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Friday, July 27, 2012

Be an Olympian in Business

Story first reported from USA Today

Stock up on cold drinks, grab some chips and maybe some salsa.

If you're like me, for the next couple of weeks you'll be glued to the TV, watching the Olympics. I love the Olympics, but, if you're a small business owner or entrepreneur, I'm afraid much of the coverage will send you the wrong message.

During the Olympics, the focus is all on who's going to win gold medals. If an athlete earns a silver medal - or heaven forbid - "only" a bronze, commentators often make it seem like a failure, even if they've lost a race by one hundredth of a second.

In real life, in real business, coming in second, third or fourth can still mean you run a successful - even very successful - company.

I was fortunate to go to a summer Olympics, and in person, it was clear that for the athletes, competition was about more than just getting to the podium. The same is true for small businesses - competition is about more than just beating the other guy. In fact, spending too much time focusing on your competition almost certainly leads to your own downfall.

What I learned from the Olympics was that the person coming in 20th, or 40th was thrilled just to be in the game. They concentrated primarily on their own performance, rather than on who was going to grab the headlines.

They knew they had no chance for a medal, but they still wanted to excel. They were role models for their peers; heroes to their friends and families. But you'll never see those outstanding athletes unless you attend the games. TV rarely focuses on the guy who's coming in 35th in archery or the gal who's 25th in horseback riding.

Small businesses are in much the same situation. Most of the media cover business the way they cover sports: whose stock is highest, whose company is being acquired for the most money, who has the biggest market share. It's often viewed as a game - there's one winner and lots of losers.

In real life, in real business - especially small business - that's not all. Smaller companies typically survive - and thrive - without being number one.

You can make a good living, create needed products or services, provide excellent jobs without making it to the cover of a business magazine. Life is not a "zero sum game," where only one business is left standing.

Even if you're the 25th most successful real estate agent in your community, or fifth biggest marketing firm in your industry, you can be making a whole lot of money and have a good time doing it.

Does that mean we can all just take it easy? That since we shouldn't spend too much time worrying about the competitor across town, we can just relax? Hardly. We still need to be champions to survive.

What does it take for a small business owner or entrepreneur to be a champion?

About a year ago, I was fortunate to hear Sir Clive Woodward, the British Olympic Association's Director of Elite Performance, who, as former coach of England's Rugby team, led them to win Rugby's World Cup in 2003. He and his colleagues have spent considerable time figuring out what makes champions.

Is it about talent? Or, in business terms, do you have to be good at what you do? Certainly, but talent alone is not sufficient. What made a competitor able to win was their willingness to LEARN, to continually improve. They focus on how to maximize their skills and how to prepare to thrive under pressure.

That's what we need to do as well. Learn. Improve. Prepare for challenging situations.
Conventional business theory is that a business needs to constantly focus on its competition. Of course you need to keep an eye on competitive threats. But to excel, it's not about focusing on the competition's weaknesses, it's about improving your own strengths.

So turn on the TV, curl up on the sofa, and let the games begin. Just remember, some of the best competitors won't show up on your screen.

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