Like every good executive, I’ve decided to work on improving my golf game. It never ceases to amaze me that so many deals are made while the participants are sharing a round of golf. I’ve always been at a disadvantage, however, because while the big deals were being discussed, I was off in the woods fighting alligators or homeowners for my ball. As I’ve been studying the game more, it has also occurred to me that some of the simple things you can do to improve your score bear a striking resemblance to the kinds of activities that can improve your performance in a senior management position. As I was coming up “through the ranks” of a company, I always preferred basketball sports analogies: play for the team, cover your area on defense, etc. But as a senior manager, I’ve realized the comparisons to golf are much more appropriate.
Manage the course
One of the first lessons I’ve learned about improving my golf game is “course awareness.” Instead of stepping up to every tee and pulling out my driver, I now take the time to look at the whole and account for things like hazards, wind, distance to water, pin placement, and so on. If you play the same course regularly—or come into the same office every day—then you may at first think it’s a waste of time to evaluate your surroundings each time you prepare to make a move. But I’ve found that both on the course and at work, taking a fresh look at the hazards and ill winds can make a huge difference in how you tackle obstacles.
Surveying your surroundings can also make a difference in the “club” you choose. If you know that you can hit a 5-iron 150 yards straight eight out of 10 times and your 3-iron 180 yards straight three out of 10 times and there’s a lake 160 yards away, then you’re likely to score better by pulling out your 5-iron. How does this translate to your “work skills” bag? If you’re successful negotiating deals eight out of 10 times by stating your desired outcome and negotiating to it rather than starting high or low and negotiating to the desired result (which only happens 30 percent of the time), then maybe you’re better off sticking with the things that work until you can practice the others (more on that later). And how do you know how often you succeed?
In business and in golf, you must make a conscious effort to keep not only scores, but also stats. To improve in golf, you need to keep personal statistics like fairways hit in regulation, greens hit in regulation, number of putts, etc. Too often in our business routines, we look at the “score” at the end of a project—on time, under budget, people didn’t quit from exhaustion—instead of looking at intermediate statistics to see whether we accomplished our goal in the most efficient way possible to achieve the most satisfying outcome. You can’t improve your company’s bottom line or your “game” by focusing on the score. You have to focus on the quality of the steps that get you to the final score.
Drive for show, putt for dough
The second major lesson that I’ve learned in golf is that although it may be impressive to hit the long drive, the game is generally won or lost on the green. On the average course, you’ll use your driver five or six times. If you’re a great golfer, then you’ll use your putter a minimum of 36 times. The fastest way to improve score is to use no more than two putts on each hole. Over the last several weeks, I’ve learned the same lesson about business. We all have five or six opportunities a year to take on a big project, finish a major upgrade, develop a strategic system, or make some other big, important, meaningful contribution to our companies. Most of us spend the two weeks before and after one of the events patting ourselves on the back for doing a great job or moping because we “hit the ball out of bounds.”
But we improve our business by always doing the little things well. Congratulate employees for meeting intermediate milestones. Have a cheerful word for assistants, receptionists, janitors, and new hires. Respond to correspondence in a timely, consistent manner. Talk with each of your employees every month about their job satisfaction. Doing simple things like these will make a huge difference in your department’s ability to perform over the long run. You should ask yourself or your employees whether they see you as John Daly or Arnold Palmer. Everyone flocked to see John Daly's 400-yard drives, but he flamed out in two years. Palmer was consistent, if not spectacular, and lasted for 30 years. He was also a great putter.
Practice like a pro
The other thing that Palmer did exceptionally well was practice. When he practiced, he wanted to know how far and in what direction he hit every club. It didn’t matter if he hooked or sliced, it just mattered that he did it consistently. He also always had a target when he hit a ball in practice. Now it may seem silly to talk about “practicing” in business, but there are actually lots of different ways to continue learning, growing, and practicing. As a technical leader in your organization, your team wants to know that you understand their jobs. Do you regularly read books and magazines about the technology that your company uses? About future technologies? Do you read management books about running a data center, managing software projects, or deploying technologies? These are great ways to “practice” your job. Visualize your company using these techniques and set a hard “target” when you choose to adopt them.
As a management leader, your company should see you as a person with interests in activities beyond those of your department. Don’t assign someone on your staff to run the blood drive, the benefits committee, or other cross-departmental activities. Use these as an opportunity to sharpen your team building, organizational, or negotiating skills by setting specific goals and practicing new techniques to reach them. You may prefer activities outside the business to help you work on these techniques. Since many of the people in your church, civic organization, or community committee don’t know your work persona, this is the perfect time to “practice” those new skills. Volunteering your time to work on the computer systems for one of these organizations is a great way to keep your skills up to date and help someone out at the same time.
The bottom line is this: If you’re not focused on improving your game, you won’t get better. I think each of us can look at our careers—and our favorite hobbies—and improve them immensely by applying a little focus.
Tim Landgrave takes golf seriously as a metaphor for business success. Richard Nixon was enamored of football imagery. And, of course, there is the ever-popular management-as-warfare trope. What do you think? What is your favorite analogy for the life of a manager? Share your ideas by posting a comment below.