports may be a more effective training ground than any business school, according to both psychologists and entrepreneur athletes themselves. Athletic endeavors help CEOs and CEOs-to-be develop such leadership skills as self-discipline, morale building, and teamwork. In a Harvard Business School study of roughly 30 graduates who had become entrepreneurs, almost all the respondents reported playing individual or team sports during their early years. "Many felt strongly that competitive sports had prepared them not just to compete in life but also to deal well with winning, with losing, with setbacks, with training, and perhaps most importantly, with others," the report states.
Most skills learned or honed through sports fall into two categories: self-management and teamwork. The former can be gleaned from almost any activity in which the athlete sets goals and seeks to improve in a disciplined manner. That includes not just team sports but also pursuits such as running, hiking, even fishing. For example, when Stephanie Forte isn't running Forte Creative Media, a PR company in Las Vegas, she can often be found rock climbing. Forte climbs at least twice a week and says the habits of mind she's developed scaling a cliff face also come in handy when she's sitting behind a desk. "In climbing, I need to be my own coach, to look at myself and my performance objectively and to be the athlete at the same time," she says. That talent for being "two people in one" has helped her evaluate her business performance as well. She recently turned an objective eye on how she is coping with growth. The verdict: Excessive attention to detail was leaving her vulnerable to being overwhelmed. So Forte quickly hired an assistant.
Focus is another habit of mind. Successful athletes learn to shut out distractions so they become one with the ball speeding toward them. They display identical focus in business meetings, not allowing anxiety to prevent them from capturing every nuance of the proceedings. Many top athletic and business performers also know how to manage adrenaline. Using techniques that range from deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation to positive mental imagery, they calm themselves when excitement or agitation threatens to interfere with good decision making.
Athletes also learn to manage problems in ways that make sense for business leaders. High performers set "process goals" instead of "outcome goals," explains Charlie Brown, director of FPS Performance, a coaching firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. That means they mentally divide competitions into tasks that will lead to victory, then focus on executing each task and not on the victory itself. A top runner, for example, won't say "I'm going to win the 100-meter dash," but will concentrate on calming herself before the gun goes off, then on establishing a smooth stride. Similarly, an entrepreneur athlete is less likely to obsess over landing a major investment. Instead, she may concentrate first on communicating key points with aplomb, next on listening closely to any objections and answering them well. Even if the athlete or entrepreneur fails, carving up the process makes it easier to analyze each step for weakness and tweak it to improve the results next time.
In team sports, athletes learn not only to master themselves but also to manage relationships and pursue a common goal. Team players "have to understand roles, responsibility, and accountability--what it's like to have a mission and a dream and to work collectively to achieve that," says Brown. And because many people learn better by doing than by studying, a football field or basketball court can be a highly effective classroom for future leaders, according to John Eliot, professor of performance psychology at Rice University and author of Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance.
One crucial skill business leaders acquire from team sports is motivation. Robert Maffei, president of Maffei Landscape Contractors, a $7 million company in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, played football in high school. "Once a week, the coach would blow a whistle and yell 'Bring it in!" he recalls. "We'd get on one knee in front of him and have a meeting." During that meeting, the coach would designate players of the week, and each honoree wore a sticker on his helmet with pride.
Those huddles boosted morale and performance, Maffei remembers, something he naturally wants to do for his business. So every week, Maffei rings a bell and yells "Bring it in!" to his 80 employees. "My employees don't get down on one knee or anything like that," says Maffei. "But we gather at 7:20 in the morning on Thursdays for 15 minutes for a team meeting." Recalling how much that football sticker motivated him on the field, Maffei designed a more elaborate reward program for his company. Employees of the week receive gift certificates for Dunkin' Donuts or a local movie theater. Employees of the month are in line for flat-screen TVs or Xboxes. And the employee of the year walks away with an all-expenses-paid trip for two to the Caribbean.
Entrepreneurs also transfer behaviors that worked on the field--or in Hart's case in the sky--to their daily lives as leaders. As Hart paid more attention to his fellow jumpers and diving coach, his team started to win competitions. He tried treating clients the same way--and finally heard what they were telling him. "Although our application was beautiful to look at, it was too graphic-intensive," he says. "We completely reworked the design with the input of our clients." Sales growth at Hart's business has jumped from 19 percent the year he started diving to 31 percent today.
Perhaps the most universal effect is that sports exercise the persistence muscle. "Failure is part of the process," says Chris Kouloukas, founder and CEO of SOHO Hero, a franchiser of print and copy shops based in Atlanta. Kouloukas started out in Little League at age 7 and played baseball through his years at Troy University in Alabama. While he won plenty of games, he also got comfortable with loss. "The greatest hitters of all time hit .400, which means they fail 60 percent of the time," Kouloukas says.
Kouloukas brought that perspective to his business, refusing to let failure bog him down. "To get my first loan, I went to 54 banks before I was approved. Fifty-four banks!" says Kouloukas. "And even when I was sitting at the closing table, the banker looked me in the eye and said, 'Chris, I won't be upset if you back out of this deal. I still don't see how you're going to compete." But Kouloukas never lost faith. Today, SOHO Hero has 30 locations throughout the Southeast, and those setbacks are ancient history.
Of course, business leaders have also been known to transfer undesirable behaviors from the field to the office. Some athletes, for example, like to see what they can get away with. A sports cliché holds that "if a penalty isn't called, then it isn't a foul," says Rice University's Eliot. As recent corporate scandals attest, that kind of thinking isn't foreign to business.
Finally, remember that the sports analogy has its limits. "In baseball, the worst thing that can happen is you can lose the game," Kouloukas says. "The stakes are higher in business. When you fail, you can lose money--and sometimes other people's money." So apply the lessons of the playing field to your business. But never tell yourself that it's only a game.
ResourcesTo read more about how sports teach leadership skills, check out Coaching the Mental Game: Leadership Philosophies and Strategies for Peak Performance in Sports and Everyday Life, by H.A. Dorfman.