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4 Leadership Lessons From Football to Build Your Advisory Firm

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Business is in many ways like a sport. Competition is fierce, and the scorecard—whether it’s a box score in a newspaper or quarterly earnings—doesn’t always capture the collective effort that went into the final outcome. That said, the qualities that make for success in sports can also improve your business. Executives who emulate these four leadership skills of successful sports coaches can transform their wealth management practice into a high performing organization. 

Skill 1: Create Your Vision

High performance in any endeavor demands a clear picture of the organization’s desired future. It demands vision

In the course of my career, I have encountered many action-oriented, practical people who have scoffed at the idea of “vision,” believing it to be too abstract and fuzzy. But a cohesive vision, properly conceived, is actionable and gives direction to an organization or firm. 

An organizational vision consists of four parts, with the first three driving the fourth. 

The purpose is a broadly-defined rationale for the firm’s existence. 

The core beliefs and values are the ideals and principles that set forth the operating standards that must be met as the firm works towards its desired future. 

The mission is the firm’s overarching long-term goal. The mission must have measurable criteria so that progress towards the overarching goal can be tracked. 

Everyone in the firm must accept and support these fundamental beliefs and values, purpose and mission. Collectively, they make up the vivid image—a compelling and positive word picture of the firm’s desired future.

A vision of future goals that is consistently communicated to the individual members of the organization, combined with an understanding of who you are and what you value, should guide the strategic initiatives that drive your business. 

Skill 2: Show Clear Leadership 

The ultimate success of any organization depends on the inspiration and leadership provided by the people at the top. Leaders must set priorities and performance standards for the organization and its component parts. Expectations have a tendency of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies: low expectations lead to poor performance, while high expectations lead to high levels of performance.

At the University of Tennessee, my expectation, as well as that of the players, was always to win the SEC championship. That belief in ourselves helped us win back-to-back SEC titles and the first ever BCS National Championship Game.

Leaders must also allocate resources among the different components of the business in order to achieve optimal results. In high-performance organizations, leaders do not over-manage. Instead, they effectively empower individual members of the team through delegation and a clear understanding of responsibilities. The involvement of the individual leads to his/her self-fulfillment, which, in turn, contributes to the fulfillment of the organization’s goals. 

Skill 3: Leverage Your Experience 

As much as an organization is identified with its leaders, the leaders’ own experiences will inevitably inform how the business is run. My experiences as a player and coach have most certainly helped me in my career in financial services. Athletics, more than anything, have taught me the concept of emergence—the idea that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Emergence requires leaders to maximize the strengths of their personnel while minimizing their weaknesses. 

Participating in sports as a player and a coach has taught me many more lessons, but one memory from early in my life stands out. My first year of Little League, I only got to bat once. Needless to say, I was disappointed. The next year, the team was much the same, but one day in practice the coach asked for a volunteer to play catcher. I had concerns about taking the potition but I wanted to play. From that point on I was the team’s catcher, and I turned out to be darn good at it… sometimes you have to do things you might not want to do, for the good of all!

Skill 4: Build Your Legacy

Leadership is about more than just sacrifice or meaningful experiences. The late great Vince Lombardi once said, “No leader, however great, can long continue unless he wins battles.” This is as true in business as it is in football. An organizational vision can only go so far; you need to get results and create a legacy of winning. You must win a big game to establish yourself. 

At the University of Tennessee, I was fortunate to inherit a culture of success from General Robert R. Neyland, for whom the football stadium in Knoxville is famously named. While I didn’t know the General personally, I do believe I know him professionally, and many of his maxims have endured long past his death. He instilled in his players a sense of pride, and he taught by repetition and example. A successful wealth management practice should follow the example of General Neyland, who challenged his players to play as a team—with resolution and determination. 

Once a firm’s vision has been established and employees understand what needs to be done to fulfill it, a sense of collective purpose—underscored by the firm’s leadership—should continue to drive success.