14 Business Lessons From Golf

Golf is a game I love.  I am not good at it, but I love the game.  It helps me to relax.  It also helps me to size up other people.  You cannot hide personality defects on a golf course consistently.  My point of departure is that you play against yourself and that you need to enjoy it.  From a business / management perspective, I identified a number of points in golf that business managers can take heed of, whether you play the game or not.

  • Technical competence.  To be a golfer of sorts, you need certain competencies and skills.  You need to know how to hit a draw or a fade.  You need to know how to swing the club, whether it is an iron of a driver or a fairway wood.  And all of us need to visit a coach to teach us these technical skills.  Business is no different.  You need to have certain competencies, such as management and leadership, strategy, finance, marketing, and HR skills.  You also need to visit a business school to develop and or refresh these skills of yours.  As in golf, you need to develop and update these skills continuously.  Ernie Els needs to do it, as does the CEO’s of our top companies in the world.  Both business and golf require hard work.  Constant practicing and growth of this set of skills!
  • Psychological competence.  We need to understand the psyche of the game of golf.  We need to manage ourselves over 18 holes.  In this we need to deal with the good, by avoiding becoming blasé.  The moment you think you have arrived, you will start making stupid mistakes.  We also need to deal with the bad, as we need to put the bad hole behind us and concentrate upon the holes ahead of us.  Learn from the bad hole and apply the lessons to the holes ahead of us.  Never say never!  There is a saying, and it is as applicable in golf as in business: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you will be right!”
  • Play within Yourself.  In golf, you cannot allow yourself to attempt shots you cannot play, for which you do not have the competencies.  Also, you do not need to smash every tee shot or iron shot with every ounce of power you possess.  Stroke the ball – play within yourself.  I unfortunately struggle with this rule in golf.  At times (mostly!) I feel that if both my feet were on the ground during the shot (an important principle), I was not committed to the shot!  In business, you need to apply the same rule.  Trying to do everything at full power can and will be disastrous.  Growth is something that needs to be managed carefully.  It needs to be financed from somewhere and you need competencies and a culture that will enable and allow it.
  • Develop a Stable Structure.  In golf, you need to have a firm footing when you play the shot.  You need to be as level as possible.  You cannot have both feet (or even just one!) in the air when you play the shot.  The power you generate when playing the shot, requires both feet on the ground, and your body in a condition of balance!  Without this, forget about a shot going in the required direction, with the required distance!  Take my word for it – got the t-shirt, seen the movie, searched for the wayward ball!  In business, you also need the appropriate structure.  This is why organizing is one of the functions of management.  It is about a stable structure.  It is the topic of many discussions, and has generated processes such as right-sizing, and restructuring, etc.  Without it, forget to have a business that has a sustainable long-term future.
  • Deal with the Environment.  In golf this entails the wind and rain, as well as factors such as the slopes and shapes of the fairway, and the shapes, slopes, and speed of the greens.  As a golfer you need to focus on them and take them into consideration.  Some of them change continuously and will have an effect on the shot you need to play – how you shape it and what club you need to use.  This is equally true for business.  Events and changes in the macro environment have an impact on the industry and eventually on your strategy.  You need to take notice of events here on a continuous basis in order to develop and implement a strategy that will allow you to better serve the needs of your selected customers.
  • Deal with the Competition Appropriately.  In golf, you need to understand who your competitor is and where you need to do what in order to outwit and outplay him.  However, you primarily need to focus on what you are doing.  You only have control over your own game.  Play your game and not the game of your competitor.  In business this is equally true.  You need to develop your strategy to serve your selected customer, and do it in a way that is different and better than the competitor.  Do not focus exclusively on your competitor – the true driver of value is your customer.  This does not mean that you ignore your competitor – it only means that if you ignore your customer and focus exclusively on your competitor, you will find yourself without a customer sooner than you think.  Obviously, if you ignore your competitor, you might (and probably will!) find yourself as being irrelevant.
  • Be Values-Driven.  Here we refer to values such as integrity and character.  The nature of golf is such that honesty is non-negotiable.  You score yourself.  You are frequently the only person that will know whether the ball moved before you hit it or not.  If integrity is not part of your make-up, the game of golf will degenerate into chaos before long.  Already I see signs of people playing to win above all else.  The tragedy is that the prizes of golf at the amateur level are such that it does not explain this liberal interpretation of the rules. Not that the nature of the prize should play a role!  The saying goes: “To lie to others is immoral – to lie to yourself is pathetic!”  This is equally true in business.  Business ethics have become very important.  The Enron’s and Worldcom’s of the world have sensitised us to a lack of integrity!  And yet we find that it still takes place.  Greed and dishonesty have become drivers in business.  To win at all costs a credo that has the potential to destroy society.
  • Leadership.  You need to exercise leadership in your team if you are playing in team context.  You also need to exercise leadership over yourself, irrespective if you play in a team or on an individual basis.  And this leadership is a choice.  Are you creating a close-knit team that plays with integrity, or do you have 4 individuals in your group?  Business cries out for leadership.  You need to create a vision and excite people about the destination.  You need to ensure that everyone is on board and that they are motivated to stay on board and make a meaningful contribution.  You also need to ensure that the systems and processes are in place and that the strategy is implemented.  Synergy is required.  In this regard, I love quoting “Albrecht’s Law: Intelligent people, when grouped together, tend towards collective stupidity!”  leadership is required to rise above the conditions that lead to this, where 4 individuals deliver a product that is less than the sum of the individual contributions.
  • Knowledge.  In golf this is important.  You need to know the golf course.  You need to understand the layout.  This is important as you need to know when to use the iron and the fairway wood.  When to use the driver on the tee, or when to use an iron.  Where to chip and where to put.  You need to know where you need to take your medicine and take a drop shot, and where you can take a chance.  In business this is equally true.  Those of us who do not have a proper understanding of the industry and the “rules of the game”, will make mistakes in developing a strategy that will be inappropriate.  We also need to know what is going on in order to develop new market space that will enable us to make the competition irrelevant and grow the market in new areas.  You also need to know when to develop a developmental strategy, and when to develop a withdrawal strategy!
  • Respect.  In the game of golf, this is a very important aspect.  You need to show up, on time, dressed appropriately.  When the other player is playing, you stand still, out of his line of sight.  You do not chat while he is addressing the ball.  You do not keep the players behind you waiting.  You repair your pitch mark and your divot holes.  You show respect – to your team and to the field as a whole.  In business, you do the same.  You pay respect to your customer and to your employees.  You show respect to the society you do business in.  To ignore the needs and wants of your customers, to treat them disrespectful, is a sure way to lose their respect and then their business.  Raymond Ackerman, the ex-chairman of Pick ‘n Pay in South Africa, is probably the personification of this principle!
  • Humility.  This factor goes closely with the factor of respect.  No arrogant person will have long-term sustainable success.  Golf is ruthless in this respect.  It will show you up if you are arrogant.  The truly successful people in the game are people that are humble.  Gary Player is probably one of the best examples in this regard.  Business also deals harshly with arrogant people.  They do not last the game.  Your people will leave and your customers will turn towards your competitors.  They are not there to enable you to climb the ladder – you are there to serve them.
  • Innovation.  I have seen Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia shape shots that are unheard off!  They were faced with a certain set of conditions, and knowing the course and having trust in their skills, they came up with a shot that had the whole world buzzing!  In business, innovation and creativity is absolutely important.  Doing more of the same will lead you nowhere.  You will fall behind and lose the trust of your customers.  Changes in the environment require lots of innovation.  The liquor industry in South Africa, for example, will need to become quite innovative should the government go through with a stated intention of banning all advertisements and sponsorships where liquor is concerned!
  • Beware of Fakers.  In golf, we have a saying – “If you are not the part, at least look the part!”  If you want a team that is performing well, beware of these players.  They have the best and most expensive equipment, but use them poorly.  They are dressed to the nines, but will not hesitate to ignore an infringement of the rules.  They are difficult to spot.  In business, these are the people that will lead your company up the garden path.  They will look the part, and will talk the part, but will not be able to walk the talk!  As people are the most important part of the company, ensure that you do not employ people like this.  Rigorous recruitment policies and practices will help you make fewer mistakes in this field.
  • Enjoy the Game!  In golf, this is important.  It is nice to win.  In the professional version of the game, it is important to win.  But if you are only doing it for the money, you are not a lot different from a prostitute!  This is valid for both business and golf!  I will leave a business if I am not enjoying it anymore.  In golf, you should stop playing if you are not enjoying it anymore.  It is a game – enjoy it!

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  As a matter of fact, Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra have written books on the topic that are fascinating to read.  The next time you watch the game on TV, take heed and try and identify the principles/lessons mentioned above.

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5 Responses

  1. johanhburger says:

    A good friend of mine commented as follows: “I have always been a better manager than a golfer. I am now going to use my management skills to play better golf!” Now why didn’t I think of that!

    • christiaan says:

      Now that just motivated me – Ideas + action = change. Pro shop here I come, customers be ready. O ja and do not forget – “The more you practice the luckier you get” Gary Player

  2. Renske Snyman says:

    Troubleshooting, root cause analysis and finding the most appropriate solution for the immediate problem is another skill applicable to both business and golf.

  3. johanhburger says:

    My good friend Jimmi (The Viking) from Denmark had the following response on my posting on Posterous. It is too good not to post here as well!

    “As you probably know, golf is originaly a game invented by the vikings. The vikings was hitting skulls ved the flat side of their combat swords as a sort of game, when they were tired of drinking. Later ón the vikings came to Scotland and the Scotish saw the game. When the vikings left for home they adapted it with some minor changes. The Scotish are shepperds and therefore they used a minor stick and the whisky (originaly invented by the vikings) made their brains shrink so the ball was reduced proportional in size. Why the Scotish desided to posthum a hole is still onknown, but rumours saysangkhi that it reminded Them of their hometowns though it is more likely that it was the closest they could come to rape (invented by the vikings) and plunder (yet again a viking speciality). So leadership is the key to sustainable solutions that will live forever.”

    Thanks Jimmi for looking at the lighter side of life!

  1. January 23, 2011

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