Basketball Teams or Football?

In the fast-paced sport of basketball a team of five can function in harmony, fetching rebounds, kicking out and setting up ally oops. Pairs can set picks for each other. Players move at varying speeds. A standout individual can be a key ingredient to winning.

Personally, I’m more of a football guy. Besides having legs like tree trunks, I find the challenge of coordinating more people stimulating. Also, considering both sides of the ball, there’s always a few people that are out of mental range… and sometimes they spear you. This keeps life exciting.

On the field, I found myself playing both quarterback and linebacker. I was of only mediocre athletic ability but my knack for leadership was apparent. As a result the coaches had me leading the team on both sides. Looking back now, I think the key ingredient was empowering specialists to lead their sub-groups. I found allies in key linemen that the other linemen respected. I asked them to make sure their colleagues covered for the ball handlers. We depended on them. Since I wasn’t a stunning ball handler myself, I asked my key running back to guide and clarify things to the receivers. If anyone didn’t have my attention at the moment they could find another who knew what was supposed to happen next and provide help. The defense worked the same way. As a result, our scrawny team would surprise much more athletic teams by making fewer mistakes and working amazingly well together. We ran simple plays consistently. It was probably a bore to watch but it was smart given our resources.

Teamwork is shared responsibility

In fact, this group of key leaders once banded together to teach a super athletic jackass a lesson. We agreed not to speak to or laugh at any teammate that wouldn’t show up on time to practice. This is hard for teenage boys, but there were some chilly moments. The result? Our most athletic player quit after repeated offenses. The coaches didn’t know why but we did. The rest of the season went great. I️ like to think we saved our coaches considerable stress! Of course, we did not always win, but we always left it all on the field. Hoo-rah, men.

Business teams have grown larger since the 1990’s. Many organizations emphasize flat org-charts to cut out middle management and save money. I️ think this is akin to a basketball team trying to play football. My men would have crushed these prima donnas.

Today, many larger teams are expected to compete just as smoothly as their smaller counterparts. Certainly it is possible, but coordination becomes less natural and technology does not replace covering each other’s nuanced and temporary weaknesses. I have been guilty of trying to run larger teams with too few allied specialists in the middle. My pride is my worst enemy.

Today, at Little Engine Ventures we hold interests in more than 15 companies. I have a decent pulse on each one but I’m certainly not running the day-to-day. There are many things I️ can’t do. The best I️ can do is read the weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports in great detail. I️ talk with my key specialists and trust them to make judgement calls given the circumstances at hand. I️ love visiting with individuals regardless of their role. I try to maintain a sense of intermediate needs across the board, so I️ can help before the situation escalates. But sometimes people find me distracted. My job description, however, is to protect and inspire the long-range core while supporting the needs of each respective leader.

As I look out into the horizon,  I see a lot of companies joining the Little Engine Ventures family. Like adopted children, our household may become crowded. I love the hustle and bustle, but we may begin thinking harder about roles and specialization amongst our leaders. My hope is to push the operational decisions down as far as possible. The companies we acquire have traditionally won by having working leaders. I don’t want to screw that up.

Recently, the leadership at LEV was discussing the positive attributes of owner-operated small businesses. The big key we came up with was the flexibility to move between working in the business versus working on the business… and do so with very intimate details of the technical aspects. This is hard and few do it well. Most work in the business but rarely on the business.

To be clear, “working in” would be doing a particular task that has a clear and tangible immediate result. Perhaps that is physically turning a wrench. But it could also be running a team meeting. Each has an immediate effect.

“Working on” would be long range thinking and exploration. This may not have any tangible action. You might be alone. You might be with strangers outside the current business. No specific result is expected. You are purposely looking for insights from outside looking back. In the best cases, a leader can explore various situations prior to acting. This is like visualizing a football play before beginning to practice it. You have to run numerous what-if scenarios based on a combination of hard data and intuition. Does it seem reasonable? What has occurred before? Can I associate this action with something similar?

Personally, I would like to preserve this flexibility for our companies. Can they shuffle between “in” and “on” more organically? Can they help each other and see the bigger picture? Can roles change over time?

We started The CEO Lunch to provide an intersection of inside & outside thinking. There is not a top down objective (besides increasing our reputation as helpful!) The main purpose is to put leaders together in a room with a simple agenda and request to help and challenge one another. More than half are “outside” the LEV family.

Our team is still scrawny and my athleticism has not improved. But, thankfully, I’m attracting some of the absolute best character people in a 100-mile range. Some of them are going to outpace my technical skills and rack up better records in their operations than I ever could. They’ll ultimately ask (and deserve) bigger roles. I’ve promised each I won’t put a lid on their potentional and I mean it. Ask people that no longer work for me.

One of my many goals is to develop my own leadership skills. A leader of leaders gives up ability to get technical. I’ve never installed glass but we bought a glass company. I’m cut from a Midwestern cloth that teaches that only those that can turn the wrench can guide the business. But, reflecting on my football days, I clearly recall my inability to be a running back… and that confession allowed me to lead. The team knew I would study every possible situation and would not abandon or blame them for something I did not experientially understand.

Little Engine Ventures is off to a fantastic start. It’s not a venture backed rocket. It’s a solid foundation on which we intend to build something magnificent and enduring. Hoo-rah.

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