I don't know about you, but I was glued to the television on New Year's Day enjoying a remarkable buffet of exciting college football. The games were entertaining, dramatic and completely unpredictable.
My problem is, I can't ever quite take my business hat off. As I watched the games, I saw great examples of leadership and terrible examples. I saw some strategies executed to perfection, while others were horribly misguided. Finally, I saw some teams able to make the kinds of adjustments that turn losses into victories, while others lost by being stubborn, arrogant and inflexible.
What can businesses learn from this? Here are 6 thoughts:
1. Play to your strengths: Take the example of the Wisconsin Badgers. With the best running back in the country and an offensive line that can move mountains, Wisconsin averaged over 320 yards on the ground during the 2014 season.
Wisconsin beat Auburn in overtime on Thursday by running the ball 54 times for 400 yards. Melvin Gordon, alone, ran 34 times for 251 yards and three touchdowns.
About the only mistake Wisconsin made was letting quarterback Joel Stave throw the ball 27 times. The only reason why the game even went to overtime was because Stave was intercepted three times.
This pattern happens in business all the time. Some businesses produce a tremendous product, succeed wildly and then get greedy. They go into a product area they know nothing about and get killed. If you do one thing better than anybody else, then by all means keep doing it.
2. Be Willing to Be Bold: With Michigan State trailing Baylor 41-28, the Spartans coach Mark Dantonio could easily have played it safe. After all, there were still 12 minutes on the clock- an eternity in the course of a football game. Instead, he stunned Baylor by calling for an on-sides kick. The play was executed to perfection, the Spartans took possession. Two touchdowns later Michigan State emerged with an improbable, nearly impossible 42-41 victory.That single play turned the game around. Had the on-sides kick failed, Baylor would have had excellent position and the game in hand.
There are stages in every business where the opportunity presents itself to take truly bold, out-of-the-box action. While playing it safe may seem like the studied, conservative and "smart" thing to do, some of the amazing success stories out there are from businesses that risked everything for greatness.
3. Have a succession plan in place: What would happen to your office you weren't running it any more? What about the backup to the backup plan? Ohio State proved how important it is to have a deep bench.
Quarterback Cardale Jones began the season as the Buckeye's No. 3 QB. Injuries to Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett set the stage for Jones to start the final two games of the year, the Big 10 Championship and the Sugar Bowl. All he did was come through with brilliant results.
Similarly, businesses need to build great depth. If, for any reason, you are out of the picture, there's got to be someone on the team with the skills and drive to fill your shoes. You may think you're the smartest one in the room, but you had better than a team around you that's as smart or smarter if you really hope to succeed.
When that happens, succession is the least of your worries.
4. Don't always Hire the "Smart" Choice: When Oregon hired Mark Helfrich as head coach before the 2013 season, there were a lot of people who weren't happy. He was too young. His predecessor, Chip Kelly, was a legendary figure in Oregon. Frankly, he didn't have a track record.
But Helfrich was already on the Oregon coaching staff. They knew he was one of the hardest working, most intelligent and creative coaches out there. Most importantly, he was one who also had tremendous people skills. His players love and respect him and his team's overwhelming victory over undefeated Florida State is testament to the fact his system works.
Too many businesses go for the "safe" hire, the person with the right credentials, the perfect resume. Businesses, especially small businesses, need to look beyond the resume. The value of character, discipline and drive cannot be overlooked.
5. Learn from Failure: The two teams left standing each suffered devastating losses early in the year. When Oregon lost to Arizona early in the season, the local media called the team "obsolete," "Embarrassing," and, worst of all, had "lost its mojo."
When Ohio State lost by two touchdowns at home to Virginia Tech, the news was "(a)ll hope is just about lost for the Big Ten's Playoff aspirations."
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of the deaths of Ohio State and Oregon was highly premature. Both teams dug deep, used those early failures as lessons and became better... much better. Ohio State wide receiver Evan Spenser said it best."Failure made our team. Failing against Virginia Tech is why we're so successful now."
Every business has setbacks. Every business.
It's how you deal with setbacks that set you apart from the competition. When Notre Dame lost a heart breaker to Florida State, they went on to lose four of their next five. Since losing those two games, Ohio State and Oregon have not lost since.
6. "It ain't Over til' it's Over": Baseball icon Yogi Berra had it right. The New Year's Bowl games showed us what happens when you fight to the end.
Wisconsin was losing with 7 seconds remaining in regulation before beating Auburn. Ohio State was being buried 21-6 by the No. 1 team in the country before storming back. Michigan State, seemingly hopelessly out of it, down by 20 in the fourth quarter to powerhouse Baylor, came up with one of the most stunning comebacks in bowl history.
Most start-ups fail. That's a simple fact. Some of them fail because the idea behind them or their product just wasn't very good.
Many though, fail simply because leadership threw in the towel when times got tough. Belief, perseverance and maybe a little luck can turn what seems like a certain failure into an overwhelming success.