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Of Sports and CEOs

The Ball Field Is More than a Metaphor


The Ball Field Is More than a Metaphor

Source:Ming-Tang Huang

Many top Taiwanese execs stay actively engaged in the world of athletics, and the lessons they learn serve them well. What are the "golden rules" of management that sports can teach?



The Ball Field Is More than a Metaphor

By Benjamin Chiang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 494 )

Every Friday for the past two years, a mysterious group of office workers has reserved the basketball courts at the Taipei Xinyi Sports Center. Imported suits are stacked along the bench at courtside.

The red and white-uniformed Friday-afternoon players are top financial executives who manage billions of US dollars in funds for Swiss financial giant UBS.

"Who said you could drink during practice?" shouts UBS Wealth Management's Taiwan CEO Dennis Chen, chiding a corporate VP for lack of hustle on the court.

Chen proceeds to lead a flawless four-on-four fast break, feeding the ball to a colleague in the paint and, "swish," in for two.

Playing ball together is the management model Chen employs with his group of elite finance execs.

"The team formed through constant practice as everybody became familiar with one another and fell into a rhythm," says a profusely sweating UBS VP before immediately heading back onto the court, subbing in for a resting teammate.

Sports and corporate management may seem like polar opposites, but on closer inspection, the essence of sports – a focus on discipline and glory, teamwork, the pursuit of excellence and the building of character – is precisely in line with the objectives of corporate management.

Learning management through sports has also been the subject of a noted case study at Harvard Business School, which set forth the management model of the Boston Red Sox as a reference for formulating corporate personnel strategies.

In Taiwan, more than a few top execs are now learning management skills through sports somewhat more directly.

The "soccer-mad CEO's," Simon Lin of Wistron Corp. and Miin Wu of Macronix, both loved playing soccer as kids, and have refined their corporate leadership philosophies through sports.

The running of a ball team is similar to that of a corporate entity.

The corporate executive plays the role of coach. The sales staff are the forwards, R&D and marketing units are the midfield, and manufacturing and logistics man the backfield defense. All three are essential and must work in close concert if they are to perform to their optimum.

Nobody Remembers Who Came in Second

Indeed, sports competitions are a concentrated version of the corporate management process.

A number of missions must be seen to successful completion for the sake of the brief period of competition: from the coaches' training of the players, to analysis of the opponents' strengths and weaknesses, formulation of a battle plan, taking the field to compete and on-field execution, to post-game introspection and battle plan adjustment. Problems arising in any one of these aspects could potentially turn the tide of battle.

What's more, sports offer the most direct form of competition where there can ultimately be only one winner.

"No one ever remembers who came in second. Running a business is also a winner-take-all proposition," says Development Bank of Singapore senior vice president Sean Chen, a former television analyst for NBA games.

In the intensely competitive arena of business, the winner is often equipped with overwhelming advantages, whether in ability to haggle over prices or in choosing suppliers.

On the sporting field, leadership and obedience are not one-way relationships, as roles are constantly shifting. This stands as an enlightening alternative to the top-down corporate management model.

Substituting is now a fundamental reflex action among players as game tactics evolve on the fly.

"You turn around, and the leader has become just another teammate responding to changing tactics," says Sean Chen. "In business, we can learn from this spirit of substitution, always staying on the lookout for another more capable than ourselves."

Corporate executives want to play the part of the team coach in allowing each individual the opportunity to play the leader. That's because one can only fully understand the importance of obedience if one has been in a position of leadership before.

Sean Chen cites the NBA as an example. The NBA is a wildly successful organization that brings together the world's best basketball players, their drive to be champions motivated not only by money but a desire for glory.

"Making them strive for a championship every day constitutes a common goal for the team."

Returning to the actual scene of corporate operations, Sean Chen often uses sports analogies to bolster team spirit. Each time he trains new employees he begins with stories about the NBA and basketball superstar Michael Jordan to instill them with notions of the glory of the team and individual accomplishment.

As the "head coach," Sean Chen must not only forge a consensus among the team, but also perform a range of tactical and battle plan analyses. Like an NBA coach, before each competition he must precisely ascertain his opponent's and his own team's strengths and weaknesses.

For example, the primary function of his department is to provide financial services to Taiwanese small- and medium-sized enterprises.

"We must constantly scrutinize the financing requirements of our clients' chief financial officers, analyzing all aspects to produce the most rational financial planning," he says.

Forging Decisiveness via Golf

Professional athletes are under enormous stress, engaged in high-level, high-risk competition and plagued by short career spans. To survive, top athletes must elevate their psychological makeup. Coaches must also continually bear the consequences of their tactical decision-making.

The same sorts of things take place every day during the course of business operations. A sports-lover since childhood, Jesse Su, senior director and general manager for Canon Marketing Taiwan's Consumer Image and Information Division, has taken lessons learned from the seemingly languid game of golf and applied them as the essence of business management.

"Whether you play well or play poorly is entirely up to you," Su says. "If others are playing poorly, it's none of your concern. The important thing is to stay in your groove."

"Playing golf is the most direct way to see the true character of a person," says Su, who hits the links at least once a week. Golf courses are commonly designed with bunkers or water traps placed around 220 yards out from the tee, Su notes. Some golfers are aggressive, hoping to clear the traps off the tee, even though they risk a possible penalty stroke for going into the water or a difficult shot out of the bunker.

Others, however, are more cautious and methodical, preferring to lay up on their first shot from the tee, then hitting the green on their second shot, he continues.

"When making the call on your shot, you have to face the pressure squarely. And when you see an opening, you strike," Su says, adding that one's decisions are one's own; win or lose, there's no one else to blame.

Su has applied the decisiveness he learned from playing golf to the decision-making process in his business.

Back in 2009, Japan's Canon Inc. rescinded the operating rights of Canon's general Taiwan agent. The industry watched to see what new wind might blow from the Japanese parent company.

Meanwhile, Canon Marketing Taiwan had decided to launch its entry-level EOS 500D into Taiwan's furiously competitive SLR digital camera market. The Japanese parent company and the Canon Marketing Taiwan team had agreed on using the sakura, or Japanese cherry blossom, as the symbol of their marketing pitch.

But Su argued in favor of combining the Japanese brand with local Taiwanese culture, using the Tung Blossom (paulownia flower) Festival in Sanyi, Miaoli County, as the linchpin of their camera marketing campaign.

"I never imagined that with its launch the 500D would become the number-one seller in its market," Su says. Additional models were subsequently introduced and they, too, are firmly entrenched atop Taiwan's market for SLR digital cameras.

Succession Management: Beef Up the Farm System

Another inspiration business has taken from sports is in taking advantage of an unending stream of new talent.

According to statistics, newcomers account for an average of 30 percent of the spots on the rosters that Major League Baseball managers hand over to umpires on opening day. Consequently, a baseball manager must quickly get a handle on the strengths and specialties of each of his players, so the best results can be achieved in the shortest time frame possible.

In the business world, the personnel turnover ratio is not so high. Yet a good "farm system" and "depth of bench" have become the bedrocks of success for ball clubs and businesses alike.

Aside from its spending sprees to acquire star players, an even more critical element behind the success of the New York Yankees, known to some as the "evil empire," has been the enormous, well-oiled training system its minor league organization provides.

Star shortstop Derek Jeter, dominant closer Mariano Rivera, and Wang Chien-ming all came up through that minor league system before getting their shot in "The Show."

Businesses also often run into issues of personnel movement due to new business expansion.

"Businesses must always replenish their ‘farm systems' (minor league and bench players), so call-ups can come at any time," urges Dr. Huang Yu, director of the Department of Physical Education at National Hsinchu University of Education, adding that businesses should learn management succession from the way ball teams are run while bolstering their pool of available young talent.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy