The jock correlation in business

MANILA, Philippines – With many sports headlines today trumpeting organizational and solvency issues with various teams and sports associations across the world, there is often an almost missionary zeal to bring to sports a more “business approach.”

Fair argument. But like many things in life, the sports vs. business debate is a double-edged sword that can cut both ways.

So let me turn this point on its head for a moment. The real learning goes the other way — i.e., what we in business can learn from sports.

From my own observations and surveys among who I would judge great business leaders, within my company and outside, and across four continents and over 40 countries, I can assert the following fact: three out of four, or 75 percent of these successful business leaders, have a history of competitive sports participation in their past.

There are examples all around us, some we know of, some we don’t. Fred Uytengsu of Alaska Milk was a world-caliber swimmer and today remains a top triathlete and is an Ironman. Vera Wang was a ranked figure skater. Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard played collegiate lacrosse and squash. Unilever CEO Paul Polman and I have run multiple 42.2-km marathons together. This list goes on and on.

Look as you may, but one won’t find a higher correlation to success. I call it the “jock correlation” and there is no better predictor out there today for business success. Your school? Forget it. Field of study? Nope. Socio-economic background? Ever heard of Warren Buffett? MBA or not? Don’t even get me started on this one!
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Sorry, folks, but the jock correlation wins every time. And the jocks win in business, too. While more often than not, the rest just get left holding the jock strap.

You see, as any senior and successful business leader will attest, we in business need more than just brainy folks. If I had P50 for every one-dimensional genius who failed in business, I would be long retired by now. We need not only basic education and brainpower, but we need character. And there is no better teacher of character than the athletic fields.

As a former athletics coach of both school-age and world-class athletes, I have personally seen sports play the role in the development of five key traits that are absolutely crucial for business success:

Perseverance. Any business will have inevitable ups and downs. Some folks quit or run to new jobs when things are bleak. Jocks have learned time and time again how to “stick with” things, armed with only themselves and their will to rely on. As an example, many have commented that the last 12 kilometers of a marathon, from 30 to 42 kms, has nothing to do with running, but is purely a matter of willpower and pain tolerance. When you can do this, you can ride through any business crisis!

Teamwork. Today’s businesses in a global world rely upon cross-functional and cross-geographical collaboration. Success depends upon a diverse group of people all working towards one goal, each delivering their role — be it the “shooting guard,” “power forward” or “center.” Nobody knows how to do this better than a seasoned jock who learned firsthand the importance of playing to one’s role for the good of the team.

Discipline. Business success is 50 percent ideas and 50 percent execution. And when it comes to execution, the foundation is discipline —attention to detail, follow through, planning and systems, just to name a few. Any successful jock has learned that being disciplined in practice is what leads to success in the game … the repetitions of the same play over and over again, the two-a-day practices, the weight workouts, watching one’s diet, or waking early to run five miles. Discipline is a way of life when you are a successful athlete! Just look at Paeng Nepumoceno — discipline is what helped him earn World Championships across three different decades, and keeps him even today looking and performing as a great champion.

Patience. We live in a world of the allure of the false promise of instant results — be it a get-rich-quick scheme or an “instant” weight loss program. True business leaders know it takes time and consistency to build a sustainable success model. Years upon years of doing the right things, building a business gradually one step at a time. Great businessmen like Lucio Co did not build the Puregold success overnight, but through decades of hard work and consistency. Celebrating the journey, not the destination. The jock also learned this young. “Making the team” or “running a mile in X time” or “bench-pressing X pounds” often started as distant, far-off goals and came with consistent training, measuring success in small increments. Talk to any Olympic athlete and they will tell you they think in four, eight or even 12-year increments!

Results orientation. Some in business equate success with how many hours they work, or how much paper they crank out, or how many meetings they hold. You can spot them from a mile away! The jock knows activity by itself means nothing. It is all black and white results — gold medal vs. silver vs. bronze vs. nothing. A winning score. A faster time. A longer throw. They know no one measures an Olympic champion by how many hours in the gym the person put in — everyone who walks into an Olympic stadium to represent their county works hard! Instead, the real measure of results is the medal around their neck … or lack thereof.

The bottom line — get the jock correlation to work for you.

The next time you want to prod your child to excel, and if you aim to have your youngster become the next Fred Uytengsu or Lance Gokongwei, by all means have them reaching for the books … but just make sure you have them reaching for a ball as well.